THE CAPTAIN’S TIME

He gets the best parking spot. That’s one perk. Over the years, he jokes, his space has moved “closer and closer” to the Joe Louis Arena door and now “I only get bumped for two people.”

“Mr. Ilitch being one?” I say.

“And his wife being the other,” he laughs.

Forget 23 years with the same team. How about 23 years in the same building? Steve Yzerman has been slogging the same commute to work since Ronald Reagan’s first term as president, driving in, heading toward the river, pulling in the corner lot. In that way, he is truly like the factory workers who so admire him. And after all these years, he is entitled to retire with benefits.

Instead, tonight, he begins one more quest for a perfect ending – not just to a season, but perhaps a career. We sit down to talk. There is much to talk about. There is much to put into perspective.

But wait. Here comes Gordie Howe. Carrying a small dog, he walks through the lounge where we are conversing. And suddenly, the two most famous figures in the history of Red Wings hockey are inches apart.

“Hi, Gordie.”

“Congratulations, Steve.”

“Thank you.”

“You got that old quickness back, huh?”

Yzerman laughs. “Some days. Some days.”

Howe moves closer.

“The cake is made,” he says, “now you gotta put on the icing.”

Thanks. I can go home now.

Taking nothing for granted

How much better perspective can you get than that? The cake is made? Now put on the icing? Doesn’t that apply not only to this season but to The Captain’s illustrious career as well? The cake has been his 23 years, three championships, 692 goals and immeasurable endurance. The icing would be a Stanley Cup over his head this June.

Because, let’s be honest, few of us expect to see Yzerman beyond that. At nearly 41, he is a monument to resiliency, but even he was a few breaths away from hanging it up this season. In November and December, he admits, “There were times when I was like, ‘What did I do here?’ … Games were going by. I felt terrible out there. … I’d get the puck and look up and I felt like I was playing against 10 guys.”

But, true to form, he willed things to change. Despite enough nagging injuries to slow an army, despite a knee that should have gotten out of the sports business a long time ago, Yzerman rallied to play better and better this season, urging himself to a level of excellence that is, if not his dream standard, at least acceptable.

And more than acceptable to anyone else.

Yzerman has had 14 points in the last 13 games. That’s giant-sized for a guy half his age. He now hunkers down to his favorite time of year, when, as he puts it, “it’s all sleeping, eating and playing.” And while he calls himself “not really” nostalgic (“just about my children”), there seems to be a heightened sense of appreciation this time.

Perhaps it was the lockout last year. Or maybe it was the ignoble ending two years ago against Calgary, when a puck hit his face, broke his orbital bone, almost blinded him and finished him for the playoffs.

“I really enjoy the atmosphere now, the tension, the emotional highs and lows” of the playoffs, he says. “That’s the thing that, ironically, as you get older, you get more comfortable with. You get less scared of it.”

You also stop taking it for granted.

A bygone era in Detroit

It wasn’t that way, of course, when a boyish, long-haired Yzerman was being scouted by the Red Wings in 1983 and he came to Detroit for just the second time in his life.

“Jimmy Devellano and Nick Polano, I think, took me around,” Yzerman recalls. “We toured the arena. I was kind of overwhelmed with such a big city. We went to a Tigers game. We ate at Joe Muer’s restaurant over on Gratiot.”

He shakes his head at the memory. Tiger Stadium is empty. The restaurant is gone. But Yzerman is still here, in his old building. Back then, he thought, the Wings would win Stanley Cups for sure, right away, lots of them. Instead, he went through a long drought of mediocre teams, some so bad they earned the nickname Dead Wings.

“Do you remember, when you first arrived, how old you thought a 40-year-old person was?” I ask.

“When I came in,” he says, smiling, “I thought John Ogrodnick was old – and I think he was 26! … Brad Park was 37 and I looked up to him as a kind of father figure.”

And now, with the younger Red Wings, I ask, do they see you that way?

“Oh, it’s like I’m ancient, yeah. They don’t want to go for dinner where I go to dinner. They don’t want to see the movies I want to see. … Music. They’re all into hip-hop and I just don’t get it.”

What music are you into?

He laughs. “The same music you’re into.”

