It’s easy to spot the scratched hockey player at the arena.
He’s the one in the loose-fitting suit, with hair that looks like it’s still damp from the shower. The face has clearly avoided the razor. There’s no necktie. He walks down the corridors looking like he jumped off the cover of GQ magazine.
The only thing worse than being a scratched hockey player, especially in the playoffs, is being a healthy scratched hockey player.
The healthy scratches can’t blame mysterious upper or lower body injuries for their absence. There’s not a cotton-picking thing wrong with them, physically.
And yet, the feet are in wing tipped shoes, not skates. There isn’t a helmet in sight. The hands are gloveless.
The healthy scratch isn’t in the lineup because, frankly, the coach found 20 other guys he’d rather have available that night. You can be kind and call the scratched player a victim of “the numbers game,” but that’s just a nice way of saying he’s 21st out of 20 for that evening.
Healthy scratches aren’t Hall of Famers, as a rule. They’re guys who have been benchwarmers throughout the season, or have been back and forth from the minor leagues ad infinitum, shuttled more than businessmen commuters at O’Hare Airport.
But then you look at Mike Modano and it’s OK to do a double-take, or even a spit take, if you like your humor more slapstick than subtle.
Mike Modano: sure-fire Hall of Famer, a veteran of the NHL playoff wars since the George H.W. Bush administration, a healthy scratch—for a playoff game?
This is like hiring Michael Caine for your movie and making him an extra.
But there Modano was, healthy as a horse but sitting in the press box on Wednesday night, dressed in a suit and not a uniform as the Red Wings were battling the Phoenix Coyotes on the ice surface three stories below.
Modano is 40, sure, but this is his time of the year.
Coming into this season, Modano had suited up for 174 post-season games, popping in 58 goals and amassing 145 points. He hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2008 when the Red Wings signed him last summer, but that wasn’t his fault—he played for the Dallas Stars, who have recently become allergic to the playoffs.
Suddenly, last summer.
It seemed like such a good idea at the time. Modano had turned 40 and was considering hanging up the skates, the Stars electing not to offer him another contract. He was born in Livonia and grew up in Westland, and the Red Wings are always looking for veteran depth. Maybe they could coerce the center man to give it another whirl.
So the Red Wings took a moderate risk and inked Modano after a brief courtship. He showed up to the press conference at Joe Louis Arena to announce the signing tanned, looking fresh, and still with those boyish good looks he had when he entered the NHL as an 18-year-old in 1989.
I wrote that Modano was defying the proper look for a 40-year-old hockey player. His face wasn’t stapled on, for one.
Modano looked good, felt good, and when he perused the Red Wings roster, he had high hopes that Detroit would be a fitting place to end his career with his second Stanley Cup (he won it in 1999 with the Stars).
For the Red Wings’ part, they saw in Modano a veteran playmaker and puck handler who could also win some face-offs—and maybe net 15-20 goals, too.
His signing meant some eager kids would have to wait their turn, but in Detroit, it’s always about winning now; there’s as much patience in Hockeytown as there is in a two-year-old in a car.
Both sides were thrilled. It was a marriage of convenience, but also with some endearment.
Modano got off to a slow start, although he did score a goal on opening night. After that, he struggled to get acclimated to his new teammates, and probably to wearing red after 21 years of wearing green and black.
It was starting to come together in November, but then came a nasty wrist injury late in the month, when a skate in Columbus gashed him.
The injury set Modano back three months; he returned in late-February, any momentum and chemistry that had been built flushed down the toilet.
It was like going back to the drawing board. But time wasn’t on Modano’s side; it never is for the 40-year-old athlete.
The season was furiously marching to the finish line, and Modano was the guy chasing the bus, clutching his briefcase and holding his hat on his head, yelling for the driver to stop.
The production after the injury was about the same as that of before the injury: it dripped out, like an IV.
Modano got into 40 games in the regular season, scoring four goals. No one had to tell him that his was a disappointing signing.
Then, in a flash, it seemed, the playoffs arrived, and when coach Mike Babcock and his staff sat down to fill out the lineup card for Game One, it was with great consternation that they left Modano’s name off it.
Mike Modano, healthy scratch. For a playoff game.
Not what anyone had in mind when the Red Wings brought the veteran, home-grown kid back to Detroit.
Modano has gone on record as saying that this is likely his last chance at the Stanley Cup, because retirement is beckoning him.
“I can’t stay on the ice as long,” he told the media a few days ago. “I think my body is telling me that I’m near the end.”
Modano says that he abides by the coach’s decision to not play him, and he vows to be ready at a moment’s notice. What else would you expect him to say?
Here’s the cruel irony: Modano came to Detroit to help the Red Wings win a Stanley Cup. Yet the more often his team wins in the playoffs, the less likely Modano is to crack the lineup, barring injury to a teammate.
“This is probably my last chance,” he said of chasing hockey’s Holy Grail.
How’s this? Modano might not even see the ice again this post-season. The mentality during hockey playoffs is, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it—i.e. lineups.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Mike Modano, Hall of Famer, was supposed to be in uniform for the playoffs, not in a suit. One of the reasons the Red Wings signed him was for this time of the year, specifically.
I feel bad for the guy, don’t you?