His wife says he comes home now and looks right through her. Sits at the table. Sits on the couch. Looks right through her. Oh, he’s pleasant enough. He’ll chat about the kid, the house — never hockey — but he’s not really there. His eyes are locked on something off in the distance. In that way, I guess, Steve Yzerman is like a lot of working men. He doesn’t want to talk about it.
But what he can’t put into words these days is not frustration or embarrassment, although, like most of us, he has had plenty of those. No, what’s perplexing Yzerman is this coming tidal wave of happiness. He hears it rumbling toward our city, he sees it on the horizon. He asks himself, “What should I do now?”
This is what he does. He goes within himself. He stops reading newspapers and stops listening to radio and TV and he furrows his brow and he says very little, because the fight is not over, not yet, not yet, and so in typical fashion, the man Detroit calls “The Captain” chooses quiet as his ally. Quiet will be his friend. He will skate with the quiet tonight, calming himself, telling himself as the noise rains down that it is just another hockey game, just another night to lose a bucket of sweat and do whatever it takes to win.
And his heart will be going a million miles an hour.
You get into this business of writing about athletes, and the deal you make is you never gush, you always keep a cool and distant attitude. I may break that tonight. Steve Yzerman, one of the true gentlemen left in sports, came to Detroit not long before I did in the mid-1980s. We have known each other since
he was single, since he was too young to legally drink, since he lived in an apartment, since we both had enough hair to wear it in bangs.
Now he is married, a father, building a new home. He is 32, working on what’s likely his final contract as a player. He has got more scars, less hair and is much more familiar to Detroit than he was as that shy, speedy 18-year-old draft choice out of the Ottawa suburbs. In fact, it seems like we’ve seen Yzerman in every possible pose, except one: We have never seen him happy on the last day of hockey season.
Tonight, sometime before midnight, that could finally happen.
And when it happens for The Captain, it happens for all of us.
Moment of truth
There was a moment Thursday night, before Game 3 of these Stanley Cup finals against Philadelphia, when the Wings were introduced and the sellout crowd at Joe Louis Arena lost control. It was when Yzerman’s name was called. The noise was deafening, it rattled the roof and cascaded down to the ice. Even the announcer had to wait before he could be heard over the loudspeaker system.
“I really wasn’t expecting anything like that,” Yzerman said Friday. “The only way I can describe it is if you have children, and you’ve been away for a while, and you come home and the dog is barking and the kids run at you and they’re all excited?”
“Like coming home?” I said.
“Yeah, it was like coming home,” he said.
And that is why The Captain means so much to this town. Because over the years, he has become part of us, one of many people who live here and are hardworking and ethical and sometimes find themselves in lousy situations but always believe they will find their way out. Believe me, Yzerman has told himself “things will get better” more times than Job.
He said it in the mid-’80s, when this hockey team was a joke. He said it in the early ’90s, when St. Louis, Toronto and San Jose sent the Wings home early. He said it two years ago, when the New Jersey Devils embarrassed Detroit in front of the whole world. Things will get better. They have to get better.
He was even saying it at the start of last season, when his name was trade bait. Remember? Rumors had him emptying his locker. And then he skated onto the Joe Louis ice for the first home game, and the crowd gave him such a deep, long, noisy ovation that anyone even thinking of trading him would have to join the Witness Protection Program.
Yzerman became a Red Wing for life that night.
Tonight, he could become one for the ages.
“It runs through your mind, what if we win,” he admitted Friday, “but I’m trying really hard to stay away from all that. What’s worked for us so far is ignoring everything and just playing hockey.”
Yzerman inspired that philosophy. He gave a rare speech after Detroit dropped its second game to St. Louis in the opening round of the playoffs. He said enough, we’re not crapping out again. Everyone has to step up.
And ever since, the Wings have been a humming machine, winning 13 of 15 games, now one victory from the cup. That speech alone could earn him the Conn Smythe Trophy, but he has backed his words with action. He sets up plays, offers marvelous defense, works as hard as anyone out there, and has a key goal in each finals game — seven in the playoffs — and this is a guy who joked with me a few weeks ago, “Nobody said I was a great defensive player until I stopped scoring.”
The truth is, Yzerman allowed his style to be changed for — what else? — the good of the team. Anything to get to this moment. Over the years, he watched Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier — all his superstar peers
— collect championship rings. Last year he watched Joe Sakic, another No. 19
— but younger, with much of Yzerman’s old game — do the same.
And all the time, his finger remained bare.
He never complained. He never demanded a trade, or lashed out at his sometimes less-devoted teammates. And if you asked anyone in the Wings’ locker room who the first person to skate around with that cup should be tonight, I promise there’d be no argument.
“Not only do all his teammates like him and respect him,” said Darren McCarty, “but even the opposing players feel that way about him.”
Consider this from Joe Kocur, who could focus on his personal comeback. Instead he says: “The thing that would make winning this cup so special is doing it with a guy like Stevie.”
This, folks, is the captain’s greatest gift. He makes you stop thinking about yourself.
Moment of glory
Now, it’s true, “Stevie” has changed over the years. He is no longer the kid who was once too shy to introduce himself to Gordie Howe, or who once apologized to a Free Press photographer for cursing as he entered the penalty box.
He’s more mature now, molded by patience, hardened by disappointment — yet still soft enough to always stop for a child, to never tell an interviewer to get lost, to look down when he hears that women think he’s cute.
Mostly, through all the injuries, the disappointments, the times the national media looked the other way, Yzerman is and has been Detroit. He began his career in a red sweater. He will end it in a red sweater. His mother once told me that when he was a child, she dropped him at school, “and as soon I left, he walked right back home.”
So he’s always had a sense of where he belongs.
Tonight, he belongs right here. Center ice.
“Are you doing anything to record this past week?” I asked before he left.
“Are you taping the games, making a scrapbook, anything like that?”
He shook his head no, as if he hadn’t even thought about it. “Right now, all I want to do is prepare. I don’t want to let my guard down.”
He had the same look as Thursday night, when he heard that thunderous ovation and was torn between a happy moment and the fear of embracing it. He raised his stick to the adoring crowd, while keeping a deadly serious look on his face.
But the tidal wave is coming, and so is his release. Should the Wings win, there will be no need for the safe side of Yzerman’s emotions. No reason to embrace the quiet. This is the end of the long, lonely wait. After 42 years, it is time for the working man’s hockey team to get a taste of that Edmonton, Pittsburgh, New York, Montreal, look-at-us-ma-we-won-the-cup thing. And that mysterious rumble that Yzerman hears is his destiny, rolling in. If the horn sounds happily tonight, it would only be fitting that No. 19 start the party, raise the cup, throw back his head and let loose a holler that’s been a long, marvelous career in the making.
After all, he is The Captain.
Tonight, the Stanley Cup makes the short trip from the Renaissance Center to Joe Louis Arena, More, 10A.