I could say that the hit was the beginning of it all. Really, I could choose any arbitrary date. It doesn't really matter. Mostly, I picked that event because I remember that night so vividly.

How could anyone forget the night their best friend died?

He hadn't, but I didn't know that at the time. When someone's head snaps back in the most awkward of ways, you generally don't think it'll still be attached later. He came within two centimeters of being paralyzed from the neck down. That's some scary ass shit.

I was convinced he was dead, and then never going to play hockey again, and it didn't help matters that they dropped the fucking stretcher while wheeling him out. But hours later when they finally let us see him, I'd been expecting the worse, and there he was sitting up and flirting with the nurses. Ridiculous motherfucker. He joked that night, but I knew he was scared. I knew it gave him pause.

He didn't reveal any of this to us that night, or the press later. He could have reeled off some clichés, you know. Said that it wasn't a reflection of increased violence in the game. Said that the speed of the game had led to the incident. But he didn't. Quiet Mike Modano spoke up and said he'd leave the game. He said it was unacceptable, and people listened. It was the first year he was really being taken seriously. He had won a cup. He'd earned it. He wasn't soft; he'd been captain for a few weeks the season before, led his team to the cup. And people listened.

I talk a lot about the game. About how boring it is. How awful it is. How much I hate it. He's never been as flamboyant as me, but he's relayed a similar sentiment to the press over the last few years. I say it to improve the game. I say it to incite the wrath of owners and fans. I say it because it's fucking funny.

He says it because he believes it.

I love this game. Mike just happens to be good at it. I don't mean that he doesn't care about the game. He's competitive; he wants to win. And I know he'd miss it if he was forced to leave it. He's an athlete by nature; he always wants to play. But it's just a game, and he wants games to be fun.

I'd play this game no matter how awful it got. I'd suck the marrow from its dying bones. I'd play pickup games to remind me of how it used to be, and then complain every time I hit the ice. I'd stay in the hopes it'd get better. I'd stay in the hopes that one day I'd get to see the next Wayne Gretzky up close. See, it's more than a game to me. It's life, it's everything. It infiltrates every facet. There's hardly a moment when I'm not a hockey player.

There's the difference between me and Mike. I'm a hockey player. The end. It's not so simple, not so easy for Mike to define. He tosses me a strange look whenever some new rookie recites those lines during some interview. He can't understand how they've figured it all out at 18. Or rather, how they've limited themselves already.

Male. Hockey player. Canadian. These are the things that define me. My identity. You ask most guys in the league to describe themselves and one of the first things they'll throw back at you besides their last name (like trained fucking seals, man, we bark out our last names) is their team: I'm a Detroit Red Wing.

Male/female. Californian/Wisconsinite. Gay/straight. Athlete/non-athlete. Is this really who we are? He reads science fiction novels where you can change your sex as easily as going to the dentist, and he asks me if I'd still be me if I was a woman. If I was straight. If I was American.

I shoot back that I have dual citizenship.

Maybe who we are is bigger than all that, he thinks.

I never have much to say on the topic, and he finds that odd. I don't think about these things. Because I know I'm a hockey player. I know I'm a man. I know I'm Brett Hull. I'm certain of these things. I'm content with checking boxes. I hate those fill-in-the-blank surveys. Who wants an endless array of choices? I'm a multiple-choice man, myself.

I used to think that Mike did. That he wanted all those choices, enjoyed all that freedom, all that autonomy. That night changed my mind, though. (Oh, did he forget to mention his innocent faux pas? I figured nothing better was going to come along?) That night was huge. You could hear an audible gasp from the crowd. Razor's voice, breaking the bad news to the Dallas crowd: Mike was engaged.