CHICAGO — When the moment comes, he should be out there. Whenever the Red Wings jump into that glorious pile at center ice, hugging and pounding each other’s helmets and yelling, “Finals, baby! We’re going to the finals!”
— he should be right in the middle of it. Tonight, or Sunday, or whenever. He has earned this. He is the captain.

Instead, he spends the morning on an exercise bike in an Ontario Street health club, where women in leotards are taking aerobic classes and men in colored sweats are struggling on the StairMasters. None of them even notices Steve Yzerman. He pedals and he zones out — “I’m like a zombie,” he says — trying yet again to drag his body up to performance level.

Most professional athletes will tell you the first time you make the championships, the first time you chin up over the bar and see what you’ve been missing, is one of the indelible moments in your career. You remember it when you’re 80.

“I’ve thought about that moment a lot,” Yzerman says. “I really want to be a part of it.”

He allows a small laugh.

“I’ve always wanted to be a part of it.”

It is hours before the Red Wings’ practice. Yzerman, who has been out since the previous round of the playoffs, is already in the locker room at the United Center, trying different pads for his knee, bracing them around the sore spot. He has a decision to make, he and Scotty Bowman: go for common sense, or go for the dream? Common sense would say the captain is too valuable to risk injury when the Wings lead this conference championship series, 3-0. Rest him. It’s not crucial. Better to have him completely healthy for the finals, right?

Ah, but the dream. The dream says Steve Yzerman has been here 12 seasons, longer than any of his teammates. He has been through every lousy coach-changing, player-trading, headline- making maneuver this franchise has made. He has been patient and polite — even in years when the Wings collapsed in the playoffs, or missed them altogether. Now, for the first time in three decades, they are about to enter the Promised Land. How can he not be out there?

Yzerman thinks, purses his lips, and does what he often does in situations like this. He shrugs. If not on ice, Yzerman’s out of place

“It’s been strange watching these games,” he admits, adjusting the pads on the right knee that he injured 12 days ago. “The first night, I was watching at Joe Louis in the locker room, and I had just finished working out, and, in between regulation and overtime, I got some pizza. I had just bit into a slice when Nick (Lidstrom) made that shot. Everyone came running in, and I was spitting pizza all over the place.”

The second game he watched from the press box — “to get a better view.” He was dressed in a suit, and by the time he got downstairs, the team was again celebrating. He looked a little distanced, and no doubt he felt it, too.

On Tuesday night, here in Chicago, he watched from a booth, and he kept rising with each of the Wings’ dramatic chances. When Vladimir Konstantinov fluttered the puck past Ed Belfour in the second overtime, Yzerman pumped a fist and jumped.

“For you, that’s pretty emotional,” I say.

He smiles. “Believe me, I was very happy inside.”

Still, players don’t live on the inside, they live on the outside, in the sweat and heat and action. Yzerman wants to feel that. He is tired of always being the injury story. He is tired of “When will you practice? When will you play?” He is tired of the hyperbaric chamber.

He was playing great when he got hurt. Now he fights not to jump out of his skin when the Wings score. If his Detroit career has taught him anything — and remember, it spans Nick Polano, Harry Neale, Brad Park, Jacques Demers, Bryan Murray and Scotty Bowman — it’s this: patience. A cup of wisdom from Coffey

“I guess I always thought I’d get to a Stanley Cup final,” says the 30-year-old center who, once upon a time, was the fourth pick in the NHL draft. “But to be honest, I didn’t know if it would be here.”

Two years ago he was so tired of season-ending disappointments and nasty rumors he actually thought of asking for a trade rather than worrying about it.

“I never did it. I went to (Paul) Coffey and talked to him. He said,
‘Don’t force anything. Let it be. Things usually work out better that way.’ “

Yzerman listened. He cares about this team, even more than he shows. He no longer swallows his words, but he still chooses them carefully. He still wears his stardom like a stiff new suit that makes him squirm. Once he was the only All-Star the Wings had. Now he’s part of a glittering cast.

That’s fine. All he wants is to be part of what he has watched contemporaries like Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Mark Messier be a part of, year after year, summer after summer. He wants that moment. He speaks for both his team and his city when he says, “We’ve stumbled and taken so many hits. It’s great that we’re getting some respect.”

He should be out there. Shouldn’t he? Not eating pizza, not shuffling his feet in dress shoes. Out there. Scotty Bowman and staff, naturally, will not take any foolish chances. Neither will the captain.

But a voice inside tells me tonight could be a truly big night in Red Wings history. And if Steve Yzerman isn’t in the middle of the pile, loosing himself in laughter, something will truly be missing.

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