CAPTAIN OUT INDEFINITELY

It’s cold, it’s hard, it’s dangerous and it flies. And when a puck hits an unprotected hockey player, it takes no prisoners, it simply destroys, a tooth, a jaw, a cheekbone, a piece of the skull.

An eye.

Brendan Shanahan saw the puck that hit his friend and teammate Steve Yzerman on Saturday, saw it lift the Captain like a gunshot, then drop him limp on the ice. He saw Yzerman try to scramble to his feet, then fall down again, and Shanahan’s stomach tightened.

“When I saw his legs kicking, I knew it was bad,” Shanahan said Sunday. “Steve is a guy who never embellishes an injury, and we all know he has a pretty high threshold for pain. When I saw his legs kicking, I had to go out and see what happened.”

What happened, we now know, was this: The small, rubber demon struck Yzerman in the face, smashing his left eye socket, scratching his cornea and sending him to 4 1/2 hours of surgery Saturday night.

“I spoke to him today,” Shanahan said. “He was OK. But it was obviously scary. And obviously a pretty serious injury.”

The good news is that doctors expect a full recovery. The bad news is pretty much everything else.

Have we seen Yzerman’s last game as a Red Wing? It’s possible. Not certain. But possible. If the Wings lose tonight or Wednesday and exit this season’s playoffs — and the expected labor strife steals valuable months from next season’s schedule — that might be it for the man known as “Stevie.”

The end of his career? A Saturday in May? A gloomy afternoon defeat? Eight days from his 39th birthday? The end of his career?

If so, he deserves better. But do not lament this as tragic. In some ways, strange as it sounds, it may have been a lucky moment.

Every player’s nightmare

“When we got into the locker room, everybody was asking, ‘How bad was it?’ ” Shanahan said. “At that moment, whether he’s going to play isn’t even a thought. An eye is a lot more important than whether Steve plays in the next game.”

Shanahan, with Robert Lang, helped lead Yzerman off the ice. His eye was covered in a towel. There was no visible blood. Viewers feared the worst. Reporters whispered about the damage. And players like Shanahan, who dart around the flying rubber demon every night, flashed back on the hits and near-misses of their careers.

“I took a puck in the face when I was 21 and with New Jersey,” Shanahan said. “Not as bad as Steve’s, but it broke my cheekbone, my orbital bone.

“What I remember is, you don’t have time to react. You see this flash of something black. And as you’re lying on the ice, you’re thinking, ‘That was a puck that just hit me.’

“You don’t have any time to get out of the way. I’ve seen it happen many times, where it’s just a matter of an inch this way or that way.

“I know it doesn’t sound lucky, when we’re talking about Steve, but we’re all just thankful he doesn’t have permanent damage.”

Shanahan exhaled. He was speaking from the airport, about to board the plane for Calgary, Alberta, and as he detailed his friend’s injury, you could almost hear him wincing over the phone. Yzerman’s fall was the most depressing moment of a depressing hockey day, a day in which the invincibility that Detroit likes to feel this time of year was as battered as if a barrage of pucks were fired into its side.

“We can’t say that was the reason we lost the game,” Shanahan said. “When you’re a professional athlete, you’re trained to block things out, what’s happening at home, what’s happening in the stands, anything.

“We all were thinking about Steve when we came off the ice after the second period. But then we had to get ready for the third.”

The Captain’s final good-bye?

And tonight, they have to battle to keep the season going. Maybe they rally for their fallen captain. Maybe that’s just in the movies. Either way, Yzerman — who actually asked if he could travel with the team — will no doubt try to watch the game from home.

There is no measuring what he must be feeling now. His storied resilience is well-known. He has weathered knee injuries and groin injuries and shoulder injuries. He has weathered operation after operation, one before last season that was so grisly — sawing into a bone and inserting a wedge — it almost seemed barbaric.

But always there was a comeback night at Joe Louis Arena, when the lights lowered and the locker-room door was opened and he stepped on the ice and skated a circle — and the roof threatened to blow off from the noise.

Still, Yzerman knew those nights were limited, that you get only so many in a career. He has downplayed his “hello agains” for a reason; he didn’t want to exaggerate his good-bye.

So maybe we saw it Saturday. And maybe we see the end of the season tonight. Maybe this summer, we see the end of an era we have enjoyed for nearly a decade. The team will break up. Players will retire or be let go. The league may even shut down.

In light of such doom and gloom for Hockeytown, where do you turn for a bright spot?

How about this? Yzerman has three beautiful daughters and a beautiful wife. And for the rest of his life, he’ll be able to see them with both eyes. There’s a positive to think about, as the negative seems to be raining all around us.

GET-WELL WISHES

Get-well cards can be sent to Steve Yzerman in care of the Red Wings: 600 Civic Center Dr., Detroit 48226.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com”

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