From the day he was drafted, a shaggy haired kid with a soft, nervous voice, he promised to do his best, even though, as he warned a TV interviewer, he sometimes tried to do too much. Who knew that sentence would be an understatement? He did so much for his team and his town that in time it became immeasurable – and impossible to reproduce. Steve Yzerman, the man, will get up today as a retired hockey player and go on with his life.
But Steve Yzerman, the idea, is likely gone for good.
Captain Forever has hung up his skates, officially now, after months of speculation, and we will not see the likes of him again: A guy who plays more than two decades in one city, who leads the team practically the entire time, who comes to embody the uniform, the building, the halls, the very ice itself. It is no lie to say his face could have been imprinted on our city limits, and his jersey has been worn by more Detroiters than any shirt, shoe or tie. If you live in this town you know where you were when Steve Yzerman hoisted that first Stanley Cup over his head at center ice, flashing the gap in his teeth. You remember him waving in the parade car. And it didn’t matter where you were Monday afternoon – at work, at home, Up North for the Fourth of July holiday, even overseas (as I am while writing this column) – when you heard the news, it hit you the same way.
The Red Wings actually will take the ice this fall without No. 19. He won’t be injured. He won’t be on his way back.
He’ll be watching, like the rest of us.
Captain Forever skates no more.
Plenty of awards, too many injuries
“I almost feel like a little boy trying to please his parents every time I step on the ice the way the fans here support the team,” he said at a Joe Louis Arena news conference.
And that is an apt description for how those fans feel today: like their little boy has grown up, moved out, taken that job that really, truly, moves him out of the house.
But let us be careful here. Steve Yzerman did not stop living. He just stopped playing. And this should be a celebration, not a memorial. He came into the game with a dream of being the best, and he leaves the game not over drama, age, contracts, money, management or even the old chestnut “I want to spend more time with my family.”
He leaves the game because of the same reason he got into it, the dream of being the best. That dream, on the ice, is finally, sadly, no longer realistic.
He said so Monday. He said he questioned his ability to do what he always had done. Too many injuries. Too many miles. He said he had become “a part-time player.” Analysts have said similar things, but true warrior athletes never hear any voices but their own.
When that voice speaks, they listen.
Captain Forever skates no more.
So Yzerman, after 22 seasons, three Stanley Cups, 10 All-Star teams, one Olympic gold medal, countless swooning females, endless beer-bellied supporters, and more surgeries and rehabs than any man should have to endure, made his announcement with the people who brought him to this city around him: Mike Ilitch, the owner, and Jimmy Devellano, who drafted him in 1983.
But there were other things around him, too, in the air, over his shoulder, between his words, dodging his gestures, the spray of memories and stories that his name instantly stirs up for any fan of this team or this beautiful game of hockey.
Here are a few of mine:
The early exits, the ultimate glory
There’s Steve Yzerman on an early morning in the late 1980s, heading to his car at the airport, after the upstart Wings lost the conference finals to the then mighty Edmonton Oilers. “They’re not so tough,” young Yzerman says, his eyes on the future.
There’s Steve Yzerman racking up huge numbers, scoring like a machine, being hailed as one of the top three players of his time – and his time includes Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux – yet here he is being sent to the penalty box, cursing, then spotting a female Free Press photographer who is sitting nearby. “Sorry, Mary,” he mumbles.
There’s Steve Yzerman consulting with Jacques Demers, who loves him, and Bryan Murray, who loves him, and Scotty Bowman, who loves him, and Dave Lewis, who loves him, and Mike Babcock, who can’t help but love him, too.
There’s Steve Yzerman slamming into a goal post, being helped off the ice. There’s Yzerman going down as if shot, a puck having missed his eye by millimeters.
There’s Steve Yzerman getting married. There he is having his first child, a girl, and his second, a girl, and his third, a girl. There he is with long hair, with shorter hair, with thinning hair. There he is with a black eye, with stitched lips, with new scars on his Johnny Depp face.
There he is spring after lonely spring, in the losers’ locker room, going home too early, sweating through a black polo shirt one year, a checkered sports coat another year – why can I remember these details? – explaining why his team lost too soon, too early, what went wrong, speaking somberly, blankly, wondering if he’s ever going to win a championship.
And there he is winning that championship in 1997, soaked in champagne in the steaming, packed Joe Louis Arena locker room, hugging everybody, smiling at everything, croaking a sentence that revealed all he had hidden all those empty years. His voice is raspy. He seems near tears. “They always say, He’s a good player but he didn’t win it.’ And now they can’t say that anymore.”
He looks in our eyes. “No matter what, they can’t say it, you know?”
We knew. He knew. The world knew.
At that moment, you really did believe Captain Forever could live up to the name.
The right man, the right city
But men age, skates dull, time passes and decisions are made. This is the right one. The fact is, fans had wondered if Yzerman might call it quits as early as 2002, after his last Stanley Cup. Many close to him thought he might leave after the 2004 season, what with his eye injury and the labor stoppage that followed.
Yes, we saw a surge of the old Yzerman down the home stretch of this season, as he approached his 41st birthday. And yes, for the bleak one round of playoffs, he was the Wings’ gutsiest – if not their best – player.
But it was painful for him to go out there and it was becoming painful to watch – at least for those who loved his legend and wanted it unscratched. His right knee is beyond bad. You swear it only works because it must be connected to his heart.
So he pulls off the sweater and they take the name off his locker and they retire his number and anything else they can think of. Yzerman has never been into that stuff. Outsiders may not understand why Detroit had such an infatuation with this guy, but it’s because he symbolizes the way we feel, the way we approach things, and the way we dream. He was a hockey player, not the biggest of sports, and he was 5-feet-11, not the biggest of guys, and he played in Detroit, not the biggest of cities.
But he dreamed big. And he never stopped trying. And he never lost his humility. And finally, 14 years after he joined his company, at an age when other guys already have given it up, he saw his big dream come true.
And that’s what we want for ourselves. That’s what working class people fantasize when they drop their heads on the pillow: a chance for it all to come true. It is the reason why there have been and will be many athletes in Detroit who will be called “Captain.” But only one will get a “The” in front.
And that’s the difference.
That’s all the difference.
“I did the best I could,” he said Monday. This was his humble summation, and it was pretty much what he promised when he came here. So in the end, Steve Yzerman is, above all things, a man of his word, and his word was good and he was good and the idea of him was good. Better than good. It was the best of ideas, when you think about it, one man in one place for one team in one city, saying good-bye and witnessing, in return, a sea of admirers in a farewell salute, worthy of a captain.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. “The Mitch Albom Show” is 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). “Monday Sports Albom” is 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.