RED WINGS FACE A STARK DIVIDEYZERMAN CAUGHT ‘TWIXT RAGE, REASON

Steve Yzerman wanted to break something. He paced the locker room, while his sweat-drenched teammates slumped on their chairs, reeling from the evening’s defeat. Yzerman grabbed a glass and moved to a private area behind the showers. Now he was alone. He cocked the glass like a baseball pitcher —
“Throw it! Vent your anger!” the voices sang in his head — and he was about to smash it into a thousand pieces, when, suddenly, another voice inside whispered, “What good will that do? It won’t change things.”

And he froze.

Picture Yzerman this way, stuck between rage and reason, and you have an accurate look of the Wings’ captain right now. What is the man supposed to do?

Kick down the wall, or patch its cracks? They keep talking about his leadership, his leadership, but his team is one loss from elimination in the playoffs’ first round — the Grand Canyon couldn’t hold Detroit’s disappointment if that happens — and all Yzerman knows for sure is this: “If I score three goals and we win, they say that’s leadership. If I don’t and we lose, it wasn’t.”

He put the glass down. He went home.

What happens to a dream deferred, a poet once asked? Yzerman knows: It slowly drives you batty.

“We can’t lose! We can’t lose,” he repeated, as if chanting a mantra, before leaving for Game 6 of this tooth-gnashing series against Toronto. Every player feels defeat. But no player feels a Red Wing defeat more than Yzerman these days. For some unfair reason, his reputation is now intertwined with the club’s progress. And like a man being watched from a one- way mirror, he wonders if his moves are appropriate.

“Do I scream, cry, laugh, bang my head, what?” said Yzerman. “This is the strongest team I’ve ever been on. We screwed up. We should be ahead 3-2 now. But still. . . . “

He shook his head.

“Just once, I’d like to know how it feels to be champion. Not to be a winner — anyone can be a winner. You become a father; you get a good job; you raise a family — you’re a winner.

“But to be the best at something, once in a lifetime, you know? You want to be able to say you did it, and nobody can take it away from you.”

He paused. “Then you can relax.”

There is no relaxing in Yzerman these days. It’s as if a wasp flew into his ear and is rattling his brain. Are they right? Is he somehow responsible? After all, he hasn’t scored in the Wings’ three losses. And every time Detroit loses a playoff game, certain critics cluck their tongues and say Yzerman — who has only been the best hockey player around here for 10 years
— is not one of The Chosen Ones (i.e., Gretzky and Lemieux). He is not special enough to lead a team to a title.

Baloney. There is a myth in sports that one man can put a team on his back and carry it across the finish line. This is for people who believe in the tooth fairy. Leadership doesn’t come in a bottle that you pour on teammates’ heads. And Yzerman isn’t a puppeteer.

“If I thought going to every guy on the team and saying something would make a difference, I’d do it,” he says, “but it doesn’t work that way. I’ve spent a lot of time this year asking how other guys lead their teams. I asked about Wayne, about Mario, all of them. And the answers come back the same: They go out and play the game.

“That’s all I do.”

He drooped in his chair and sat quietly for a moment, his body swallowed by frustration. I know this: If the Wings ever do win a Stanley Cup, Yzerman will never stop sighing.

Late Tuesday night, after the overtime defeat by the Leafs, he drove home with a million questions in his head. He sat with his wife, Lisa, spouting his disbelief. And after she finally went to sleep, he stayed up until 5 a.m., looking at cable movies and trying to exorcise the demons. With the sun about to rise, he heard himself say, “Hey, there’s a Game 6. I gotta get ready.” And he crawled into bed.

Steve Yzerman is not Knute Rockne. He is not Mike Ditka. He is not Babe Ruth, pointing to the stands before hitting a home run. Steve Yzerman is the same decent, soft-spoken, wonderfully skilled fellow that he was the day he arrived in Detroit. The only difference is, back then, “forever” meant the time he had left to win a Stanley Cup. And now it means how long he has been waiting.

“There’s a stigma in hockey: ‘This guy never played on a Stanley Cup winner, and this guy did,’ ” Yzerman said. “Well, I’ve played with guys who won Stanley Cups. Some of them were great. And some of them weren’t. They didn’t have any magic.”

Right. Witches have magic. Fairies have magic. Hockey players have seven chances to win four games or they go home. Steve Yzerman can’t play goalie, or defense; he can’t call line changes or blow the whistle. “All I can do is what I know how to do,” he said.

And that’s all anyone should expect. Early Wednesday morning, on the flickering TV, Yzerman watched a film about a South African boy who fights apartheid. It had grand music and a tear-jerking climax and, naturally, the kid wins in the end. It was titled “The Power of One.”

If life were only a movie.

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