Thursday, March 02, 2006

It’s been a year of changes in the NHL. The end of the yearlong lockout brought about the “New NHL” with new rules to make the game more exciting, and young new superstars like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin. It also meant the end of the line for some of the game’s all-time great superstars like Mark Messier and Mario Lemieux. An embarrassing performance at the Olympics was one final reminder that the USA’s golden generation of hockey players that won a World Cup and an Olympic silver medal in 2002 had clearly past their prime. Even the game’s most untouchable player, Wayne Gretzky, has seen his image tarnished a tiny bit as information leaks out about his gambling exploits.

Amidst all these changes, one of the true legends of the game is nearing the end of his career without much fanfare from most of the media in the country. Then again, that’s probably the way Steve Yzerman, captain of the Detroit Red Wings since 1986, would want it.

The Detroit Red Wings organization was at an all-time low following the 1982-83. They had earned the affectionate nickname of the “Dead Wings” for their lackluster play on the ice and sparsely filled arena. The team was looking for a spark heading into the NHL Draft that June, armed with the 4th overall pick. It seemed as though even that would sour, when the Red Wings first choice, local star Pat LaFontaine was taken one pick prior at number 3 overall by the New York Islanders. That forced the Red Wings to take best available player on their draft board, which happened to be a small, but promising young forward out of the Ontario Hockey League. The Red Wings thought they lost out on their local hero that day. Instead, their local hero had found them.

The large mural of Steve Yzerman that was on the side of the Cadillac Tower in Detroit said it all. Born: Cranbrook B.C. 1965. Adopted: Detroit 1983. While the message of the sign always seemed to be a bit of parting shot at the athlete that adorned the wall prior to Yzerman, who was so intent on leaving Detroit that he cut his career short just to do so, the giant painting had a much more direct message: Steve Yzerman was Detroit.

He led the Red Wings in scoring the year after being drafted and finished second in Rookie of the Year Voting to goalie Tom Barasso. While some players might have sulked at not winning the award, Yzerman didn’t let it phase him. While some players may have pouted about being stuck on a terrible team, Yzerman worked harder, doing his part to make sure Detroit didn’t stay that way. That attitude and effort wasn’t lost on his coaches or teammates as he became the team’s captain at age 21, making him the youngest captain in team history. It probably wasn’t a coincidence that the Red Wings doubled their win total that season and made the conference finals before losing to the mighty Edmonton Oilers.

From that point forward, Yzerman was The Captain. Not only was he one of the best players on the ice, he was even better off the ice. Journalists and commentators love to talk about players being “media-savvy,” but that wasn’t the case with Yzerman. He was just honest. When tough questions needed to be asked, Yzerman was always there to give an explanation about why the game didn’t go their way or why the playoff run ended a few round short and to explain how things would get better in the same even-tempered voice he would have used if the result had been reversed. It was never about blaming or calling out teammates. It was never about whining about the officials or the other team. It was just an honest explanation of what happened. It was a quality the blue collar fans of Detroit could appreciate.

My personal favorite Steve Yzerman memory happened at the beginning of the 1995-96 season. The Red Wings were just coming off of a Stanley Cup Finals appearance in which they were dominated by the New Jersey Devils trap. Head coach Scotty Bowman feared his team may be complacent due to the Stanley Cup Finals hangover and decided it was time for one of his famous head games. A few days before the first game of the season, Bowman leaked it to the media that a number of players, including Steve Yzerman were on the trading block and being shopped around to other teams. We’ll never know how serious those trade rumors were, or if they were real at all, but Bowman’s message to his team was clear: play hard because nobody on this team is untouchable. The message Bowman got from the fans a few nights later at the Red Wings season opener was just as clear. When each player was announced for opening night, Yzerman was given a three minute standing ovation that was only cut by Yzerman’s fourth attempt to quiet to crowd. The only reaction that came close to it was the minute-long chorus of boos for Scotty Bowman. It’s hard to imagine the greatest coach in hockey history being booed by his own fans, but that was the respect the people of Detroit had for Yzerman. Seeing him in another jersey would have been a crime because he was Detriot’s own.

