It was just the second game of the season and the popularity of the Dallas Stars had never been higher.
Just a few months prior, this hockey team from Texas had taken the NHL by storm by winning the Stanley Cup -- and beating a few historically good teams in the process. That summer the Stars, who had been under immense pressure to win it all the previous few seasons, had the weight of the world lifted off their shoulders as they celebrated a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Looking back, the players and the coaches will admit there was certainly a hangover from that summer-long celebration as the Stars attempted to take the ice for training camp and the preseason with the hopes of repeating as Cup champions. The Stars were still in the honeymoon phase of their big win when the season started in early October, and it would take nearly half the year for the team and its leaders to wake up and lead them back to the glory they had just recently enjoyed.
Yet before their long journey back to the Stanley Cup Finals could really begin, when the team overcame a slow start and devastating injuries to fight their way back to the postseason, all of it almost came crashing down before it could even begin. With the Dallas Stars crowd cheering on their championship hockey team for just the second game of the season, they watched Mike Modano go flying head-first into the end boards and lay on the motionless as paramedics rushed a stretcher onto the ice.
Suddenly this wasn't about hockey any longer. This was about life.
Unfortunately, the only footage of this incident that I can find anywhere on the internet is from MySpace, and it's not in English.
Mike Modano makes a play on the far boards and gets free against the Anaheim Ducks, getting off a shot from close range as he catches up to the loose puck. As soon as the shot is made, with Modano letting up while watching his shot deflect off the goaltender, Ruslan Salei gives the forward a two-fisted shove between the numbers -- which sent Modano sprawling into the boards in just about the most horrific hockey play I'd ever seen.
Looking back it's easier to watch this play because we know that Modano was fine, suffering 'only' a slight concussion, a broken nose, and strained neck ligaments. We know that Modano would return just three games later and when Derian Hatcher would injury his knee in December Modano would step in as the team's Captain and lead a second-half resurgence that propelled the Stars back into first in the division and ultimately back to the Cup Finals.
At the time, however, no one even knew if Modano was going to be able to walk again.
It was a horrific moment, with Modano sent flying helplessly into the boards and the replay of his body bending the wrong way haunting me for days. This was our hero, the man who had made this sport so exceptionally popular in Dallas and who had helped lead the team to glory just a few short months before. Suddenly none of the mattered any longer as we first feared for Modano's career and then realized how this injury might affect the rest of his life.
The game itself wasn't as memorable, with the Stars easily winning 2-0 against a lesser Ducks team. The hit against Modano came early in the game, however, and there were a few incidents borne out of it -- especially considering how the Ducks at the time did their best to physically assault teams they were losing against. And these two teams certainly had a history of going after each other's superstar players.
Not long after Modano had been taken out with the Salei hit, Joe Nieuwendyk was plastered into the boards by Jim McKenzie that set off these violent scrum:
Many accused Darryl Sydor of "turtling" during the fight with McKenzie, yet it was revealed after the game that Sydor had gotten hit in the eye and suffered a detached cornea. It was an ugly game with multiple injuries to Stars players -- and the two teams were facing each other just five days later.
For the incidents in the game, Salei was suspended 10 games with McKenzie suspended four --very lengthy suspensions for the time. Nonetheless, word spread of retaliation on the part of the Stars, with the team vowing to revenge their fallen teammates when the teams met in Anaheim on the night of October 8.
"One thing people know about us is that we take care of our own," said Jamie Langenbrunner at the time.
There was even some nasty back and forth between the coaches and those in the front office, with Ken Hitchcock making it known that, "They bought themselves a response from our team" -- forcing Ducks GM Pierre Gauthier to respond in kind with, "You can take the coach out of juniors, but you might not be able to take the juniors out of the coach."
All of this pointed to yet another nasty dust up between these two teams with a history, with many recounting the game from just a few years before where the Ducks and Stars battled it out to the point there almost weren't enough players remaining to actually play the game. Yet Mike Modano, whose injury set off all of these fireworks, demanded that nothing happen in retribution, telling reporters that, "I don't want anyone getting even on my behalf."
The hit would force Modano to question his career and the sport he was playing, saying he would "wonder whether it's worth it to play this game." Despite the questions and the nasty state of his injury, Modano would return just a few short weeks later. That was a turbulent year for the superstar, whose failed business dealings and failing engagement to his girlfriend would distract Modano from what he needed to do on the ice. After getting his personal life settled, however, Modano would go on to have the best 32 game run of his career by leading the Stars with 46 points over that span.
As for that second game in Anaheim? The Stars heeded the request by Modano and did not exact retribution for the various incidents just a week prior. They also forgot to play some hockey that night, losing 3-0 in a rather emotionless affair.
Modano and Salei became teammates in Detroit just over a decade after this hit, with both saying they had moved on from a potentially devastating incident. Modano never harbored any ill-feelings, however, as shown in this interview a short time after the injury.