CAPTAIN YZERMAN CALLS TUNE VS. BLUES

ST. LOUIS — Steve Yzerman sat on the bed in his hotel room and looked at his watch. The bus would not leave for 20 minutes, but he already was dressed in his blue sport coat and tie. His shirt collar was tight and stuck out. His hair was mussed. He folded his hands uncomfortably across his lap. With his boyish face, he looked like a school kid waiting for the car pool.

“Last year at this time, we weren’t even in the playoffs,” he said, staring at the TV. “I was skating down at Joe Louis Arena when the playoffs began for everybody else.”

“Really? Who were you skating with?” I asked.

“Al Sobotka, the guy who drives the Zamboni machine.”

“You were skating with the Zamboni driver?”

“Yeah,” he shrugged. “I was.”

Steve Yzerman should not be skating with Zamboni drivers. Not in April. April is when the great hockey players hear some kind of special music, just as great baseball players hear it in October and great football players hear it in January. They hear the music, and they begin to dance, faster than the others, another rhythm, the cadence of destiny.

There is no telling how much it hurts to be shut out of all this — to be shut out of April, when you are supposed to be one of the best players in the game. Thursday night, nearly two years since his last playoff moment, Steve Yzerman began to take April back. He was all over the ice in the second period, squaring up, firing a shot, breaking away, launching a pass.

He curled around the net at 7:08 and backhanded the puck right past goalie Vince Riendeau.

Goal!

Less than five minutes later, he took a centering pass from Paul Ysebaert and rocketed it past Riendeau again.

Goal!

And then, in the third period, when the Blues had closed to 5-3 and the crowd was rabid, screaming, smelling blood, here was Yzerman again, doing what a captain does best, taking charge, smacking a wrist shot from the corner.

Goal! Sit down and shut up, folks. The Blues, everybody’s darling these days, were learning what Yzerman means when he says “You’ll never be considered a great player in hockey until you win the Stanley Cup.”

What he means is this: The music has started.

Time to dance.

Which is only right. Regardless of the Red Wings’ odds in this postseason, Yzerman deserves the chance to shine. There is no telling how good a great player can be until you put the big rainbow in front of him. Yzerman says he was “never happier in hockey” than during the Campbell Conference final against Edmonton four years ago, the farthest the franchise has gone since his arrival. Conversely, he was “never more frustrated” than at the end of last season. It was bad news for all the Detroit players when they missed the playoffs; but Yzerman missing the playoffs is like Al Pacino sitting out a Godfather movie. Nuh-uh. He must at least be part of the story.

“You know, you read what people write about you,” Yzerman said back in the hotel room, before his three goals, before the Wings surprised everyone and won Game 1 against St. Louis, 6-3, “but then you wonder how good can you be if your team couldn’t even make the playoffs? It’s like if you’re as good as people say, you should at least be able to help them finish in the top 16 teams in the game, right? You question yourself a little bit.”

There were no questions Thursday night. Here in the Budweiser capital of the world, they swoon to the music of Brett Hull, the hottest commodity in hockey. Hull had 86 goals this season. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated two weeks ago. He did “Late Night with David Letterman.” Twice. He is to hockey what Johnny Depp is to movies. Young. Hip. Desirable.

Yzerman saw Hull on the Sports Illustrated cover. He remembers, not so long ago, when it was he they were touting as the next “King of the Rink.” Does it bother him, all this attention Hull is getting. Is the kid moving in on some of Yzerman’s turf?

“Aw, you know,” he said, looking at his feet, “I’m competitive. Like anyone else. You strive to be the best.”

Which is a polite way of saying: “Excuse me, Mr. Hull. Let me have that puck for a second.”

It was a beautiful thing to see Thursday night, Yzerman with that feeling again, all over the ice. You remember the other playoff nights, the game against Edmonton, when he came back early from an injury and drew a standing ovation and scored a goal. You remember the series against Chicago when he had five goals and five assists in six games. Now you see him in Bluesville, taking April back, for one night anyhow, shutting up the crowd.

After the game, he stood in the basement of this arena, wrapped in two towels, talking to reporters. Someone asked how it felt to be back in the playoffs.

“It felt great,” he said. “We got here last night, we were all talking about the game, people were nervous when they went to sleep. They got to practice this morning, everyone was kind of quiet, sort of uptight. Then you eat the pregame meal, everyone’s jumpy.”

“Sounds great,” someone deadpanned.

“It was,” Yzerman said.

He was serious. Someone asked about his goals; he shrugged. Someone asked about the hat trick. He shrugged again. All that seemed to matter was that feeling, the nervousness, the upset stomach, the rainbow being placed within his sights. It was April. That’s what the great ones get excited about.

This Red Wing club has improved. It is a steadier ship under Bryan Murray. It has the best non-goalie rookie in the game, Sergei Fedorov, a fine

goaltender in Tim Cheveldae, and a small army of young guys who don’t know anything about the losing ways the team fell upon the last two years. Still, Yzerman is the key. You get to the big race, you let the horses run.

“The Zamboni driver,” I said, “was he any good at skating?”

Yzerman smiled. “He’s better at driving a Zamboni.”

And Yzerman is better in the playoffs.

Some guys just have to find their niche.

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