Steve Yzerman looks like hell. Or as much as a heartthrob can look like hell. The left side of his face has a red mark from forehead to chin — “a glove cut,” he says — and his pouty upper lip still has the vertical scar from 30 stitches, turning it purple and slightly swollen. His knees are both in the danger zone, one from an old injury and one from the newest injury, suffered two weeks ago — the one the Wings are so hush-hush about, but which, I can tell you, is the medial ligament of what used to be his “good” knee — and, given its severity, most people wouldn’t even think jogging, let alone ice hockey.
Yzerman is not most people. He has spare tanks of courage and a shrinking supply of patience. He been playing this game professionally for 10 years, has been one of its superstars, certainly as much as a Charles Barkley or Patrick Ewing has been an NBA superstar, and yet, every spring, here he is, in a fight for his playoff life — just to get out of the first round.
“I was thinking the other day about 1987, when we went to the semifinals against Edmonton,” Yzerman says, sitting in a sweatshirt and a baseball cap after Friday’s practice. “I look around this room and there are so few guys left. There’s Shawn Burr, Probie (Bob Probert), Steve Chiasson and me.
“But the thing I remember most is that we were playing one night, and we were the only game you could watch on TV. America or Canada. Only four teams were left in the playoffs, and that night was our game. All of hockey was watching us.
“That was such a great feeling.”
He looks down, perhaps realizing that the highlight of his career was a semifinal that ended in defeat. And any sports fan has to feel for the guy. Unknown character
Steve Yzerman doesn’t need my sympathy, yours either, but talk to him for a while and you find yourself wanting to help, the way you help a bright kid who needs a college scholarship, or an innocent motorist broken down on the highway.
Yzerman, too, seems stranded on the highway. For much of his career, he was lumped with Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux as the league’s top three players. But Gretzky and Lemieux have tasted champagne from the Stanley Cup, more than once, and now Gretzky is about finished, and Lemieux is talking retirement. Meanwhile, Yzerman, who turns 29 next month, says, “They can retire, because they’ve already accomplished what they want. I’m still chasing my dream.”
Then, as if self-conscious about that last sentence, he adds, “Besides, I’ve got nothing else to do.”
That’s a lie. He has plenty else to do. For one thing, Steve Yzerman is now a father. He became one about nine weeks ago. He and his wife, Lisa, have discovered all the joys of parenthood, the crying, the middle-of-the-night feedings, but also the extra pair of eyes that now await them. Yzerman admits he thinks “about going home all the time now, just to see my daughter.” It’s the kind of statement you expect from the man.
And not the kind he wants printed. I’m sure Yzerman would prefer a column about his still-sharp hockey skills, or better yet, something about the team. Talk hockey, he’ll say.
But the simple fact is, a lot of people can skate and shoot. What Yzerman has done — play at All-Star caliber, season after season, drag himself through countless injuries, lead the team through quiet example, never bitch about money, never hear a teammate knock him, throw himself into every night of icy warfare and still have to stand there, after the last game of the year, explaining in that muted voice what went wrong, why they lost — well, it shows something more than skill. It shows character.
Detroit knows this.
The shame is, most of the nation does not. Will his time ever come?
In 1983, when Yzerman first joined the Red Wings, “the older guys were Ron Duguay, Brad Park, Johnny Ogrodnick, they were 27, 28, they had families, I remember being really intimidated.
“Now I’m that age. I have a family. I’m like the old man. But the funny thing is, I don’t feel any different.”
Here’s my theory: Your dreams keep you young. Yzerman’s dreams remain unfulfilled, hockey-wise, so he keeps pushing back the end of his rainbow.
And he keeps fighting to get there. You knew the guy would drag himself back from this most-recent injury, the way he’s dragged himself back so many times before. And he’ll be out there tonight, with the “C” on his sweater, trying yet again to push Detroit hockey into May.
Still, all these early exits during his prime years have torn away at his insides. Last summer, after the first-round loss to Toronto and the return of the nagging trade rumors, something snapped.
“I just decided the hell with all this worrying that I’ll never get my chance. I can’t do it anymore. It’s so tiring.
“I decided I’ll try to be a good player, a good person, and good things should happen. I tell myself I have lots of hockey left. That’s how I live with it.”
As a sportswriter, you don’t root. Rules of the job. Still, there is one scene I would like to see before I’m done. That scene is Steve Yzerman, after the last game of the season, his mouth open wide in euphoria, instead of explanation as to what went wrong.
It’s every hockey player’s dream, I know, and few get to see it. But when you try it out on Yzerman, after all those years and all these scars, it doesn’t seem that much to ask. It really doesn’t.