EDMONTON, Alberta — The man who might make a difference was sitting high above the action Thursday night, in a concrete catwalk that hung over the ice like heaven’s terrace. Steve Yzerman wore no skates. He was dressed, as he has been for the last nine weeks, in street clothes, a blue blazer, powder blue shirt, gray slacks.
“How much do you miss what’s happening down there?” he was asked, as the Red Wings skated against the Edmonton Oilers in Game 2 of this Campbell Conference final.
“I’m lost,” he said, sighing. “That’s the best way to put it. I’m a hockey player and I’m not playing hockey. I’m lost.”
Steve Yzerman wants back in. His team is depleted. Across the scaffold, also in street clothes, sat Petr Klima, Shawn Burr, Gilbert Delorme, Joey Kocur. All casualties of the playoff war. Before the night was over, goalie Greg Stefan would take a hit behind the net and have to be helped off. The Wings are going down faster than they can get back up, and against Edmonton, whoa, boy, you want extra supplies, not less.
“I was hoping to play tonight,” said Yzerman, who skated warm-ups for the first time since suffering torn ligaments in his right knee March 1. “I asked
(coach) Jacques (Demers) but he said, no, not tonight. I can usually read his face and see if there’s room to negotiate. I got the ‘definitely not’ look this time.”
So he sat, for one more night, observing the action he so dearly wanted to be a part of. This could be the last time. The signs are good that Yzerman will appear Saturday in Game 3, if only in limited action, and sitting alongside him on that distant ramp, you had to hope so, because this is no place for a man of action. No place at all.
“Look,” he said suddenly, as the Wings came down the ice and Bob Probert wrestled the puck away from two Oilers and whacked it out front. “Here it comes. . . . ”
A split-second later, John Chabot whacked it in. Goal.
“Yah!’ whispered Yzerman, shaking a fist. Then he nodded slowly, and slid back into his chair, which seemed to be holding him prisoner.
Try to understand this situation. Yzerman says he is able to skate. He says he is able to play. The cautious warn: “Don’t play him. Don’t risk the future of the star player.” But anyone who has ever made his living at sports will tell you that not playing is far worse than staying home from the office because you’re ill. It’s like being locked out of your family.
“You’re not really a part of things,” Yzerman said as he leaned on the railing, his eyes following the action at all times. “Like when they celebrated the Norris Division win (over St. Louis) they all came off the ice cheering and yelling and you’re standing there clapping in the hallway trying not to get your toes stepped on. . . . ”
“It’s not the same as taking part.”
Yzerman wants to play part of this series against Edmonton not only because he feels the season fading away from him (“at the most, if everything went seven games, I’d only play 12 more games, right?”) but because he feels he can contribute. Maybe not the way he did. Maybe not the whole way back. But something. An athlete wants to do something.
Here is about the most sensitive, mature, unselfish superstar you are likely to find. He feels awkward when his name is mentioned all the time during these playoffs. When’s he coming back? Will he come back? Should he come back? Let me come back, he says, and all the questions will end.
“Shoot it!” he said, rising suddenly as Mel Bridgman came down the ice. No shot came. He sat back down.
At first, Yzerman watched games from owner Mike Ilitch’s box at Joe Louis Arena. Then he took to watching them in the Wings’ locker room on the TV set. Then up in the press box.
No place was good.
“It’s getting harder as it goes along,” he admitted, his arms folded on the railing. “The more I feel I can play the harder it is to watch.”
The defeats are hard to watch. The injuries are hard to watch. When Stefan took a hit from Craig Simpson early in the second period and went down, Yzerman watched silently as the team trainer ran out on the ice. The other Wings leaned over the boards. Stefan was not moving.
“What do you think when you see something like that?” he was asked.
“I see now how delicate an athlete’s career is,” he said. “One minute you’re standing up, next minute you’re being helped off just like that.”
How well he knows it. It has been more than two months for the Wings’ captain. He still has to try to block out the vision of his own setback, a horrible slide into the net that left him limp, carried off by his teammates, his face a vision of agony.
“I saw it like 30 times that night on the hospital TV. After the first few days all I could think of was, why did you go to the net? You should have put on the brakes and passed it off. I’ve asked myself that 1,000 times.
“It’s funny. You figure if you’re gonna get hurt it’ll be after you go through three guys and score a goal and then somebody hip-checks you hard into the wall. But all I did was slide into the net. Not exactly a heroic way to go out.”
Yzerman watched the game the rest of the night. He smiled with his teammates as the Wings pulled ahead, 3-1. He cringed when Edmonton came back with three quick goals early in the final period. He stood silent, finally, when the game ended, lost on 10 bad minutes of play, and some rookie mistakes — rookies who are in the lineup because of injuries to the regular players. Yzerman says he does not see himself out on the ice when he watches, does not say “I would have done this or that,” but you know he is thinking action.
“Hey Stevie,” Burr yelled when the Wings had seemed comfortably ahead.
“They look pretty good. I guess they don’t need me.”
Yzerman smiled. “They haven’t needed me in two months,” he said softly.
Not true. They have needed him. They have wanted him. But this is not a completely healthy Steve Yzerman. He does not look fast in practice, he does not claim to have all his movement back. But he is hungry, the Wings are skating for their lives, and every instinct, every fiber, every chord in this guy’s heart says, “No more spectator. Enough.”
How can you not feel for somebody like that?
The decision is someone else’s. The future is a question mark. Steve Yzerman shook his neck and fidgeted with his collar. The waiting, as always, is the hardest part.