The crowd was thinning and the noise was dying down. The champagne showers had turned his hair into a sticky nest. Steve Yzerman glanced over the messy remains of the Red Wings’ locker room, then told a story.
He had been in Las Vegas a few years back. He was sitting at a craps table. Two guys from Windsor recognized him and made the typical fuss. Hey, it’s Yzerman from the Red Wings! Then they looked at the gambling action, looked at The Captain, and one of them whispered, “We better get away from here. There’s no luck at this table.”
Yzerman “wanted to slug ’em,” he recalled.
He didn’t, of course. He suffered silently, which is how we do it around here, and the sting of that insult and all the others like it bore deep inside his stomach, churned around like a sleepless wasp, year after year — until Saturday night. Until that moment when the final horn sounded and Yzerman threw his stick into the crowd and his curses to the wind and he lifted off toward the open arms of goalie Mike Vernon as a thundering roar shook Joe Louis Arena and you know what? The heck with those guys from Windsor — the whole world wanted to be around Steve Yzerman now.
A wounded deer leaps the highest, that’s what they say. And if the Red Wings’ soaring championship had one common theme it was this: Heal the wounds, mend the tear, end the suffering and leap into salvation. This was not a championship in a city, it was a championship for a city, a city that has waited 42 years for hockey recognition and is still waiting, thank you, for the non-hockey kind. I have been getting phone calls from radio stations around the country, and they want to know whether we burned anything down, if we turned over any police cars, why this is such a big deal. This is the answer I want to give them: “Shut up and get lost. You don’t get it and you never will.”
But Detroiters will. From the players to the coaches to the season-ticket holders to the kids who stood on street corners all weekend, waving signs that read, “Honk if you love the Wings!”
This is a story of retribution. Nearly everyone brought some sort of long wait, personal scar or sad history into these Stanley Cup finals.
And, as if filled with healing waters, the cup made them all better.
Long time coming
There was of course, Yzerman, the 32-year-old captain, who has been working down by the Detroit River since Ronald Reagan’s first term. He finally admitted in an emotional moment Sunday morning that the whispers all these years have stung him, even if he never showed it.
“They always say, ‘He’s a good player but he didn’t win it,’ ” Yzerman said. “And now they can’t say that anymore. No matter what, they can’t say it, you know? . . .
“These past five years, there were summers where I didn’t even want to go outside, I didn’t want to be recognized, I put on my hat, my sunglasses, I walked around in a shell. You’re embarrassed. I’ve felt that way before.”
He flicked a champagne drop off his nose. No more embarrassment.
Healed by the cup.
And how about the two Russian players Yzerman handed that magic trophy off to as the crowd stomped and cheered to “We Are The Champions” Saturday night? Igor Larionov and Slava Fetisov? Did you see them skating side by side, a 36-year-old and a 39-year-old, carrying the cup together, one-handed, the way old women in Europe carry a suitcase? Between these two, they have skated more miles than most starting lineups in the NHL. And yet they always had to hear how Russian players don’t want the cup enough.
“I think we stop that rumor forever now,” Larionov said, spilling champagne on whoever passed him in the Wings’ locker room. Appreciate it? Both he and Fetisov paid enormous prices to come to North America and make a run at this crown. Fetisov, a major in the Russian Army, was kicked off his team and put behind a desk for speaking up for the right to play in this country. And Larionov had to quit the NHL for a year because the half of his paycheck that was being taken by Mother Russia — supposedly to fund youth sport programs — was instead going toward cell phones for Soviet bureaucrats. Furious, he did the only thing he could do; he cut off their money supply by cutting off his own.
You think he hasn’t paid a price to win this cup.
Or how about the guy to whom the Russians handed off? The Mother of All Facial Hair Growers — Brendan Shanahan? He began the year in Hartford, wondering whether his career was destined to end in oblivion. And there he was Saturday night, kissing the cup like a long-lost friend.
“Does it match your dream of what it would be like?” I asked Shanahan hours later, as he dashed behind a curtain for another photo with the trophy.
“Match it? It exceeds it!” he gushed. “I want to do it again!”
Healed by the cup.
There was a sacrifice behind every set of hands that held that chalice on that skate around the Joe Louis ice. There was goaltender Mike Vernon, ready to sell his house a few months ago because he knew he was about to be traded, and now here he was, the Conn Smythe Trophy winner, the most valuable player in the playoffs.