And that’s the thing about Yzerman, isn’t it? The young fans admire him because he’s The Captain. The older fans admire him because he handles it with dignity. And people his own age admire him because he listens to their music – yet he’s still out there, banging with the kids. I mean, how do you not like a guy who moans of his young teammates: “They don’t even know who Led Zeppelin is.”

Changing with the times

Still, if there is one nuance to the big picture of Steve Yzerman, it is not his age, his statistics or even his celebrated leadership. It’s his adaptability. Many great players come down the pike, but they are often great only as long as they keep doing what they do.

Yzerman was drafted, in the early 1980s, as a playmaking center. He became a goal-scorer when the team needed offense, and he racked up big points for the next 10 years. In the middle ’90s he shifted under Scotty Bowman to a more defensive style. And as his knee injuries limited his cuts and turns, he became a stronger, grinding, offensive presence, more likely to poke in a goal than to speed-deliver one.

“I try to keep in straight lines now, let the puck do the work,” he says. “And there’s very little one-on-one stuff anymore. … It’s really just because of my knee, not age. Every now and then I’ll feel good and try to do something and it just ain’t happening. And I’ll realize, ‘Calm down a little bit.’ “

It is rare a player can handle that, much less thrive despite it. Yzerman has. You think of how many years he has not been the team leader in points, or goals, or assists or pure skill – and yet he has never not been the team leader.

And we won’t even mention going from an $8 million-a-year contract to a $1 million-a-year contract – willingly.

When his good-bye finally comes, alongside his lofty numbers, his team records and his championships, there ought to a photo of Steve Yzerman playing each of the different styles he has mastered in his time here.

You’d need a pretty big wall.

The next chapter

But that day is coming. If I had to guess, I’d say it is this year, although Yzerman, who has said he’s pretty certain of his plans, predictably doesn’t want to distract attention during the playoffs.

Still, he admits he and his wife, Lisa, have spoken about it. About where they would live. (Most likely staying here.) About what he would do next.

“Could you see yourself coaching?” I ask.

“Um, it’s becoming more intriguing than it ever was when I was younger. … Ten years ago, I said absolutely no way would I ever want to coach. But talking to Wayne (Gretzky), the one thing he said was this is as close as you can get to playing, knowing you can’t play anymore. And he likes the excitement of it. You win and you lose.

“I’ve always been more interested in the building of a team. But in the last couple of years …”

He shrugs, so you never know. But for now, the bench can wait, the front office can wait, and certainly the retirement celebration can wait. Yzerman knows there will be a fuss made if he calls it quits, and he is mature enough not to be falsely humble about it. Would he attend a celebration for himself? “Sure.” And if the Wings retired his No. 19 jersey? “Sure. That’s not something you say no to.”

“You might want to negotiate for that parking space,” I say.

“Yeah,” he laughs, “strike while the iron is hot.”

Which is what he and his team will try to do – starting tonight against the Edmonton Oilers. The Red Wings have long warned us that Steve Yzerman won’t always be around. But it’s like your parents warning you they won’t always be around, or your teachers warning that you won’t always have a summer vacation. You know, deep down, they’re right. But until it happens, you can’t really feel it. Twenty-three years in the same building? How does that stop?

It will stop soon enough. For now, The Captain is more interested in the last chapter than the epilogue.

“I was talking to Steve Duchesne,” Yzerman says. “He won the Stanley Cup in 2002 and that was the last game he ever played. … He has nothing but great memories of his career – just on the basis of how it ended. He’s a happy man. He left the game a happy man.”

He leans back. “I would love to retire that way.”

The cake is made. And where else but hockey can a captain go for icing?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

STEVE YZERMAN FILE

Job: Red Wings forward since 1983 and captain since 1986. He’s the longest-serving captain in NHL history.

Size: 5-feet-11, 185 pounds.

Born: May 9, 1965, at Cranbrook, British Columbia. Raised at Nepean, Ontario, a suburb of Ottawa.

Personal: Wife Lisa and daughters Isabella, Maria and Sophia.

Statistics: Scored at least 60 goals twice and 50 three other times. Eighth with 692 career goals. Seventh with 1,063 assists. Tenth player to reach 1,500 games. This season: 14 goals, 20 assists, 34 points, plus-8 rating in 61 games.

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