DESERVING YZERMAN PLAYS WAITING GAME

CHICAGO — The temptation is to say “Gimme mine.” Others do. Businessmen. Politicians. Oh, they put up a good front about “what’s best for everyone.” But in the end it’s their own skin they worry about.

And then there’s Steve Yzerman. He has been skating near the top of his profession for years and has watched his peer group of superstars get their dance with the Stanley Cup — Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Mario Lemieux. So when will it be his turn? When does that big wheel stop on No. 19?

Not this year, it seems. Despite enormous promise and the highest of hopes, the Red Wings barely scraped through the first round of the playoffs, and now they sit at the bottom of an 0-3 hole to Chicago. “This team was my best shot at a Stanley Cup so far,” Yzerman admits, looking at the floor. “If we go out, it’ll be a huge disappointment.”

He is sitting in the lobby of the Drake Hotel, waiting for some teammates. They are going to the White Sox game at Comiskey Park. Baseball? Well, the hockey game is still 36 hours away, it is a beautiful spring afternoon, and the idea of sitting around the hotel, moping about impending doom, is simply too damned depressing.

Yzerman, who turns 27 on Saturday, digs his hands into the pockets of his jacket. A few feet away, a fountain trickles without interruption, suggesting endless time. But nobody has endless time.

“Just once,” he says, suddenly, “just once I’d like to win that Cup. Just once I’d like to say I was a champion. I see those pictures, with the players holding the Cup over their heads? That’s all I think about. Just getting to do that once. Holding it up. And then, going home and saying to myself, ‘We did it.’ “

He smiles. “Just once.” It has to make you wonder

Here is something you probably didn’t realize: Yzerman has not won a championship in anything since he was 14. Half his life ago. It was at the bantam level. His team had been winning its league every year, so no big deal. He can’t even remember how they celebrated. Maybe they went out for ice cream.

But two years in juniors, and eight years with the Wings, and each season has ended the same: with Yzerman by his locker, looking at the floor, feeling incomplete.

“As I get older, that gets more and more frustrating,” he admits. “I always say, ‘OK, we’re out of it, I’m not gonna watch the other playoff games on TV. And every year, sure enough, I sit and watch the games, and I end up saying, ‘We could have beaten those guys . . . ‘ “

“When you first get drafted, you just want to make the team, and when you make the team, you just want to show that you can be a good player.

“After that, you want to win a championship.”

And that is where Yzerman is stuck. Mostly because, unlike the first two, he can’t bring it about by himself. Believe me, if a Stanley Cup were attainable by one human being, Yzerman would have a few of them. He’s that good. He’s that tough.

And yet, everything has a certain shelf life, including superstar hockey players. And while 27 is hardly old, it is old enough for people to whisper
“maybe this guy can’t get it done for us.”

I have heard this talk. It is foolish. But Yzerman, the captain, knows it won’t go away until a cup is won. “I’ve given this a lot of thought, about what makes ‘winners’? And I realize, there’s no secret. If you’re on a winning team, you get credit for little things — character, leadership — and if your team is losing, you don’t. Even if you play the same way.

“Take Wayne Gretzky. He won Stanley Cups in Edmonton, and he was God. But he hasn’t got any in LA. Does that mean he’s a loser? Look at Brett Hull in St. Louis, or Ray Bourque in Boston. They haven’t won. You mean they’re losers, too?

“I’ve met a lot of winners on teams that don’t have a Stanley Cup, and I’ve met a lot of losers on teams that do,” he says, flatly.

You think he’s given this some thought? Another opportunity lost

Well. Wouldn’t you? How frustrating this must be, needing to win four straight against Chicago or else go home for the summer and face another training camp and another long regular season just to get back to this point? For a while there, Yzerman was enjoying this year, finally playing with a young cast that had unlimited potential.

And then came the NHL strike. He accepted a role on the players association committee — and it may have estranged him from his owner, Mike Ilitch a man who never hid his love for his superstar. Recently, Ilitch said in this newspaper that he felt a bit betrayed by Yzerman’s stance.

“I never wanted to strike,” Yzerman says. “Nobody on our team did. But how could we vote against it?” He shakes his head. I ask if he would take on the role again, he thinks for five seconds.

“No,” he says.

You have to feel for the Wings, who are better than the way they are playing. And you have to feel for Yzerman. If he could only skate out there for everyone, suck in all their energy, all their strength, take on the Hawks by himself.

But he can’t. And he can’t change history. He can only go to a baseball game and try not to think about this disturbing pattern, all those beautiful springs gone sour, year after year. Because whenever he says “Gimme mine,” fate keeps telling him to wait.

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