June 24, 2009Perfect cap to a nearly perfect career for Yzerman
BY MICHAEL ROSENBERG
FREE PRESS COLUMNIST
"The team you start with is always the team you feel you belong to."
-- Luc Robitaille, who played for four NHL teams, upon his election into the Hockey Hall of Fame
Steve Yzerman got the call from the Hall of Fame when he was at Joe Louis Arena. None of this was surprising. Of course he made the hall. Of course he was at the Joe, the building where he has worked for 26 years. Of course, of course, of course.
There have been better players. Yzerman never won a Hart Trophy as NHL MVP and only once made the All-NHL first team (for years, he was stuck behind Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux).
But I don't think anybody ever had a more perfect career. Athletes sometimes talk about fulfilling their dreams, but if you are a Red Wings fan, the beauty of Steve Yzerman is that he fulfilled your dreams.
Of the top 12 scorers in NHL history, only Yzerman and Lemieux played their entire careers in one city. And Lemieux retired for three years in the middle of his career because of Hodgkin's disease.
Yzerman was drafted in 1983 and retired in 2006. In that time, the NHL expanded rapidly, player salaries grew exponentially, and labor disputes canceled one season and sliced another in half.
Sports are more popular than ever, but it is hard to find anything in sports that you love without reservation.
Stevie Y was the exception.
Yzerman came to Detroit in 1983 and never left. He began his Wings career as a scoring phenom, and he just rose from there: He resurrected a dormant franchise, ended one of the longest championship droughts in his sport, and won the Stanley Cup three times.
His last Cup, in 2002, said the most about Yzerman's career: On a team with at least nine Hall of Famers, he was the unquestioned leader. He won an Olympic gold medal that winter and the Stanley Cup that spring, despite a knee injury that made it painful to walk.
Yzerman was admired for what he did on the ice. He was beloved because of what he didn't do off the ice.
He never had an ugly, protracted holdout. He was never traded and never asked to be traded. He never begged out of a game because of fractured pride over his contract. He never called his owner a name or shoved a reporter.
The pivot point of his career came in October 1995. Yzerman was 30 years old. He already had been a Wing for 12 years, and the previous June, he had led the Wings to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time.
But the Wings had been swept in those finals, and now coach Scotty Bowman was shopping him. Yzerman had to ask the Wings what was happening, instead of them telling him, which irritated him. He had to confirm reports of a likely deal with Ottawa himself, and that must have irritated him, too.
"There's no question a deal is pending," Yzerman said then. "Whether it happens or not, no one knows for certain. ... It could happen today. It could happen tomorrow. It could happen a month from now. It could happen at the trade deadline."
He made it clear that he wanted to be a Wing, and he wanted to win, and he wanted the situation to be resolved as soon as possible. But his most telling comment was this:
"I make a lot of money. The worst thing that can happen is I'm going to go somewhere else and play."
Steve Yzerman knew how lucky he was. He was never going to complain publicly about his job. He knew nobody wanted to hear it.
When Yzerman was introduced before the home opener, the crowd gave him an enormous ovation. Bowman was heartily booed. From that moment on, there was never a doubt: Steve Yzerman would always be a Red Wing.
In time, people came to see him as some sort of angel. But I don't think Yzerman ever has sold himself that way. He just thought of himself as a hockey player. And that, of course, is why he is so popular.
How did he feel when he got the call?
"I'm very grateful for the honor," Yzerman said, as though the honor were his.
Contact MICHAEL ROSENBERG: 313-222-6052 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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