All careers, good and bad ultimately start with high expectations. Never are those expectations higher when you are considered by some to be the absolute best at your craft. In the world of professional sports, the expectations for a first overall draft pick can be so high, that they can even appear unrealistic at times. However, in 1988 when the Minnesota North Stars approached the NHL Entry Draft, never in anyone's wildest (see what I did there...Minnesota..."wild") imagination did they think a kid from Livonia, MI would achieve the levels of greatness that he did.
Not only did the career of Mike Modano get started on June 11th, 1988, but North Stars scout, Craig Button quickly became well known throughout hockey for his eye for talent, vaulting him to eventual Director of Scouting and then Director of Player Personnel during the Stars championship season of 1999. After the failed defense of the Cup in 2000, Button joined the Calgary Flames as their general manager. There, he was instrumental in building the AHL affiliate of the Flames, the St. Johns Flames as they went on to win the Calder Cup in 2001.
Now an analyst with TSN and NHL Network, Mr. Button was gracious enough to spend a few moments looking back at the career of his most well known acquisition.
StarsInsider: Looking all the way back to when you first saw Modano, did you ever think in your wildest imagination he would turn into the icon that he did?
Craig Button: I don't think you can project 'iconic' status when you draft a player because, he was 18 when drafted with lots of promise but there are so many factors that are unknown at that time. For example, when the Stars moved to Dallas, Mike was 23 years of age with the talent & the looks. Troy Aikman was becoming that iconic figure for the Cowboys & Mike had similar traits, including being an American born player. But when Mike was drafted, there is no way to know that he would end up in Dallas in a situation that was almost tailor made for him to become iconic.
Certainly when you select a player 1st overall, the feeling is that player can make a significant impact on your team.
SI: Where does Mike rank amongst other players that you scouted in terms of potential?
CB: Again, drafting a player 1st overall comes with lots of expectations & his talent was second-to-none of any player ever drafted by the Stars.
SI: What is your greatest memory/moment of Mike Modano as a hockey player? A person (off ice)?
CB: I have said this many times, "Mike was a great player but was an even better person." He dealt with the expectations & delivered everything he could to a franchise that had very limited success prior to his arrival. When you draft a player 1st overall, you are looking to that player to be a catalyst for positive change for the team on the ice and ultimately to help the team have success. When the Universal Draft began in 1970, there has only been Eight (8) 1st Overall picks who have won the Stanley Cup with the franchise that drafted them: Guy Lafleur (1971), Denis Potvin (1973), Mario Lemieux (1984), Mike (1988), Vincent Lecavalier (1998), Marc-Andre Fleury (2003), Sidney Crosby (2005), Patrick Kane (2007)
The joy Mike had in being able to celebrate a Stanley Cup was a great memory to me. People say at times about players; "you'll never win with him." Well let me tell you, you are prepared to go 'all in' and take your chances with players & people like Mike. Series is tied 2-2 versus Buffalo, We win Game 5, 2-0, and Game 6, 2-1. Mike has an assist on all four goals in arguably the biggest games he had played to that point. That's stepping up when needed. So off the ice, the joy he exhibited and on the ice, the contribution at the most critical times will always stand out to me.
SI: One Cup, no scoring titles, no individual awards (Calder, Hart, etc). Do you think Modano reached his maximum potential in regards to his overall greatness or do you think the move to a non-traditional hockey market like Dallas may have stunted his ceiling?
CB: Nothing stunted Mike. He was a great player in an Era where Wayne Gretzky & Mario Lemieux were the undisputed SuperStars. As for the Calder, he should have won it but it did lead to a significant change in the criteria for the Calder, because Sergei Makarov won it, but could hardly be classified as a rookie at that time! Players never bemoan not winning an individual award but ask them about never winning a Stanley Cup!
SI: Gretzky brought hockey to the south, but I’ve always said it was Modano who cultivated it. Agree or disagree? Why?
CB: Modano cultivated hockey in Dallas. Wayne's reach was far greater because of his iconic status already in place prior to arriving in LA. Mike was part of an outstanding group of American players who I feel all helped cultivate the game. Brian Leetch, Jeremy Roenick, Mike Richter & Keith Tkachuk to name a few.
SI: Should USA Hockey rely more heavily on Mike Modano in the future the way Canada has relied on Gretzky and Steve Yzerman?
CB: I believe having highly successful players part of your group is always positive. It can help in so many ways but the player has to feel comfortable with the role & desirous of putting forth the necessary amount of sweat equity to be as successful off the ice as they were on the ice. I would want Mike to be part of my group & feel he has tremendous experiences in multiple areas that could benefit whoever he is working alongside. I think you have to be able to guide the person along this path so that they are 'set up' for success because the one thing that these players are not accustomed to, is not having success & that desire never leaves them IMO.
SI: Overall, where would you rank Modano in best overall hockey players you’ve seen in your career?
CB: Mike is one of the great players because of his accomplishments in contributing to a franchise's success. I don't look at numbers, and Mike's are excellent & he's a Hall-of-Famer but he came to a franchise that was in dire need of a player who could be a top player on the ice and also a player fans could look to as a 'beacon of hope' for the future. Mike did exactly that & did it with class & there is no question that when he left the Stars as a player, they were in a far better place than when he arrived. That is greatness in my view.
Just as Craig stated, "you have to be able to guide the person along...so they are 'set up' for success." Modano and Craig did that for the Stars during their most successful seasons. Modano gave the organization the fire power and speed and Craig and his staff went out and found large, mobile bodies that would protect not only their star players, but create a defensive corps that would put a stranglehold on a lead.
When you look back over the career of Craig Button, it's easy to forget about Jerome Iginla and Brenden Morrow. Because, like all greats in their field, there was a beginning. Craig's beginning started on June 11, 1998 along side a skinny kid from Livonia, MI. Together, they built a championship team. Together, they forged a legacy.