May 10, 2002
Steve Yzerman walks through the corridors of Savvis Center in St. Louis out to the team bus with a limp -- a severe limp that some doctors say may cause him to miss the three months of next season after he has surgery on is right knee when this season is over. But that prognosis is for the future, all Yzerman thinks about now is how he can help the Red Wings win another Stanley Cup.
"The only thing the doctors say for sure is that I cant hurt it any more," Yzerman says, with the hint of a smile after he contributed one goal and one assist in Detroits 4-3 victory over the Blues in Game 4 Thursday night. "They would have to carry me off on a stretcher to keep me from playing at this time of the year."
Crazy? Not at all. In a playoff season in which we have had our heartstrings touched by the miraculous return of Montreals Saku Koivu from stomach cancer and Colorados Peter Forsberg recovering from a handful of surgeries on both of his ankles, Yzermans story is no less amazing. Yzerman has been the consummate captain of the Red Wings for 16 years.
Leader? Yzerman, in some peoples eyes, has supplanted Mark Messier as the best leader in hockey today. When his team lost the first two games of the playoffs after posting the best record in the NHL during the regular season, it was Stevie Y who stood up in the teams locker room and said that performance was unacceptable. More to the point, when Yzerman steps on the ice each night, basically on one leg, and shows his teammates that this time of the year is all about passion and paying the price in an attempt to win the Stanley Cup -- pain contorting his face each time he takes a step after the game -- he shows once again how much of a warrior he truly is. But all that matters to Yzerman is that the Red Wings took a 3-1 lead in their Western Conference Semifinal series against the Blues with the victory.
"I never realized Stevie was such a quiet leader," says the loquacious Brett Hull, a first-year teammate who jokes that he will have to change Yzermans quiet demeanor. "He probably doesnt even realize how important it is to us to have him back. He's off, what two months, and comes in and plays as if he hasn't missed a beat." And this is a guy who turned 37 Thursday, not a fresh-faced kid right out of junior hockey. This is a guy who surpassed the legendary Gordie Howe as the Red Wings all-time point producer with 159 in the Vancouver series. And this is a guy who dismisses the thought that playing for the gold medal-winning Canadian Olympic Team days after having arthroscopic surgery on his right knee might have put him into the medical predicament hes in today.
After leading the Red Wings to Stanley Cups in 1997 and 98 -- the teams first since 1955 -- Yzermans leadership has made him a little bit legendary as well. "Its easy to go out there and follow his example and play as hard as you can," says teammate Kirk Maltby. "You see him go out there on one leg and block shots, struggle to get back to his feet, and you cant help by trying to do the same thing."
Coach Scotty Bowman has seen a lot of great leaders in a career that has spanned 35 years and nine Stanley Cups -- five in Montreal, two in Pittsburgh (one coaching and the other as director of player personnel) and two more in Detroit. "Larry Robinson, Bob Gainey, Jacques Lemaire, Mario Lemieux are all Hall of Famers, but Steve is my favorite," Bowman says. "He was a 150-point-a-year player and didnt want to give that up when I first came to Detroit in 1993. I dont think he liked me when I told him he would have to sacrifice some of his points to help this team win a Stanley Cup. In fact, I know he didnt. "But I could see how much he cared for his teammates -- and how much he wanted to win. It takes a special, special athlete to put his teammates ahead of himself. And Steve Yzerman is a very special player."
And the Red Wings Stanley Cups in 1997 and 98 are proof that Yzerman has been rewarded for his sacrifice.
Dont be fooled, leadership is all about trust -- and when Yzerman stood up in that Red Wings locker room after Game 2 against Vancouver, you can bet every one of his teammates was riveted on each and every one of his words. "Im no Knute Rockne," Yzerman laughs. "Im no great speechmaker." But when he stands up and says something, everyone listens. Like in 1997, when the Red Wings fell behind in a first-round series in St. Louis and Yzerman delivered another inspirational speech that helped the team win its first Stanley Cup since 1955.
The playoffs are all about pressure and how you respond to it," Yzerman says matter of factly. "Weve had our backs to the wall a number of times over the years. There were even doubts about whether we could come back from a 2-0 deficit to Vancouver this year. But the key is never losing faith in what you know youre capable of doing."
Thats easy for the Red Wings. Yzerman is living proof of that.
Larry Wigge has covered the NHL for over 30 years. His unique insight on the sport now appears on NHL.com