He was last in line for introductions, not by choice, but because the Red Wings knew that when the announcer called his name, you wouldn’t be able to hear anyone else’s.
“NO. 29 GILBERT DELORME . . . ” boomed the voice, working its way down the list.
“NO. 34 JEFF SHARPLES. . . . “
He stared at his skates and waited his turn. For nine weeks he had been wrapped in injury, stuck in street clothes while his teammates skated, stuck in limbo while his world spun without him. The Red Wings were trailing the Edmonton Oilers in this NHL semifinal, the season was down to its last few breaths, and it was time to pull out all the emotional baggage.
The captain was coming out to play.
“AND. . . . “
They rose to their feet.
“NO. 19. . . .
The roar spread like fire in a vat full of lighter fluid.
“STEVE . . . YZERMAN!”
It was every happy mother on every front porch step, every giggling family in every airport runway, arms open wide. Steve Yzerman, out since March 1 with a bad knee, would not win this game — that would actually be done by the rest of the team, a gritty, no-quit effort that speaks volumes for Detroit spirit — but his appearance was like the posting of a notice to those giants in the blue and orange uniforms.
Not dead yet.
People do come back, you know.
“DEEE-TROIT!” they were cheering when this thing was over, when the Wings had clipped Edmonton, 5-2, to narrow the series to a two games to one deficit.
What a night. Would you have wanted to be anywhere else? Here, in a packed Joe Louis Arena, was hockey the way Motown fans like it, sweaty, hard, hurting and real. None of that sterile applause in Northlands Coliseum where the Oilers had grabbed a 2-0 lead in this Campbell Conference final. You had something to say this night, you hollered; you had something to holler, you roared.
Spirit? The fans were painting their hair in the hallway, red and white, Wings’ colors, three dollars a pop, in support of the team. They were screaming themselves hoarse. They were waving signs.
And in the middle of this emotional avalanche was Yzerman, the captain. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, was there any Red Wings fan there who didn’t breathe in and out with Yzerman’s first few moves on the ice? He went down; the crowd sucked air. He got up; they exhaled.
“IS HE OK?”
“GET UP! GET UP!”
The talk before this night had been all about rushing the return of a hero. Would it be safe for him to come back? What if he got hurt? He’s only 22.
“My biggest nightmare about him,” coach Jacques Demers said before the game, “is his first shift. I don’t want him to fall down, or to be embarrassed.
“I love this kid. Anybody will tell you he’s more than a hockey player, more than just an athlete. He’s such a great person. I just don’t want him to be embarrassed. He’s a man of pride.”
There was no worry about that. On his first shift, he dived to the ice to try to block a shot. He got up and continued skating. He took a ram from Edmonton’s Jeff Courtnall. He came back swinging and wound up in the penalty box. On the Wings’ first goal of the evening, he whacked the puck over to teammate and friend Brent Ashton, earning an assist.
Shy? Intimidated? Scared? Yzerman spent as much time on the ice as the Zamboni machine. He seemed eager to prove that he was not fragile, that he did not come out this night with a “Do Not Disturb” sign around his neck. He had bugged Demers to let him play, almost got him to relent on Thursday night in Game 2, and finally, on Friday morning stood before his coach and gave him the ready look.
“You sure you feel OK?” Demers asked.
“Yes,” said Yzerman.
“Does the knee hurt?”
“Are you mentally ready?”
“Let’s go then.” Let’s go, then. It might have been the trumpet call for the entire evening. For in addition to the lift of Yzerman’s return, this was, simply put, a solid slice of glory for the Wings, a back-to-the-walls defense of all they held dear. The final period, when Edmonton had closed the gap to 3-2, was simply frantic, eye-popping, nerve-jangling hockey. Who could breathe? Everyone knew how potent the Oilers were. The only time you’re safe against them is when you hear the final horn.
So when Dave Barr pushed that fourth goal past Grant Fuhr, and leaped into the air as far as a pair of skates would let him. Well, you saw it. Bedlam.
And when Mel Bridgman found that puck in front of the net with 1:27 to go and poked it in, good night. The Wings were going to beat Edmonton.
“DEE-TROIT!” gushed the crowd, in a singular voice that shook the rafters.
Magic. Glory. There will be other nights, other hockey games, and sure, this series may still well end in a Red Wings defeat. But for one warm Saturday night, Detroit hockey fans tasted a splash of what homecomings are all about. The captain came out to play. Anything seems possible now.