Yzerman Nears Unprecedented Return From Knee-Realignment Surgery By Jason La Canfora
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 22, 2003
Another grinding practice was winding down last week when Dave Lewis, coach of the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, handed his team over to its venerable team captain. Steve Yzerman, the heart of this organization for the last 20 years who is days away from completing an unprecedented return from knee-realignment surgery, could have let the club rest for the next night's game, but opted for a session of sprints instead.
For 15 minutes, one of the NHL's oldest teams sweated and panted as Yzerman and his tender right knee led them from end line to blueline to redline to blueline to end line. Yzerman's presence on the ice was itself a medical wonder -- some doctors advised him to retire last summer and spare his shredded knee further damage -- and the mere sight of him spurred on his teammates. No one dared complain about the extra work, and the next night the Red Wings, who will face the Capitals at MCI Center tonight sans Yzerman, emerged from a slump with a 6-2 thrashing of Atlanta.
"We had already had a full practice but Stevie skated them hard and we ended up having pretty good success the next night," Lewis said. "That's just one little example of what Steve Yzerman means to this team. He demands and commands as much of his team as he commands and demands of himself. And Stevie has pretty high standards."
Yzerman, who said he might make his return Thursday night, has not played a game since hoisting the Stanley Cup in June, capping a playoff run on which he scored 23 points in 23 games despite having what amounted to one functioning knee. His right knee had deteriorated to an acute arthritic condition normally found in geriatric patients, but the 37-year-old willed himself into the lineup for every game with around-the-clock treatment and painkilling injections to lead Detroit to its third title in six years.
The sight of Yzerman dragging his body through six hours a day of rehabilitation transforms any thoughts his teammates might have had of relaxing in post-Cup bliss. The man who made hour-long postgame workouts the norm in Detroit is a leader in everything he does.
"He just has to look at somebody funny and they know it's time to practice harder or elevate your game," Detroit General Manager Ken Holland said. "Last year, we're down 2-0 to Vancouver [in a first-round series], and he calls a players-only meeting and addressed our play before Game 3. Stevie does not talk all that much, but when he does, he says all the right things. He was able to turn that series around with what he said at that meeting."
The Red Wings knew by last February that Yzerman, who was named captain at age 21, three years after being taken with the fourth pick in the 1983 draft, needed surgery. He spent the summer flying to various specialists, trying to find one who might be able to prolong his career and settled on Peter Fowler, who performed an osteotomy, or knee realignment, in London, Ontario, in August (as recently as last month, Fowler said he still thought it best Yzerman retire and gave him a 50-50 chance of returning).
"Yzerman is the first hockey player to attempt to return from such a surgery. Yzerman, who had undergone previous knee ligament surgeries, suffered from the wearing away of the surface on his knee joint and the loss of cartilage, which acts as padding. It was as if the tread on a tire went bald and began to tilt to one side, making even walking a painstaking event.
Fowler cut a wedge of bone out of Yzerman's knee and realigned it to redistribute stress evenly, a temporary solution that is likely a precursor to knee-replacement surgery. Yzerman knew there were no guarantees, but never considered retirement.
"It never really occurred to me," Yzerman said. "Had I decided to [retire] after last year, a year from now or this summer, after going through rehab I would start feeling good, the leg would feel better and I would be like, 'I want to try it again.'
"I'm just not ready to retire. Whether it's due to my knee condition or one day I just lose the desire to play, I'll know that then, but I don't have that now. I definitely haven't lost any desire to play. Until I get out there and know that I can't play anymore, then I'll stop."
Most men with the skill to amass 658 goals and 1,662 points do not throw themselves before slap shots with regularity and embrace pain as Yzerman does. He spent the playoffs getting constant medical attention at his home, in hotels, on airplanes.
"I thought we would have him for the first round, but I didn't think he would play in every [playoff] game," Bowman said. "But when we fell behind to Vancouver he said, 'Hell with it, I'll play through the pain.' "
"Some nights you'd see him try to climb on an airplane and wonder, 'How can he be ready for a game in 24 hours?' " said Lewis, an assistant coach for 15 years in Detroit before taking over for Bowman. "How can it be humanly possible to play a hockey game when he can't get up the stairs of a plane?"
People ask me all the time if he could come back from this, said Wings Personal Trainer Wharton. and knowing what I know of that knee and what it has been through and what a knee is capable of tolerating, I say no. But I also know a little bit about Steve Yzerman and what he's capable of putting himself through, and I wouldn't bet against it."
Yzerman has never been quite comfortable with the standing ovations, chants and individual accolades that have dotted his career, but the city of Detroit is bracing to bestow another shower of love upon him. His return to Joe Louis Arena will shake the building, and his return to the lineup might just spark the Red Wings on another long Stanley Cup run.
"If there was a trophy for courage, he would have already won it," Lewis said. "I'm going to be thrilled to see him back out there. Just to be able to say, 'Yzerman, your line is up,' is going to be some of the greatest words I've ever said."