Aw, come on. The guy doesn’t even shave. Comeback Player of the Year? Steve Yzerman? The one with the Reebok sneakers and the jeans and the face off a teen magazine cover? This Steve Yzerman? The Comeback Player of the Year? How old is he? Nine?
“Twenty one,” he says, shyly, sipping a Coke.
Twenty-one? Did he really say twenty-one? Comeback Player Of The Year? Twenty-one? What’s next? Retirement? The farewell tour at 22? Maybe each team will give him a clock or an oil painting or a rocking chair on his final visit. Twenty-one? Comeback Player of the Year? What’s he coming back from? High school?
I know that hockey is a young sport. I have walked through the Red Wings locker room. I have seen Shawn Burr, who cannot drink in certain states, and Joe Kocur, who looks like he’d have to borrow Burr’s ID. I have wondered at times if these guys rode in on a yellow bus. But none of them won Comeback Player of the Year.
“It did kind of surprise me,” Yzerman says, of the announcement by the Hockey News that he, Darren Veitch, 26, and Brian Hayward, 26, had been selected — one forward, one defensemen, one goalie. “It isn’t an award I was ever thinking about. I’m sure I’ll hear about it from players like Dave Lewis. You know, old-timers like that . . . “
Lewis is 33. Yzerman is just kidding.
Isn’t he? He started slowly, got worse
Here is a story: The first goal Yzerman ever scored was in a baby league in Canada. He was five years old and he couldn’t even skate. He just sort of slid around on his butt. One game he happened to be on his butt when another kid accidentally shot the puck into his own net. Yzerman got credit for the goal because he was the closest opposing player.
We should have known right then that little Stevie was on a fast track.
“I’ve always had a baby face,” he says. “I’ve taken jokes about it, and I’ll get my share of teasing for this. But it’s nice to be recognized for having a good season. Especially after last year.”
Ah. Last year. The year he’s coming back from. It went from bad to worse. He didn’t score a goal in the first 10 games. “I was doing poorly. The team was doing poorly. Every night I said to myself, ‘This is the night I begin to turn it around!’ And nothing would happen. We were disorganized. It was the worst team I was ever on. It was disappointing, it was depressing. . . “
And then he broke his collarbone.
He missed the last 29 games. He was so fed up, he went to Mexico the first week of his rehabilitation. That may not sound bad. But this is a hockey player. How much ice do they have in Mexico?
“I was really turned off with hockey,” he says. “And I guess deep down I wondered if I had peaked. I had been the runner-up to Rookie of the Year (in 1984) and I thought about all the flash-in-the-pan players in hockey. Maybe I was going to be one of them. Maybe I would never improve.”
And then Jacques Demers took over the Wings, and he saw something. He named Yzerman his captain — in retrospect, a brilliant little move — and the kid with the Rob Lowe face responded with a tremendous season, a career-high 90 points. Demers says he “couldn’t have asked for more.”
Comeback Player Of The Year.
In Reeboks. The older guys listen
Today, it is true, Yzerman earns well over six-figures with the Red Wings. It is also true he buys Dire Straits albums.
“It took me a little while to get used to being captain, you know, with the older guys on the team. I only called everybody together once, towards the end of the season, when I thought we were forgetting some of the things that had helped us succeed. I felt a little funny calling my teammates over on the ice. But nobody said anything or made any faces, and it worked out OK.”
He puts down his drink (sorry, his beverage) and nods. ” I don’t think I could be captain if not for the way the older guys act. Guys like Snepsy
(Harold Snepsts, 32) and Higgy (Tim Higgins, 29) and Lewie (Dave Lewis, 33). They’re really the leaders. I’m never going to say to them,’Hey, listen, you’re gonna do it my way . . . “
So he has already learned diplomacy. Even if he does get carded on a regular basis. To be honest, Yzerman is articulate, soft-spoken and surprisingly level-headed.
Comeback Player of The Year? At 21?
“Did this season at least make the doubts disappear?” he is asked.
“No,” he says suddenly. “You know, the doubts never really did disappear. I’m determined to do well. But now I know next year’s another year. I don’t think I’ll ever be so assured that everything’s going to be better automatically. I know if I don’t watch myself, I could be a candidate for this award again. A real one. You know what I mean?”
“Yes,” came the answer.
They call it growing up.