It’s a long walk to the Red Wings locker room at the farthest end of the arena tunnel, past the storage areas and the electrical wires, and past the benches where the players’ wives sit and wait for their husbands.

I have been making this walk for 10 years, and for most of that time, I have been saying hello to Lisa Yzerman, a slim, dark-haired woman who, when I first met her, was Steve’s girlfriend, and then his fiancee, and then his wife, and is now the mother of their year-old daughter. We grew up together a little in that hallway, especially since, every spring, the last time I would see her would be after a season-ending Detroit loss.

“I’m sorry,” I would mumble, something useless like that, and she would always nod or smile. They say good things come to those who wait, but year after year, she was sitting there, waiting for the good things.

On Sunday night, an hour after the game, her husband sat inside the locker room in a happy daze, still wearing his sweat-soaked red undershirt and pushing his wet hair from his forehead as he said, “We’re finally going. . .
. I can’t believe we’re finally going. . . .”

The nicest moment of Detroit’s heart-thumping 2-1 double- overtime win Sunday was not the last goal, or the flying octopi, or even Bruce Martyn yelling, “He scoooo-res!”

The nicest moment was when Yzerman hugged Shawn Burr, his longtime teammate, then lifted that Campbell bowl and shook it over his head and heard the applause rain down like confetti.

“I didn’t know what you do with the trophy,” Yzerman admitted. “Do you take a lap with it or what? I was a little embarrassed. Finally I looked at (Paul) Coffey and he said, ‘Let’s get outta here.’

“I’ve never had a moment like that. I never heard it that loud. It was so loud. . . .”

Those who wait.

Yzerman, Burr waited longest

Sweat dripped off Yzerman’s chin. A bandage was on his right knee, on which he had surgery two weeks ago. At one point during Sunday’s game, he was knocked down, got up, skated gingerly to the bench, and went straight into the locker room. Fans thought he was done, injured, finished. But he came back 10 minutes later and was on the ice — and next thing you knew, he scored the tying goal.

“A minor problem,” Yzerman said afterward, waving it off. Of course, a minor problem for Yzerman is brain surgery to everyone else. If anyone thinks this guy is not the fiercest inspiration inside the Detroit locker room, think again. Players respond more to courage than to statistics, and they have seen a wounded Yzerman make more comebacks than a dog’s bone. It is the reason he, and not Sergei Fedorov, is the leader of this team.

“When Stevie grabbed me at center ice, he said something like, ‘Burrsy, all those years of nothing and now this!’ ” It was Burr talking. He, like Yzerman, has been waiting for this moment his whole Detroit career. This is another guy I’ve been seeing spring after lousy spring, with his face red hot with emotion, tears often dripping from his eyes.

Over the years, I watched Burr go from locker room baby to finally being able to grow a playoff goatee. I remember when he was dating his girlfriend, Amanda, and when he married her, and when they had their first baby, because I wrote, “Wait a minute, how can a kid have a kid?”

And here he was, Sunday night, a veteran now, throwing himself into a pile of joyous players on the ice. “There were two groups celebrating, so I skated from one to the next and back again. I skated more doing that than I did on a couple of shifts.”

He laughed heartily. His swollen right eyelid was the color of motor oil. No big deal, he said. Winning was the thing.

“When Steve and I were hugging, you could feel the emotion flowing from me to him and him to me. All the stuff we’ve been through. It was like . . . finally!”

Those who wait.

One more war to win

Across the room, watching all this, dressed in a tailored white shirt and tie, was Coffey. In his own way, he has been waiting, too. Not for his first championship, but perhaps, you never know, for his last.

Coffey has four Stanley Cup rings, the most recent one four years ago with Pittsburgh. He is 34 now. This means his dream is not about “the first time” but about “one more time.” He hungers for it like a wolf.

“Tonight,” he said of Game 5, “was about experience. You don’t get experience from being in the league 10 or 12 years. You get experience from going through wars.”

This was a war, all right, this Chicago series, and now there is one war to go, the finals. Coffey, who has become a hockey Yoda to this team, kept saying, “We haven’t done anything yet,” but even he could pause, if just for a moment, to salute what guys like Burr and Yzerman have endured.

“I’ll never forget,” Coffey said, “two years ago, when we were eliminated by Toronto, I looked over at Steve and saw tears in his eyes. And he said, ‘I didn’t get the job done. . . . It’s the same damn thing. . . . I didn’t get the job done.’ “

Coffey shook his head. “It’s been a long time since I’ve heard someone blame himself like that — and not blame everyone else. That man deserves this.”

They all do. When I came out of the locker room Sunday night, I folded my notebook, zipped my bag, and who was there but Lisa Yzerman. And finally, I was able to say this: “Congratulations.” She smiled, said thanks, and eventually her husband came out and they drove home together. It was a good thing, which is all they had been waiting for.

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