What they did to Steve Yzerman last summer, you wouldn’t wish on a prisoner. They cut his leg bone with a saw, then chiseled it until a path was opened. They wedged that path wider with a fork-like device, then inserted a steel plate, then tightened that plate with screws, then packed it with spare bone material. Then they woke him up.

They call this medicine.

“Osteotomy” is its official name, and if you’re lucky and you fully recover, you have less pain as you walk your grandkids to school. You are not supposed to resume an NHL career.

“We didn’t do it so Steve could return to playing hockey,” his surgeon, Dr. Peter Fowler, told the Free Press. “We did it so Steve could return to walking without pain.”

But what the good doctor may not understand — and what Red Wings fans know all too well — is this: If Yzerman walks, he walks to the rink. If he steps, he steps onto the ice.

And so Monday at Joe Louis Arena, on a snowy night that otherwise made you want to hide under a blanket, Yzerman took another of his famous steps ice-ward, and you could feel the ripple from the Detroit River to the Upper Peninsula. The Captain was back. He was taking a shift. “Stevie When?” was
“Stevie Y” again.

“How did it feel when you came out?” Yzerman was asked after playing his first game of this, his 20th, season.

“Well, the fans were cheering during warm-ups,” he said, looking embarrassed.
“That was a little unusual.”

And the applause continued . . .

Did you expect anything less? The last time Yzerman skated before a crowd was last June, the fans on their feet, as he hoisted the Stanley Cup.

Then came the long off-season. The doctors rebuilt his right knee, he started rehab, and the pages came off the calendar like leaves off an autumn tree: September, October, November, December, January. Most of February. Sixty-one games and no Yzerman. There was talk he was done. There was talk he was kidding himself. There were days when Yzerman, 37, felt depressed, when “all I could do was skate a big circle for an hour. I was like, ‘God, I better improve from this.’ “

He did. Slowly — which is not his way — but surely, which surely is. And Monday night, a little after 7, he glided out with head down, his eyes forward, and once again, the fans were on their feet.

How sublime was the moment? When Yzerman entered the game, with just under a minute gone, he lined up for a face-off, and linesman Ray Scapinello, a long-time official, actually stepped backward to allow the applause a few extra seconds.

“What were you thinking then?” Yzerman was asked.

“I was thinking,” he said, smiling, “that Ray should drop the puck.”

For the record, Yzerman played solidly. He won some face-offs. He made some cuts and he made some passes. He even found himself in a team scrum.

By the end of the night, he had played 13-plus minutes, done some power-play work, and skated off with a team victory, 5-4 over the Los Angeles Kings.

It was not remarkable hockey, judged on its own merits.

It was beyond remarkable when judged by the circumstances.

And the team gets a lift . . .

The purpose of an osteotomy is to redistribute the weight. And in many ways, that’s what the Wings must do now, too. Yzerman is back, and he can always be their heart and soul, but he can’t be their legs. He can’t be their arms. He can’t be the guy they expect to score the big one, and he can’t be the guy they expect to make the spectacular play. Anything they get from him is gravy
— at least for a while.

“I’ve kind of accepted that I won’t have the speed I had before or be as mobile as I was before,” Yzerman said.

Which means Sergei Fedorov has to deliver on his desire to be the heavy lifter. Young Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have to grow into bigger roles. Old Igor Larionov and Luc Robitaille can’t shrink from theirs. The defense has to tighten up. And the goaltending has to scare people, and it’s nowhere near that now.

Will Yzerman be able to do all that? Of course not. But his very presence makes it seem more realistic. And that, in the winter of his career, is the Captain’s greatest contribution. Without a word, he makes his teammates realize the lyrics of a famous old song: The difficult, you do right now, the impossible, only takes a little while.

“Stevie When?” is “Stevie Y” again. The skeptics are shaken. The surgeons are baffled. The medical world says you don’t have this operation and return to chase a Stanley Cup.

But when doctors chart an osteotomy, the first thing they do is draw a line from the ankles to the hips. And that was their mistake.

With Yzerman, they should have drawn it to his heart.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. “The Mitch Albom Show” is 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). “Monday Sports Albom” is 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.

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