Phantoms’ Mullen preparing to pass the torch

(CP) — Philadelphia Phantoms assistant coach Joe Mullen first got to know Mike Modano at the 1991 Canada Cup when the two were teammates on the U.S. squad that lost to Canada in the final.

Mullen was the 34-year-old veteran already with two Stanley Cup rings, Modano the 21-year-old rising star coming off his sophomore NHL season.

"I really enjoyed being around him and watching him perform every day," Mullen recalled Wednesday. "You can tell what a guy’s like from how he works and how he got to where he was."

Which is why Mullen has no hard feelings with Modano on the verge of passing him as the all-time leading goal-scorer among U.S.-born NHLers.

"I don’t think there’s sadness at all," Mullen said. "It’s nice that somebody else is coming along and setting a new standard for American players. It was nice to hold it for however long I had it, but I always knew this day would come along and somebody else would have the record.

"And I’m happy for Michael, it couldn’t happen to a better hockey player and a better guy," Mullen added. "He’s had a great career and he’s done it with a lot of class. He’s a great role model for the kids."

Modano, who has spent his entire career with the Dallas Stars organization, became the second U.S.-born NHLer to score 500 goals Tuesday night, putting him only two goals behind Mullen’s all-time tally of 502.

Modano got a voice mail from Mullen on Wednesday and made sure to call him back.

"Just knowing Joey and playing with him and being around him when I was younger meant a great deal," Modano, 36, told The Canadian Press from Dallas. "To be closing in on him now, it’s kind of bittersweet. He was a great guy and I looked up to him."

Strangely enough, Modano’s 500th goal came 10 years minus a day after Mullen scored his 500th, March 14, 1997 against Patrick Roy in Colorado.

"I was mingling around the net, the puck went out to the point and I deflected a shot in," recalls Mullen. His achievement earned him a ticket into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2000. Modano will be sure to follow one day.

The chase for 500 and 503 has had to grow on Modano. At first he didn’t know what all the fuss was about since 38 other players have scored 500 or more goals. But he’s grown to appreciate what it means from a U.S. hockey perspective.

"It’s gotten more meaningful as I’ve gotten a little closer," said Modano.

Mullen understands how Modano feels. "At the time when you’re going through it you don’t even realize it but I guess afterwards when it’s all said and done, you can kind of look back on what you did," said Mullen. "When you’re playing you’re just doing it because you love the game.

"But what Mike is doing is great for the game. I’m sure one day someone will come along and break Michael’s (mark) one day."

Veteran Jeremy Roenick of the Phoenix Coyotes is third all-time among U.S. shooters with 491 goals, followed by Keith Tkachuk of the Atlanta Thrashers at 470 and retired great Pat LaFontaine at 468.

"I’m so happy for Mike," Tkachuk said Wednesday. "He came into this league at such a young age and had such an unbelievable career. Just to add something like this is a great achievement for a guy who has played hard for a long, long time."

Wasn’t it just yesterday that a 19-year-old Modano began his career with the Minnesota North Stars? Imagine his surprise back then had someone told him he’d end up being the all-time leading goal-scorer among U.S.-born NHLers.

"I would not have believed that in a million years," said Modano. "I was just a kid living out his dream and playing in the NHL. Where that took me I had no idea back then. I would have never bet in a million years that I’d be in this position, or played this long, or even being in Dallas, Texas. There are a lot of things I would have never guessed."

Modano hopes his achievement in passing Mullen can perhaps have an impact on another generation of U.S. skaters.

"It’s been fun watching the game grow in the south, in Texas and California and places like that," he said. "I think with that, you’re going to see a lot of kids growing up liking hockey, they’re going to have more access to the game rather than just the kids up North and out East. You can see that a lot in Texas alone.

"The growth of hockey out there as been really amazing since we’ve been down here."