Steve Yzerman is in his car, driving to practice. He doesn’t really do much on the practice ice these days. For one thing, his bad knee can’t take it. And, anyhow, at this point in the season, he and the other veterans don’t exactly need work.
But he goes. He goes because “you’re supposed to be there,” he says. “If we have an 11 a.m. practice, it’s not like I can show up at 11:15 and say, ‘Hey, Scotty, how you doin’?’
“You can’t take advantage of your status. Other guys won’t say anything, because they don’t want to rock the boat, but they start wondering why they should be doing it if you’re not. It creates dissension.”
Funny. Earlier this week another star athlete, the NBA’s Allen Iverson — 10 years younger than Yzerman — complained that his coach, Larry Brown, was making too much of his skipping practices.
“I’m the franchise player and we’re talking about practice?” an angry Iverson said at a news conference. “Practice? . . . We’re talking about practice?”
Well, actually, they were talking about character. Which is what Iverson still has to learn and Yzerman doesn’t. It almost oozes from him now. So much so, that some observers tend to look at the captain these days and all but gush, like the TV announcers who keep insisting that he is playing “on one leg.”
Not quite. If you play on one leg, you fall down. Yzerman is not a crippled, crawling-out-of-bed martyr.
“I have a sore knee, and that’s about it,” he says. “It hasn’t gotten better, but it hasn’t gotten worse.
“I’m not playing on one leg or anything. That’s just . . . ah . . . you know.”
We know. It’s a compliment.
All in all, a good birthday
You like to give Yzerman compliments, partly because he hates getting them so much. Thursday night, he played the kind of game that pushes teams to glory. Yes, he scored a goal (actually the goal scored off him), but the points mattered least. It was the effort. It was the resilience. It was the storm of collisions he weathered, many by design of the Blues, who wanted to nullify him.
Couldn’t do it. They tried. Nobody harder than mammoth defenseman Chris Pronger, who attempted a slam that Yzerman evaded by ducking low like someone out of a Jackie Chan movie. Pronger flipped over him and landed on his right knee and out of the playoffs with a torn ACL.
“That was a fluky thing,” Yzerman says now from his car. “You don’t want to see anyone get hurt.”
Yzerman knows the other side. In another year, he might have been the one hobbling off. It has happened. Too many times.
But in these playoffs, he’s still standing. Neither he nor his teammates have suffered any good-bye blows. And largely because of that health, the Wings enter today’s Game 5 at Joe Louis Arena just one victory from a conference final.
So it was a good night for Yzerman — and to boot, it was his 37th birthday. He flew back with the team, got in his car and drove home. If he were proud of himself, it could be expected. After all, playing among kids 10 and 15 years younger, he was perhaps the best player out there Thursday.
So how did he celebrate?
End of an era approaches
“Actually,” he says, approaching downtown Detroit, “the only thought I gave to my birthday was that when I came into the league, the Wings had just acquired Brad Park. And I had always looked up to Brad Park. But he was 37 at the time. I thought, ‘Wow. He’s 37. He’s got a wife and family. He’s an old guy.’ “And now that’s me.”
I ask Yzerman if he thinks he’s a “younger” 37 than Park was.
“Yeah, I tell myself that. But then, I have consolation. Igor (Larionov) is 41. And (Chris) Chelios is 40. So I’m not the old man. I’ve got my own little peer group.”
He laughs and through the cell phone you hear the wind from outside. You realize, this is slowly coming to an end, this era of veterans like Yzerman, sticking in one city their whole careers, going to practice on sunny days without complaint.
He is, so far, having the playoffs of his dreams, leading the Red Wings in goals, points, game-winners — and respect. The kind of respect that leads even star teammates like Brendan Shanahan to say: “When Steve starts talking in the locker room, people just shut up and listen.”
Well, maybe in the locker room. By the time Yzerman got home for his birthday, it was 2:30 a.m. and the day had officially passed. His wife was sleeping. His daughters were sleeping. His dog was sleeping.
He went to bed. And Friday he got up and drove to the rink. “I’m the franchise player and we’re talking about practice?” Iverson said.
Here was Detroit’s franchise player, sore knee, coming off his birthday, and he wouldn’t consider anything but practice. There are a lot of reasons you would like the Wings to win it all this year. One of them is still owed a cake and candles.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org.