You want to know my biggest fear about Steve Yzerman? 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 humble and wind up haughty. It’s easy when the whole city is fawning over you.
And yet 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 is at nine and counting.
I ask whether he has ever met Howe.
“A couple of times,” he says. “He’ll 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. Whoa. 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
— humility and talent in one handsome package. For years, Yzerman has been referred to as “Detroit’s rising star.” But he is the hottest scorer in hockey right now. He was NHL player of the month in November. He breaks a Gordie Howe record. Perhaps we should take a hint.
Perhaps he has arrived for good. Top of the heap — Gretzky, Lemieux, Yzerman.
Just don’t tell him that.
“There’s no comparison between Wayne Gretzky and me,” Yzerman says, sitting in his West Bloomfield apartment Wednesday afternoon, his voice, as always, soft and unassuming. “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. Amazing. 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 winter, there were whispers; some said he would never be the same.
“I’ll be back,” he promised, and he delivered.
During the recent escapades of Bob Probert and Petr Klima, he was not shy with criticism of his teammates. Nor did he play St. Steven in the media. “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 our 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 up there with 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 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. He is mortal. The knee injury still bothers him, he can’t sprint without pain, and squatting is pretty much out; it hurts too much.
But we are talking about a guy here who could become legendary. He could become (gulp) this era’s Gordie Howe. He is already the star on a team that is on the lip of excellence. And he is only 23. Detroit is a hockey town. When the team goes good, the good are canonized.
And he is on his way. Quietly. Humbly. His contract has become an issue lately, because he earns only $385,000 annually, while Lemieux and Gretzky now earn about $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.”
What planet did this guy come from?
And are there any more like him? I keep worrying that one day soon I’ll walk into the Wings’ locker room and Yzerman will be wearing sunglasses, flanked by a bodyguard and a personal secretary. “No time to talk today, babe,” he’ll say, checking his hair in the mirror. “Maybe next week.”
Who knows? It could be that 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. Write something complimentary about an athlete these days. Next thing you know, the guy gets arrested.
But 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.
YZERMAN VS. THE NHL ELITE Steve Yzerman, Wings center
* PERSONAL: Born May 9, 1965, at Cranbrook, British Columbia; lives in West Bloomfield. Engaged to marry Lisa Brennan next summer.
* CONTRACT: Earning $385,000 in the fourth year of a seven-year contract, but Wings plan to renegotiate at the end of the season.
Wayne Gretzky, Kings center
* PERSONAL: Jan. 26, 1961, at Brantford, Ontario; lives in Los Angeles. Married actress Janet Jones on July 16.
* CONTRACT: Signed eight-year, $20 million contract after trade to LA.
Mario Lemieux, Penguins center
* PERSONAL: Born Oct. 5, 1965, at Montreal; lives in Pittsburgh. Single.
* CONTRACT: Renegotiated and signed one-year, $2 million deal.
Yzerman Gretzky Lemieux Goals 28 22 25 Assists 25 44 44 Percentage of teams’ goals 25.5 14.5 19.4 Percentage of team’s goals
scored or assisted 48.2 43.4 53.5 CUTLINE: Steve Yzerman (above right) is a study in concentration as the Islanders’ Pat LaFontaine pursues. Below, he looks much the part of the financial analyst he is studying to be. “I don’t want to be the typical dumb athlete,” he says.