by | May 5, 2006 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

Steve Yzerman did not announce his plans during Thursday’s clean-out-the-lockers session at Joe Louis Arena. No surprise. It’s not his style to make the season’s final gathering all about him.

But it happened anyhow. The moment he stepped into the room, reporters and TV cameramen ducked away from the other players and made like locusts to get to where he stood. His teammates were left to look up, shrug, finish dressing and get out of town.

And, while no one is saying it, this may be a major consideration in Yzerman’s decision. His presence in the room. Like it or not, he fills it up. He casts a huge shadow. He may say “ignore this crown on my head” but he is still the king. And as long as he is, no one else – not Pavel Datsyuk, not Henrik Zetterberg, not Niklas Kronwall – is truly going to lead this team.

“I don’t really feel like I’m any different than any of the other players, you know?” Yzerman said. “I don’t walk around like ‘I’m The Captain … this is my team.’

“But I certainly agree that it’s difficult for a younger guy to really, you know … control the atmosphere or set the tone in the locker room when I’m still here.”

“Will that be a factor in your decision?” I ask.

“Definitely,” he said.

It may be the hardest one.

Think about it. Yzerman turns 41 next week. He already has shrunk in terms of minutes, points and overall contributions. Yet his aura is bigger than ever. Ask yourself this: During the brief playoff run against Edmonton, how many news stories were about Datsyuk and how many were about Yzerman?

Other players notice this. They feel it. Even though Yzerman has been gracious about turning the mantle over to the younger guns, he’s still here. He still sets the tone, the cue, the voice for the team. And while he only means well, this could be clogging the Wings’ growth.

For example: Yzerman was sanguine Thursday when talking about the first-round exit, saying, “I’ve been through this situation, unfortunately, before.” He was steady, mature and upbeat about the future.

Not surprisingly, so was the rest of the locker room. But is that really the best thing? When the top team in hockey gets booted from the playoffs in six games? Maybe guys like Zetterberg should be punching the walls? Maybe Datsyuk should be red-eyed from teary disappointment, vowing to do whatever it takes to never feel this way again?

Some of these younger players may not churn with the hunger or anger they would if older, ring-wearing veterans weren’t all around them taking the high road.

The Captain’s command

Brendan Shanahan, when asked about this, admitted it happens, although he added, “Just because you respect Steve Yzerman is no reason for you not to step up and do your job.”

True enough. But at one point Thursday, Manny Legace also said that without Steve Yzerman it feels like “the team should fold.”

He was joking. But he’s right. It does feel that way. And that puts a huge weight on one guy. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, but for Yzerman the headpiece is doubly weighty now: He has to concern himself not only with his own potential, but with his team’s – with and without him.

So where does this leave things? Well, it’s Yzerman’s call. He’s earned that right. And it says something about his commitment to this organization that instead of wondering how much money he can squeeze out of them for one more year, he is pondering whether the team can grow in the shade of his branches.

At one point Thursday, as the crowd was thinning and players were departing for golf courses or the Canadian border, I asked Yzerman why the Red Wings didn’t seem as upset as one might imagine.

“I don’t think everyone can speak frankly,” he said. “Everyone has their own opinions. … All the players can do is kind of stick together. … Nobody in this room is gonna say, ‘You know what – I’m the problem, I gotta go.’ And they’re not about to point a finger at anybody else.”

Yep. That’s hockey. It makes the sport humble and admirable. But don’t be mislead: what isn’t being said is still being thought. The three-Cups-since-1997 success that hangs over the Red Wings can elevate or suffocate, and it tells you something that in their one dismal playoff series, this team never even looked comfortable until it got out of Detroit.

“Obviously,” Yzerman said, “something has to change.”

All of which will make an interesting next few days for The Captain, as he ponders not only his knees, his back and his aging muscles, but also his shadow.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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