Welcome To The Hall, Stevie Y!

On Monday, November 9th the NHL put on their annual Hall of Fame induction ceremony.  This year’s class was deemed as the best ever to enter the famed Hall in Toronto.  With the likes of Luc Robitaille, Brett Hull, Brian Leetch and Steve Yzerman, you couldn’t go wrong.  Their combined statistics were absolutely astounding, their individual accomplishments were incomparable and their Hall status had been determined early on in their careers.  However, when you look at each of these players only one stands out as the quintessential hockey player – Steve Yzerman.

I’m not just saying this because I am originally from the Detroit area and a die-hard Red Wings fan.  I’m saying this because of how Steve turned me into a fan of the greatest sport on earth, kept me a fan, and allowed me to watch him develop from an offensive scoring machine into the game’s greatest two-way player and eventually the game’s greatest captain.

Some would argue that Wayne Gretzky was the greatest hockey player of all time.  I answer that argument by saying Gretzky excelled in the scoring aspects of the game but he was average when it came to playing defense.  Gretzky wouldn’t fight if it came down to it, either.  In fact, I don’t consider Steve Yzerman as the greatest player of all time.  I save that distinction for Gordie Howe.  Gordie could score, pass the puck, play excellent defense AND fight.  As far as longevity is concerned, no one can deny Gordie had it.

During the early years of Steve Yzerman’s career I saw some pretty amazing goals come off that stick of his.  I remember a game back in the late 80’s when Steve got an outlet pass on the right wing and came up the ice with nothing but a big defensman between him and an empty net.  Steve kept his cool and, from just inside the blue line, flipped the puck over the defensemen’s head, bounding about eight feet into the air and landing softly in the back of the net.

I remember his rookie season and I could tell from watching that kid that he would end up right up there with the likes of Gordie Howe one day.  This kid could score and skate and he could find the open man.  Unfortunately, in those days Steve was just the first building block as the Red Wings tried to fight their way back from futility after so many years of dominating the league.  The Wings were so bad, the new owners of the franchise, Mike and Marion Illitch, were giving away a car at every game just to get people to come down to the rink.

As time went by the Illitch’s were able to bring talent into the front office and they began to put together a team that could compete, building it around Steve.  Along came a flood of European players, most from Russia, and the Wings began gaining that respectability they wanted.  The Wings finally made it back into the playoffs but kept coming up short.  It seemed they were always missing just one piece of that Stanley Cup puzzle.  Steve Yzerman was surrounded by a pretty talented bunch of players so what was missing?

Red Wings Vice President Jimmy Devellano convinced Scotty Bowman to take over the Wings’ coaching duties in 1993.  Scotty preached two things to win the Stanley Cup: defense and discipline.  He made it very clear that to win the Cup the Wings were going to have to be more responsible defensively.  This was a huge change in the mindset of Steve Yzerman.  He had always thought that to win in the NHL you had to score goals.  He and his teammates were in no position to question Bowman – with his earlier success and number of Stanley Cup rings, who would?

Soon afterward you could see Steve and his teammates begin to make the transition from offensive minded scorers to a defense first mentality.  He began to discover that playing solid defense opened up the offensive game.  During this time Steve began to lead by example and each of the players around him followed that lead.  In 1995 the Wings finally made it back to the Stanley Cup finals only to be swept by New Jersey.  The following year they were ousted from the playoffs by Colorado.

Then came 1997.  It had been 42 years since the Red Wings hoisted Lord Stanley’s Cup.  That drought was about to end.  The Wings faced Philadelphia and their “Legion of Doom”.  Turns out they were the legion of BROOM – the Wings swept the Flyers away and brought the Stanley Cup back to Hockeytown.

I simply cannot forget that moment.  I will always be able to picture the pure joy on Steve Yzerman’s face when he hoisted that Cup over his head at center ice.  I remember that gap in his teeth from one of his many hockey battles.  I remember the grin of a schoolboy, recognizing after all the years of sweat and failure the moment of winning the top prize, of being the best in the world.  I also remember the pride he made me feel in my team, my city, and my favorite player of all time.

