In the wee, dark hours of the morning, the airplane landed, and Steve Yzerman and his sleepy teammates trudged back to their cars at the Windsor airport. They were going home. Their season was over. They had made some sparks in the playoffs, but then came the reigning pooh-bahs of hockey, the Edmonton Oilers, who politely showed them the door. The Wings lost in five games. This was 1987, and Yzerman was still young for his sport. On the ride back to Detroit, he sat quietly and listened to the radio talk of the mighty Oilers, with Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, all the rest.
“You know,” he said, softly, “the Oilers ain’t so tough.”
That was youth talking, brash youth, but justified. People in those days talked of Yzerman in the same breath as Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, and most believed it was just a matter of time before all three had Stanley Cup rings. On the ride home that night, maybe even Yzerman believed it.
But one year tumbled into another, Gretzky and Lemieux won their titles, Yzerman, stuck in a herky-jerky franchise, never did. Soon, when people talked of hockey’s “big three,” they said Gretzky, Lemieux and Mark Messier. Yzerman became that “good guy who plays for Detroit.”
So it was nice to see the captain out there Sunday, finally in the driver’s seat, playing on the favored team, scoring, assisting, skating like a young lion. And it didn’t hurt that so many of the players from that once-mighty Edmonton squad — Gretzky, Craig MacTavish, Charlie Huddy, Glenn Anderson — could do nothing now but watch in their Blues uniforms, looking old and finished.
What goes around comes around. . . .
“Stevie’s our leader, he’s our captain, he does so many little things out there,” said Darren McCarty, the beneficiary Sunday of one of Yzerman’s sweet passes for a goal. “You know, I remember watching him when I was a kid. To be on a line with him now, it’s amazing.”
“You don’t tell him you remember him as a kid, do you?” McCarty was asked.
“Are you kidding?” he laughed.
What goes around comes around. . . .
Now, I don’t know what Yzerman had for breakfast Sunday — “Just oatmeal,” his wife, Lisa, said afterward — but it must have been laced with something. He came out hot and set the tone for the game in the first five minutes, skating aggressively, making crisp passes, digging the puck out from behind the net and sending a backhander past Jon Casey for the first goal.
And the man was just getting started. He assisted on Nicklas Lidstrom’s wicked slap-shot goal, then made a gorgeous pass to McCarty, who zipped it over Casey for the Wings’ fourth goal in eight minutes. Yzerman killed penalties, made a number of clearing passes to break up chances, got another assist on a Lidstrom goal and was generally out there whenever anything important needed doing, the way a good captain should be. In the final minutes, he put the exclamation mark on the game, lifting a rebound past Casey for the Wings’ seventh goal.
And then, for good measure, he jumped into a fight when Casey began thumping on Bob Errey.
All told, Yzerman had two goals, three assists, a few swings, and a victory. The five points tied a Wings record for a playoff game, and, understandably, Yzerman was chosen first star. He skated out when his name was announced, his head down the whole time, then went back into the tunnel.
“I don’t get too excited about one game,” he said in typical understated fashion. “Sometimes the puck goes in for you. I was fortunate today.”
I asked if he gave any thought to all the ex-Oilers now on the St. Louis roster, guys he had to watch from his living room back in the ’80s, winning the Cup, while he waited and waited.
“I don’t know,” he said, squinting as if looking into the past. “That was a long, long time ago.”
‘C’ stands for something
On Sunday, the Fox announcers talked about Gretzky’s apparent injuries, and his limited cast, and maybe in some parts of the hockey world, there was a twinge of sympathy.
Not here. Ask Yzerman about injuries: He has limped through postseasons with bad knees and an injured spine. Ask him about teams that lack talent: He has been on teams like that as well. Too many, to be honest.
He has earned this E-ticket ride, on the best team, the favored team, capable of laying down eight goals on a playoff night. He is 31, yet is skating wonderfully, pain-free. He seems happier and more at peace with himself than at almost any other time in his career. It is almost unfathomable to think he was a trade rumor just nine months ago.
A few months back, when Gretzky joined the Blues, he was immediately given the captain’s “C” — even though he’d never played for the team. Yzerman has been wearing the “C” in this town for nearly a decade. Forgive me for putting down The Great One, but some C’s apparently mean more than others.
So while Yzerman downplays his leadership, it is undeniable, from the teammates who nod when they talk about him, to his cute 2-year-old daughter, Isabella, who trailed behind him in the locker room Sunday. Perhaps she senses what might soon become obvious: This is his year. This is the end of that long ride home from the airport. What goes around, comes around, and you can feel his long-awaited glory coming ’round like a freight train.