04/21/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT
CHECK OUT ANY RECENT PICTURE of hockey star Mike Modano—say, one of his hunky fashion shots for Cosmopolitan or Mademoiselle—and it's hard to tell that during the past eight years he has busted his nose, broken his wrist, sprained his knee, ruptured ankle tendons and received some 70 stitches for his various wounds. "The scars are beginning to build up," says the puck-marked Modano, 26. "At the rate I'm going, I won't be getting a lot of kidding about the 'heartthrob' stuff much longer."
For the time being, though, he'll just have to put up with the locker-room ribbing. When the high-cheek-boned National Hockey League all-star steps out of Dallas's Reunion Arena, he's liable to find love notes or even marriage proposals under the wiper blades of his black '89 Porsche. "It's hard for me to understand how people can be so forward," says Kerri Nelson, 26, Modano's girlfriend. "Things like that are hard not to notice."
The hockey world took notice this season as the high-scoring center led the Stars to their first division title since the franchise arrived in Dallas four years ago. With the league's Stanley Cup play-offs starting April 16, the Stars are seen by many as strong contenders to win the championship, thanks largely to the presence of the 6'3", 200-lb. Modano, one of the sport's most aggressive players. "Mike has improved his overall game dramatically this year," says Dallas Morning News sportswriter Frank Luksa of Modano, a candidate for league MVP honors. "He's the one the others look to set the tone for the Stars."
In a game where brutal body checks and guided-missile slap shots are nightly hazards, Modano is that rare creature: a hockey player with all his teeth. As for his other attributes, well, one magazine gushed recently about "his lean, muscled form" and "the golden highlights of his wheat-colored hair." Two years ago, D Magazine named him one of Dallas's 10 Sexiest People. And then there are those fashion spreads, which Modano posed for in 1995 on a lark. "Doing them was interesting," he says. "But it isn't something I'd like to do very often. There's a lot of standing around waiting. I'm not geared to that."
Never has been, not for a minute. Growing up in Livonia, Mich., Modano was so hyperactive that his father, Mike, a now-retired building contractor, and his mother, Karen, a housewife, enrolled their only child in pee-wee hockey when he was 9 so he could "get rid of some of that steam that seemed to bottle up inside of him," says Karen. It worked. Modano practiced regularly in a makeshift backyard rink and in the basement, where his parents took turns playing goalie—shielded only by a catcher's mask and a battered trash-can lid. "He ruined all the ductwork and lighting in the basement," says Karen. "Do you have any idea what a hockey puck sounds like when it hits a wall?"
Modano's skills developed so well that by 16, he left home to play junior hockey in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. It was at the town's Carlton High School that Modano met and pursued classmate Kerri Nelson, who played it cool before finally accepting his invitation to the senior prom. "I never got the impression she was very interested in the fact that I was an athlete," he says. "I liked that."
In 1988, Modano was the top draft pick of the NHL's Minnesota North Stars. He struggled early on but blossomed after the team moved to Dallas in 1993, scoring 50 goals in his first season there. Last year he was named the Stars' MVP and played for Team USA in the World Cup of Hockey. Off the ice he has been just as impressive, signing endless autographs and speaking at charity events, which makes him even more popular in Dallas, home of the scandal-ridden NFL Cowboys. "Image is very important," he says. "Athletes get away with too much."
Modano "makes a concerted effort to find the good in everyone," says Nelson, who moved to Dallas last December to intern as a physical therapist at the prestigious Cooper Clinic. The couple lived apart while Nelson studied in Canada but now share his Las Colinas townhouse. Wedding plans, though, will have to wait. "We're just getting our feet wet with the living together thing," says Modano.
As for the hockey-star-as-role-model thing, Modano has that down cold. "There are a lot of kids out there who look up to professional athletes," he says. "It doesn't take a lot of extra effort to be courteous and patient with people." Except, that is, on the ice.
CARLTON STOWERS in Dallas