Steve Yzerman is on the phone, and I can hear his wife and his daughters and a barking dog in the background. It’s a domestic life for Yzerman now, as it is for most NHL players. But most of them aren’t wondering if the situation is about to become permanent.
“I certainly don’t see myself sitting out another year and a half and then trying to come back,” says the Red Wings’ longtime captain. “I pretty much know what I want to do if we don’t get back this year.
“I have to face the possibility that my career might have already ended. If I make that decision, I’d probably come out and just say it. I get asked almost every day: Are you going to play? Are you going to play?’ I wouldn’t want that going on all that time.”
So Yzerman, who turns 40 this year, has more hanging on the next few days than most players do. There was a small flare-up in the labor talks this week, a few long, if lower-level, meetings. But both sides acknowledge they are at a tipping point, and if there’s no handshake in the next week or so, there is not only no NHL this season, but a crater in next season, too.
You can talk all day about who’s right and who’s wrong; years from now, it’s just a boring footnote. Nobody remembers labor agreements. What they remember are players, and players’ moments. And the biggest shame of this drawn-out mess is that players like Yzerman become books with missing pages.
In Yzerman’s case, he’ll be missing the end.
Can he see writing on the wall?
“I wanted to come back and redeem myself,” he says.
Redeem yourself? With the career you’ve had?
“Well, maybe for my own psyche. Maybe just so I’m satisfied. I was disappointed with the way I finished.”
That finish, you’ll recall, came during the playoffs last May, with Yzerman going down as if shot by a sniper, then scrambling to his feet, then going down again, his legs shaking. He had taken a puck to the orbital bone around his left eye, and for a few scary hours, no one was sure whether he would see again, much less play hockey.
Well, he can see now. He can see the puck, and he can see the ice. He’s still deciding about the writing on the wall.
“I definitely wondered if it was a sign, an omen that I shouldn’t try to keep playing,” he says. Although his vision has returned, he admits to having trouble when bright headlights shine his way -“I see halos”- and he suffers discomfort from slight nerve damage.
Still, if they lifted the curtain right now, he would come out. He says he thinks something still might happen, and his voice rises at the possibility. “We’d need a few weeks to get players back from Europe, or for teams to get their rosters together because so many players are free agents,” he says. “I don’t see us starting any sooner than Feb. 10 and maybe playing a 36-game schedule. You could play your own division teams four times and everyone else twice, and that makes 36 games, so it works out.”
He stops and laughs. “I was thinking about this earlier. I’m not that smart.”
Like Edison scribbling on napkin
You hear Yzerman sketch out a possible solution and you can’t help it, you want to believe him, you want to believe you’re watching Edison scribble on a napkin.
But Yzerman is not negotiating this deal. The owners want a hard salary cap; the players can’t believe they were snubbed after offering a 24 percent pay cut. And the clock ticks like a bass drum.
“This is my third labor stoppage, so I’ve learned a few things,” Yzerman says, “and I’m not surprised it’s taken this long because these things are always about deadlines and pressure points.
“But to not play at all? I just think the fallout would be so drastic, the sport would lose so much that it’s not worth the trade-off.”
Yzerman envisions an agreement in which the early stages are a luxury tax system and, if that doesn’t achieve the desired goal, then a shift to a salary cap. He admits that the Red Wings’ days of buying the best players would be over, but he says they would rely more on their scouting, “which has been very good, too.”
Fine, fine, fans seem to say. We’ll take that. We’ll take whatever. Mostly, we’ll take an NHL of any kind, before the lockout steals the only thing it hasn’t already stolen from the 2004-05 season: a story to tell about it.
Yzerman, for one, deserves that story. He deserves the shy wave, the send-off, the standing ovation that children can remember and can one day tell their own children. He deserves to say good-bye on the ice. But in order to do that, someone has to say hello to it first.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit with Albom from 2-3 p.m. today at the Free Press booth at the North American Auto Show. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays and “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR-AM (760).