I remember being choked up and shedding a tear.  He made me feel that I had contributed in some way to that trophy coming home to Detroit.  He symbolized what Detroit stood for – hard work, the payoff that it brings and yes, even some finesse and glamour from time to time.  He had become the symbol of the city and Detroit embraced him with a heartfelt hug that was stronger than ever before for any local sports hero.

A few days later tragedy struck the Red Wings organization, as the limo that was driving Vladimir Konstantinov, Slava Fetisov and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov home from a golf outing was wrapped around a tree, causing serious brain injury to Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov.  As captain of the team it was up to Steve Yzerman to help us all through going from such an emotional high to such a dreadful low.  He did so with elegance, emotion and a straightforward confidence.  He lifted us up, gave us hope and encouraged us all to keep our fallen comrades in our hearts.

The following season he once again led the Wings to another Stanley Cup championship (this one over Washington in another sweep) and when it was over, he took that Cup and handed it to Konstantinov, sitting at center ice in his wheelchair.  There was no hesitation whatsoever because Steve had dedicated that season to his friend and fallen teammate.  Every player on that team thought of Vlady and Sergei during every game and they would not be derailed from their mission.  Steve led them there and showed them the way.

In the twilight of his career Steve continued to show why he became the league’s youngest captain and remained in that position for the two-plus decades he played with and only for the Red Wings.  He came back from leg surgery that would have ended the career of any other player.  He basically had his leg sawed in half and reset.  Not so he could continue playing hockey, but so he could continue to walk.  During that season of 2002 he helped possibly the greatest team of all time win another Stanley Cup, coming back from that surgery and showing his heart and grit, for all intents and purposes playing on one leg.

Several of his teammates from that miraculous season will one day be in the Hall of Fame with him.  Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille joined him in the induction ceremony last week.  Brendan Shanahan, who announced his retirement from hockey this week, will one day be there.  Nick Lidstrom and Dominic Hasek will join them.  Just an incredible team, all that talent, all those egos, held together by the glue that was the leadership provided by Steve Yzerman.

Steve didn’t lead by spewing fiery speeches.  He spoke out when he knew he had to.  He knew his teammates were professionals and he treated them that way.  He was respected not only by sports fans in the city of Detroit, but also by people worldwide outside of the sport.  He displayed integrity throughout his career, he showed his loyalty to his franchise, its owners, the city he played for and the sport he played.

Captain, My Captain, Welcome to the Rafters!

On January 2, 2007, the Red Wings retired Yzerman’s jersey, before a game against the Anaheim Ducks.  As an additional honor the captain’s “C” was added to the corner of his banner to forever commemorate him as “The Captain”.  Steve’s speech to the crowd at Joe Louis Arena that night was made up of thank you’s to the players he played with and against, the Red Wings ownership and to the fans.  The word gracious doesn’t begin to describe his tone that night.  A true class act all the way around.

People talk about role models and these days too many of those crumble and fall.  Steve Yzerman is one sports figure, one human being you can always look up to and admire.  You can put trust in what he says and does.  Now fittingly he’s working in the Red Wings front office, rewarded for every ounce of hard work he put into wearing the Winged Wheel.  He’s also the general manager for team Canada in the upcoming 2010 Olympic Games.

It seems like only yesterday when he put that Red Wings jersey on for the first time and in return he provided so many of us with a lifetime of memories and inspiration.  He never once took for granted the privilege of playing for such a storied franchise that is the Detroit Red Wings.  He gave so much to the city that adopted him and the game that he played.  He made so many people and players around him better and he helped us all fulfill the dream that made Detroit Hockeytown.

Some people grew up idolizing Mickey Mantle or Joe Namath.  For some it was Ted Williams or Bart Starr, Babe Ruth, Bobby Orr, Willie Mays or Jim Brown.  They’re ok I suppose.  I got the chance to idolize Steve Yzerman for most of my adult life and I couldn’t have made a better choice.  He amazed me in 1983 when he came into the league and he continues to amaze me now.  He was more than just a hockey player – he was a brick layer.  Brick by brick, goal by goal, championship by championship, he laid the bricks that built Hockeytown.

Will there ever be another Steve Yzerman?  I’d say no.  And that suits me just fine.

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