Now it’s Steve Yzerman’s turn to speak. He has heard all the rumors. He heard them this week and last week and two weeks before that while he was on vacation in Ottawa. Every time the phone rang, it was another voice from Detroit. Boy, they said, are you in hot water. Boy, they said, you better prepare to defend yourself. And his reaction was: “Defend myself from what?”
In his mind, he had done nothing, this was a business decision made by the businessmen who run the hockey team. And yet people whispered that it was Yzerman, the heroic young captain, who really got poor Jacques Demers fired as coach of the Red Wings. “Yzerman talked to Mike Ilitch. He stabbed Jacques in the back.” It didn’t help that, while other players were stopping by Demers’ home to express their sympathy, Yzerman could not be reached. He didn’t even call the coach, which only pumped more blood into the rumors.
Yet Yzerman knew what was going on. He says now he was going to call Demers three days after the firing. But after hearing the rumors, and figuring Demers was helping to spread them, he got mad and waited a week, until he returned to Detroit. By that point, the heat had died down. When the two finally spoke, there were no hard feelings. At least none were expressed. Both agreed it was an unforgiving business they had chosen, be good or be gone. They hung up on peaceful terms. The healing had begun. Love doesn’t erase last place
But the explanations, at least from Yzerman, are just now coming out. Like about that meeting: “It was in April, I had a little contract thing to talk about with Mr. Ilitch. After that, we talked some hockey. But he never asked me any questions. He never said, ‘Do you think Jacques should stay or go?’ He never said, ‘What do you think of Jacques as a coach?’ People just assume that. They see me talking to Mr. Ilitch on the street, and they say, ‘Oh, look at Steve. He’s getting Jacques fired.’
“Afterwards, people told me ‘Boy, are you an a—.’ For what? I didn’t make this decision. . . . I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but I think people are being blinded by love here. They’re forgetting that we were a last-place hockey team.”
He sighs, pulls off his cap, rubs his hair. He is telling me all this Thursday afternoon, at a patio table at the Detroit Golf Club. I asked for the meeting, not him. If it were up to Yzerman, this whole thing would be finished
already. He was never one for controversy. But he is 25 years old and a hockey player, which means he is 45 years old in any other career. And he is back playing for a last-place team. That hurts.
“I feel like I haven’t done anything,” he says, folding his arms. “When I came here seven years ago, we were in last place. And now, we’re there again. It used to be I was the kid here, you know? The future was always bright. But I can’t keep saying that. I look around, and I’m one of the older guys on the team now. This is the future. Right now. I want to do well now.”
There is no question Yzerman was upset with the way the team was run the last two years. No question that the trade of Adam Oates (to St. Louis for Bernie Federko) stuck in his mind like an ax through the brain, he still hasn’t forgiven management for that one. He is also still disturbed by a Jell- O-like team philosophy that said, “We’re going with a youth movement” one week, then traded young players for veterans the next. When I suggest to him that Demers was fired at least partly because it’s easier to get rid of a coach than to get rid of players, he chuckles.
“I don’t know,” he sneers. “They got rid of an awful lot of players here.”‘
It is rare to hear Yzerman speak so candidly, particularly on controversial topics. He has built a career on quiet excellence, emphasis on the quiet. There are times, quite frankly, that his soft, monotone answers are almost sleepy. But he feels strongly about this whole affair, you can see it in his eyes and feel it in his words. Those words, which tell it best, are the ones that follow: Questions and answers
Do you think things had reached the point of no return under Demers and Jimmy Devellano?
(Pause.) “I think a lot of the players were very disheartened. I think guys just stopped believing. It wasn’t working anymore. At the end of last season, we had no life. The two critical games against Vancouver and Minnesota, where if we won we would have been in the playoffs, we were flat.”
But you say yourself things were good the first two years. How can it change so fast?
“A lot of it has to do with the things that have gone on, the trades and stuff. . . . This whole philosophy about, ‘You play hard, you behave off the ice, and you will play for this team,’ well, I don’t think that really took place. Adam Graves, Adam Oates, Kris King. They were let go anyhow. It was disheartening to see them go elsewhere and play well.”
How about that night in Edmonton two years ago with Probert and Klima drinking? Didn’t that haunt this team ever since?
“No, see, that one incident was blown way out of proportion. Drinking was not the problem here. . . . Our team started to slip long before that Edmonton incident. You have to have discipline, and discipline has to be enforced, on the ice and off the ice. It wasn’t happening. I don’t think success was handled really well here. What got us to being a first-place team was suddenly forgotten. The principles were sacrificed. It became like, ‘If we can keep this in line and keep that in line, we can fool everybody and still win.’ It didn’t work. They weren’t fooling the guys on the team that were putting in a honest day’s work.”
Give me an example.
“Well, Kris King. . . . He was a hard-nosed player, the kind of player you like to have on your team. And you trade him. . . . And the Adam Oates deal. I mean, come on. . . . For a while we had a good chemistry, good line combinations. Then, all of a sudden, we got rid of this guy and that guy and had a bunch of guys who didn’t fit together. I’m not knocking any of the new guys we’ve got, it was just, ‘Why make the trade in the first place?’ “
Weren’t you making a statement by not calling Jacques immediately after this happened?
“I was making a statement. I’m getting accused of all this stuff. I’m not gonna get on the phone and say, ‘Aw, Jacques, I didn’t do this or that.’ . . . Especially when it seemed like Jacques was alluding to (my involvement). People even asked me, ‘Do you think it’s fair that Jacques keeps alluding to you having something to do with getting him fired?’ “
Some say you’re being ungrateful to Jacques in this thing.
“I’m not ungrateful. We had good things here. We had good teams . . . but the team wasn’t producing. After four years, that’s pretty plain to see. A coach’s statistics are in wins and losses, and Jacques’ statistics this year weren’t good. If I didn’t play well the last two or three years, do you think I’d still be the captain? You think I’d still be a Red Wing? I’m not trying to sound cold, but that’s the business. Look at what happened to Bryan Trottier. This guy is the history of the New York Islanders, and they feel he can’t help the team anymore, boom — he’s gone. That’s the way it is. And it’s not because anybody disliked him.”
Do you think this was a smart business decision?
“That’s a hard question to answer. Jacques was awful popular here. You can see what a controversy this has caused. I compare this to Wayne Gretzky being traded from Edmonton. Everyone was furious. It took them a while to get over it. But now they won the Stanley Cup this year and now it’s all forgotten. Everything’s OK in Edmonton again.”
All right then. Do you think this was a good hockey decision?
(Pause). “I don’t want to bad-mouth anybody. But I think everybody’s forgotten that the Detroit Red Wings were a last- place team last year. I’ll repeat again, Jacques did great things for me. I should be the last guy in the world who wants him fired. I got more ice time than anyone, if I didn’t want to practice I didn’t have to, if I wanted to go to Florida in the middle of the season, I could go. So it’s not a personal dislike of Jacques Demers, not a personal vendetta against Jacques Demers because, of all people, I should be the last to want him to go. I don’t know. I think everybody’s forgotten that the bottom line is winning.”
The captain has spoken.