The pinnacle of Yzerman’s amazing career came in 1997 when he helped Detroit win their first Stanley Cup since the 1950’s.Yzerman going to receive the Stanley Cup from commissioner Gary Bettman and finally being able to raise the Cup over his head after season after season of heartbreak and disappointment is one the most heart-warming moments in sports. Even the reserved Yzerman couldn’t hold back his joy at finally winning the Cup.

Of course without Yzerman, the Cup may not have ended up in Detroit that year. The Red Wings easily swept the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup Finals, but their road to the finals was rocky. While most any hockey fan can easily recall Mark Messier guaranteeing victory over the New Jersey Devils to help the Rangers win their first Stanley Cup in 50 years, few remember Yzerman’s famous speech in the 1997 playoffs. In the first round, the Red Wings found themselves in the middle of a tough battle with the St. Louis Blues. The series was tied at two games apiece and the Red Wings looked to be in trouble. Yzerman called a players only meeting with his team to talk with them about the team’s play and how they could improve. What he said is a mystery, but whatever it was worked as the Wings only lost two more games the rest of the playoffs. Even Yzerman himself downplayed the speech in his usual way by joking that his speech got better every time someone retold the story and that by the end of the playoffs, people were saying he had guys pinned up against the wall by their collar, screaming in their face.

From that point on, the Red Wings were one of the premier franchises in professional hockey, winning a few more Stanley Cups and always being one of the most difficult teams to face. It was a fitting denouement to the career of the man who took the Dead Wings and turned them into the pride of Hockeytown. His role on the ice diminished over the years as guys with younger legs than his started to get the upperhand. Yzerman has been moved to a role on the fourth line this season on a team of talented young players, some of whom weren’t yet born when Yzerman first put on a Detroit sweater in the 1983 draft.

Yzerman won’t complain though. He knows his role with the team now, just as he did almost twenty years ago when he was asked to assume to the role of captain of the team. Besides, Yzerman wouldn’t want the attention. He even took his name out of the running for the Olympics this year because he knew he would likely be picked for the team out of gratitude for his great career, and instead of getting the free ride and collecting what seemed like an easy gold medal, he withdrew so a more deserving candidate could get his shot at the Olympics. Canadian captain Joe Sakic chose not to wear the number 19 in honor of Yzerman.

Once the season is over, Yzerman will likely hang up his skates for good. He’s the last remaining player from the 1983 draft that is still playing in the NHL, and is really a relic. There just doesn’t seem room in the New NHL with the salary cap restrictions for a guy that wants to nearly a quarter-century in the same city. And there doesn’t seem to be much room in a league that wants to follow the example of the NBA and try to market the excellence of individuals for a guy who would never put himself before his team.

Yzerman will get a job in the Red Wings front office. He’ll get his jersey retired by the Red Wings. He’ll get his well-deserved spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame. He’ll probably even get a large celebration from the Red Wings and the people to honor his career, and as a way of trying to say thank you for everything he has given the to Detroit over the years. But for the most part, Steve Yzerman’s retirement will go largely unnoticed by the rest of the country, which is probably just fine by him.


At 1:13 PM, Blogger Packer487 said...

Outstanding. Just outstanding. Great tribute to one of the all-time great athletes and human beings...

You hit it dead on about the standing O for Yzerman and the boos for Bowman. That's one of my favorite all time memories as well....

At 1:41 PM, Blogger Colin said...

I love Stevie so much. He is one of the sole reasons I have any interest at all in hockey. Just an awesome guy and awesome player.

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At 6:21 PM, Blogger chickennoodle910 said...

i know people say this all the time but Stevie Y was the greatest player the NHL has ever seen. it will be pretty difficult for anyone to pass him up let alone to live up to what he has accomplished. hockey will never be the same without the good 'ol Stevie Y..

At 6:21 PM, Blogger chickennoodle910 said...

i know people say this all the time but Stevie Y was the greatest player the NHL has ever seen. it will be pretty difficult for anyone to pass him up let alone to live up to what he has accomplished. hockey will never be the same without the good 'ol Stevie Y..


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