IT’S THE BEST KIND OF APPLAUSE — FOR ONEWHO DESERVES IT SO

Applause comes in many forms. Sometimes it’s polite, sometimes it’s raucous. Sometimes it’s for stirring speeches, and sometimes for the start of a favorite song.

And sometimes — in the best of times — it’s a roar of joyous appreciation, the way a child claps wildly at the sight of something delightful. Wednesday night at Joe Louis Arena, halfway through the last game before the All-Star break, Steve Yzerman backhanded a puck past a flailing goalie, the 500th time he’d done that in his NHL career, and the building turned into a volcano of applause, the good kind, the best kind, straight from the heart, and Yzerman’s teammates mobbed him and even the coaches were cheering, and only a dead man wouldn’t be covered in goose bumps.

“STEVIE! STEVIE! STEVIE!”

Five hundred goals. All with one team. The noise rained down like a rock-concert crowd demanding an encore. The other Wings mobbed him in a human cocoon, slapping his helmet and grabbing his shoulders, as if his magic might rub off in their gloves.

“STEVIE! STEVIE! STEVIE!”

And there, in the midst of it all, the man who has captained this team for years, who has endured a ride as bumpy as a camel’s back, and who rarely allows his emotions to be seen on the ice, was suddenly smiling like a kid on the last day of school.

Five hundred goals? Can you imagine all that went into that?

“It feels good, eh?” yelled Dino Ciccarelli, slapping his captain in the middle of that pack.

“It does, it really does,” Yzerman answered.

Applause, applause. Good company

The noise traveled, from the edge of the river between Detroit and Canada, out into the winter skies, until it sprinkled down to the bedroom community of Nepean, Ontario, just outside Ottawa, where Ronald and Jean Yzerman watched their son’s game on TV. They remember the first goal — the very first goal
— when he was 5 years old and playing with the tykes and when he swung the stick, he was so small, he fell over.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him smile so much after a goal,” Mr. Yzerman, a government director, said minutes after Wednesday’s achievement.
“And to do that all with one team. Not too many players have done that, have they?”

The answer is no. If he retires with the Red Wings, he’s the seventh player to get 500 and stay in one uniform. Even if he finished somewhere else, his goal Wednesday night placed him in the company of fewer than two dozen men. His name is now forever hoisted with the likes of Howe, Mikita, Gretzky, Bossy, Richard.

Yzerman.

Applause, applause.

“That’s the most satisfying part,” he said in the locker room afterward,
“to know that, at least in some way, I’ll be amongst those players, or mentioned alongside them.”

“Did it mean something special that you did it here at Joe Louis?” he was asked.

“It did, because for 13 years I’ve been seeing some of the same faces here. I recognize some of the season-ticket holders. They’ve seen a lot of my goals. So I wanted to do it here.”

Isn’t it funny? At the start of the season, with all those trade rumors, Steve Yzerman seemed to be hanging to this franchise by a thread. Now he seems wrapped in its bosom, untouchable, a part of the landscape.

“STEVIE! STEVIE! STEVIE!”

Applause, applause. It started in ’83

For those of you keeping score, his first goal came on an October night in 1983, against Winnipeg, a long forgotten game with a miserable team. He scored his 100th goal 3 1/2 years later, in 1987, and it took him less than two years to get the next hundred, less than two years to get the next hundred, and just over two years to get the next.

He was scoring goals when this team was hopeless, and he was scoring goals when this team was hopeful, and now he scores goals with the hottest team in the NHL. Number 500 came in the second period against Colorado, on a pass from Greg Johnson. Yzerman tried a quick shot that deflected off a defenseman’s leg. The puck came out to the right of the net, Yzerman swooped after it, backhanded it and flicked it high into the net.

“You know, my first goal was kind of like that, too,” he said. “Sort of a rebound and a backhand.”

That puck hangs on a plaque on the wall of the Yzerman home in Nepean. Soon, they’ll have to make room for another.

This newspaper needn’t sing any more of Yzerman’s praises. Most of Detroit knows his profile: a straightforward man with an easy manner and a good heart, a shy captain who once refrained from introducing himself to Gordie Howe because, as he said then, “You don’t just walk up to Gordie Howe and say hello, do you?”

For what it’s worth, I have known the guy pretty much since he got here. I watched him go from dating to marriage, from marriage to fatherhood, from innocent superstar to weary veteran, having heard so many whispers that his star was on the decline.

In all that time, I have noticed only this change: He has gotten smarter.

Other than that, he’s the same fine man in the same fine uniform, doing what he always did best. On Wednesday night, for a few glorious seconds, he was embraced by a roar that came close to equaling all he has done for this team. It was loud enough to take your breath away, and if it had words, they would be these:

Five hundred goals. And they were all for Detroit. Every damn one of them.

Applause, applause.

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