There was Sergei Fedorov, who swallowed his late-season demotion to defenseman and dug inside himself, discovering his own way back to the star he was supposed to be.
There was Joe Kocur, who was out of hockey altogether, his knuckles a bruised mess. Heck, he was playing in the recreational leagues less than six months ago. “The lowest moment,” he admitted Saturday, “was when a guy came on the radio and said, the rumor isn’t true, Detroit wasn’t going to sign me. I heard that and thought, ‘That’s it. It’s over.’ “
But here he was, Saturday night, holding a cigar. It’s never over, as long as you dream.
Healed by the cup.
There was Kirk Maltby, who once thought his career would be spent in the basement with Edmonton, and Darren McCarty, who fought through personal problems to become part of the gritty core of this team. When he scored the winning goal Saturday night — on a dipsy-doodle move that was so unlike him, it had to be heaven-sent — the Wings on the bench jumped so high I thought someone juiced 1,000 volts through their rear ends.
And how about McCarty’s best buddy, Kris Draper? Last year at this time, his face was swollen and his jaw was wired shut and he was drinking soup and milkshakes, because Claude Lemieux cheapshotted him in the final game of the failed Western Conference finals. More than any single moment, that blow created a purpose for this year’s team.
And more than any single moment, the vengeful beating of Lemieux on March 26 convinced this team that no opponent could contain its spirit.
Now here was Draper, one year after the incident, cigar in teeth, jaw intact, nothing on his chin but the bushy red goatee.
“I don’t even remember last June anymore,” he boasted.
Healed by the cup.
Why we care so much
The list of soothed scars goes from one end of the roster to the other. But this championship brought salvation for men without numbers, too. There was Scotty Bowman, who heard the critics whisper that he had lost his coaching touch, that 63 was too old to get it done in the NHL anymore. But when he put on skates and did a little lap with the cup, his players burst into laughter, and a warmth that had never existed between him and his soldiers was suddenly born.
“You know,” he said, surveying his team, “when Mr. Ilitch hired me, I told him two years. It’s been four.”
Will he make it five?
“Ask me in two weeks,” he said, but he was smiling, and you wonder if this cup can’t make you younger as well.
And, of course, there was Mike Ilitch himself, who has sunk several fortunes into his hometown’s sports and has watched with clenched fists and a pounding heartbeat year after year, as his teams fell short. He never interfered with players. He never tried to push his businessman’s ego into it, believing he could do it better himself — a la George Steinbrenner. And finally, finally, his patience and his dollars were rewarded. “This is the No. 1 thrill,” he said Saturday night, “when Stevie gave me that cup, and I held it up . . .”
It looked as if he was going to cry.
If he wasn’t crying already.
Healed by the cup.
Now, maybe outsiders read this and think, “What sentimental drivel.” Well, that’s why they’re outsiders. They don’t understand what hockey means to this town — more importantly, what pride and camaraderie and unity of spirit mean to this town. We don’t get enough. Sometimes economics and urban problems don’t let us.
And so, when we get something like a hockey champion — after 42 years of waiting — and when we get a night of peaceful celebration, when we get a night when black and white see no differences between them, only the similarity that one of our own has hit the jackpot — when we get a night like that, we want to squeeze every last star out of its sky. We want the healing power that feeling good can bring.
And if you can’t understand that, then go on back to whatever miserable, cynical rock you live under and have a nice day.
“We’ve had some disappointments and we’ve broken people’s hearts,” Yzerman said, “but everybody kept coming back. They kept coming back, every year, and cheering louder.”
You know what you call that? Fandom. And you know what fandom is really a buzzword for?
Strike up the band. No more whispers at the crap table, no more watching Gretzky or Messier with envy. No more Claude Lemieux, no more Patrick Roy, no more ghosts of San Jose, Toronto, St. Louis or anybody else. It’s Detroit, now. Detroit. There’s a giant 25-foot chalice on our City-County Building this morning, there’s a parade in the works, and there’s a snapshot in my mind, your mind, and the mind of the man, woman or child sitting next to you as you read this. It’s the snapshot of Yzerman and his long-awaited smile, hoisting that trophy high into goosebump land. It pulls us together, that snapshot, and better yet, it always will. They shoot, we soar. Silver threads and golden needles could not mend more than this cup.