My biggest fear about Steve Yzerman is that success will one day grab him by the neck and say, “Look, kid, wake up! You’re a star! Stop treating people so nicely!”
It could happen. Plenty of athletes begin as humble men and wind up burping champagne. And you know what? They get away with it. There is no stardom quite like sports stardom in America; men and women fawn over you.
It is tough to fawn over Yzerman. He likes to hide in the woods of normality. Last week I called him up. I said, “What are you doing?” He said,
“Nothing. My fiancee is at a Tupperware party.”
A Tupperware party?
He made a commercial for Ford recently. Didn’t use an agent. Just went in, heard the offer, and accepted it. “Well, it’s not like I’d won any Oscars,” Yzerman says. “I couldn’t really demand anything.”
On Monday he eclipsed a Detroit hockey record held by the great Gordie Howe — most consecutive games with at least one goal. (Yzerman has nine, a mark he hopes to embellish tonight against Toronto.)
So I ask whether he has ever met the big man.
“A couple of times,” he says. “He always seems to come over and say hi.”
“Couldn’t you just say hello first?”
His eyes bulge.
“No way. I would never just go up to Gordie Howe out of the blue.”
“Because he’s Gordie Howe. What am I gonna say, ‘Hey, Gordie. How’s it goin’?’ ”
“Well, don’t you think you’ve reached that point?”
He shakes his head.
“I’ll never reach that point.”
Now. Remember. This is not Butch Deadmarsh talking. This is a guy who many believe is the third-best player in the NHL, behind only Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux This is the captain of the Red Wings, an All-Star, a skating wizard who is hockey’s answer to the deer: graceful, elusive and smart. He has 28 goals in the first 27 games this season, mountains of assists, his passing is deft, his aim is true, he is arguably the most popular athlete in Detroit — Yzerman, Isiah, or Trammell, toss it up — and is certainly the most unanimously well-liked. The other night he went to a Stevie Wonder concert. They could have called it: “Stevie Wonder meets Stevie Wonderful.”
And he’s embarrassed to say hello to Gordie Howe?
You’ll never last.
And yet . . . well, who knows? Maybe we tapped into the real thing here. Talent and humility in one handsome package? You can fish around all you like, this guy will almost never praise himself. Toss his name in with Gretzky’s, and he shivers.
“There’s no comparison between Gretzky and me,” Yzerman says, sitting in his West Bloomfield apartment Wednesday afternoon. “He’s done it all. Won Stanley Cups, won scoring championships. . . . These people who compare us, or say he and Mario and I are 1-2-3, it’s so unfair to guys like Mark Messier, Dale Hawerchuk, Ray Bourque. You can’t compare. . . .
“And Gordie Howe? No way. I was looking at some of his records the other day. He’s got marks that will last forever. He played with a dynasty. If we ever become a dynasty, a lot of other guys will be breaking records, too.”
He crosses his legs and folds his hands — and he looks as if he’s 15 years old, waiting for Mom to drive him to practice. Most people see Yzerman only on the ice, when he’s sweaty and his hair is wet and his sparse whiskers suggest at least a little ruggedness.
See him at home sometime. I bet he gets carded at PG movies.
All of which makes his maturity a surprise. And know this: He is as mature as they come. Not just hockey-wise. Business- wise. Life-wise. And he’s only 23. You look at him and you say, “Geez, the guy belongs in high school.” You listen to him, and you say, “Geez, the guy belongs in office.”
Did you know that Steve Yzerman is studying to be a financial analyst? Yep. He’s taking a course with Shearson Lehman Brothers. “I don’t want to be the typical dumb athlete,” he says. “I mean, I’d like to have something to talk about other than hockey.”
He also plans to be married, next year, to his longtime girlfriend, Lisa Brennan. They have a date all set. Now. I don’t want to say he’s passing up opportunities here. But if you put Steve Yzerman in a nightclub and told Detroit women he was there, we might never see him again.
“I know what I want from life,” he says, shrugging, when asked about his adoring female fans. “Lisa was with me long before things got going good. And she’ll be with me long after.
“Usually when we go out, I try to let it be known that I’m with her. Sometimes people will come over anyhow.”
He laughs. “If I forget to introduce her, she kicks me in the shins.”
Like most captains, Yzerman has learned to straddle the team’s needs with the needs of the public. That is not surprising. What is surprising is that he learned it so fast. What can rattle Steve Yzerman now? When a horrible knee injury ended his regular season last season, there were whispers; some said he would never be the same.
“I’ll be back,” he promised, and left it at that.
During the recent escapades of Bob Probert and Petr Klima, he was not shy with his criticism, nor did he play St. Steven with the press. “I think we’ve
all talked enough about it,” he said, when it seemed, indeed, we had.
Most athletes treat responsibility the way a vampire treats a cross. Yet in the four years I have known him, I have seen Yzerman agree to do one of those silly playoff “diaries” for a newspaper — then insist that he write it himself. I have seen him wandering around the Windsor airport parking lot in the wee hours of the morning, making sure his teammates all had rides home.
The other night on WLLZ-FM, hockey analyst Don Cherry rated Yzerman just behind Gretzky and Lemieux in talent. “But you know,” he added, “if you ask players around the league, Yzerman is the one they’d most like to sit and have beer with. He’s the most regular guy of the three.”
And then there is this story. I heard it from Mary Schroeder, a wonderful photographer for our newspaper, who sits near the penalty box at Joe Louis Arena. Whenever Yzerman gets called for a penalty, he enters the box, cursing like a sailor.
Then he sees her.
“Sorry, Mary,” he always says.
And he sits down.
Now, OK. Before we put a halo around his head, let us point out that, yes,
Yzerman is sometimes so low-key, he sounds like part of SCTV’s “Great White North” show. (“Have a sandwich, eh? OK, eh? Good, eh?”) And he is not without his moods, his temper, his pet peeves.
But we are talking about a guy here who could become legendary. He may become this era’s Gordie Howe. He is already the star on a team that is on the lip of excellence. He is only 23. Detroit is a hockey town, and when the team goes good, the good are canonized.
His contract has become an issue lately, because he earns only $385,000 annually, while Lemieux and Gretzky now earn around $2 million. His response? It will be taken care of. Why debate it in the press? “It seems like so many contracts become controversial. I don’t see why they can’t be harmonious, all parties getting along.”
Geez. What planet did this guy come from?
Who knows? Maybe the Bobby Knights and Joaquin Andujars and Jim McMahons have ruined us. Maybe you get a humble guy who just wants to play and do well and marry his high school sweetheart and you immediately grow suspicious. It’s getting dangerous to write anything too complimentary about athletes these days. As soon as the story hits the newsstands, the guy gets arrested.
I don’t think that will happen with Steve Yzerman. Call it a hunch. Call it blind faith. There is now at least one part of the Red Wings’ history book that reads: 1. Yzerman 2. Howe. . . . And I suspect it won’t be the last.
Still, I could be wrong. . . .
“Are you comfortable with your image now?” I ask.
“Um. . . . I don’t know what it is,” he says.
I’m not wrong.