Goodbye To The Captain
Steve Yzerman's career got off to a less than auspicious start. He was drafted 4th overall in the 1983 draft, but then Red Wings General Manager Jimmy Devellano made no secret of the fact that he would have preferred to take Pat LaFontaine, who was selected third by the Islanders. All Yzerman did was show up at camp and quickly prove that he was the best player there. He gave the Detroit fans a sign of things to come when he scored his first NHL goal in his first NHL game and went on to register 39 goals and 48 assists in his first campaign. Despite leading his club and all rookies in assists and points, Yzerman finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting. For the next few seasons, Yzerman put up consistent numbers, finishing with 89 points, 42 points (in only 52 games--he broke his collarbone and missed a third of the season), and 90 points. Yzerman's stellar play notwithstanding, the Red Wings as a team were mired in mediocrity.
1987 was a breakout year for both Yzerman and his team. The year before, Yzerman was named the youngest captain in Detroit history and his numbers justified the decision. Steve racked up goals and assists at a prodigious rate, reaching 102 points in only 64 games. Unfortunately, in the very game that he scored his fiftieth goal, Yzerman suffered a terrifying knee injury. Rushing towards the goal, Yzerman lost his footing and plowed into the net, slamming his knee into the goalpost, which in those days was firmly attached to the ice. The Captain suffered severe damage to his right knee, an injury that would haunt him in his later years, and missed the rest of the season. However, the Red Wings, buoyed by the scoring of their new Captain, reached the semi finals of the playoffs for the first time in nearly 20 years. Yzerman was able to return for game three of the Conference finals, but it was too little, too late for the Wings.
The next few seasons cemented Yzerman's status as one of the games brightest stars. In 1988, Yzerman scored 155 points, a total surpassed only by fellow legends Wayne Gretzsky and Mario Lemieux. The Red Wings played better as a team, making the playoffs in 2 out of the next 3 years, but making little headway in the the NHL's second season. During the early nineties, the Wings began acquiring some talent to surround Yzerman with and the team's fortunes took a turn for the better when Hall of Fame manager Scotty Bowman was hired in 1993. In Bowman's second season as coach, the Wings reached the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in 29 years. Unfortunately, they were swept by the New Jersey Devils, who's frustating "trap" style of play totally neutralized the high flying Wings. To Scotty Bowman, an arch tactician, the writing was on the wall. If the Wings were to win a Stanley Cup, they'd have to play better defense. And if the Wings were going to buy into his system, he'd need the Captain on board.
After the 1993 season, Bowman approached Yzerman and told him what he needed to do. The Captain, one of the league's best offensive players, was going to have to change his style of play. Instead of focusing on scoring, Bowman wanted Yzerman to set the defensive tone for the team, a job typically reserved for the lower skilled players on the the third and fourth lines of the team. As Bowman pitched it, Yzerman's personal stats and glory would diminish, but the team's prowess would improve. In an age of mega-agents and lucrative endorsements, Bowman was asking Yzerman to sacrifice a lot. But if the Captain didn't sign on, Bowman's plan had no chance. Without hesitation, Yzerman told Bowman he'd do whatever it takes to win the Cup.
With Bowman's new system in place, Yzerman's scoring totals dropped. Instead of scoring over 100 points a season, he was down in the 80-90 range. But the Wings' fortunes took off and they became the juggernaut of their conference, going 62 and 13 and falling just short of the Stanley Cup finals.
Finally, in 1997, Bowman's strategy and Yzerman's sacrifices paid off. The Wings captured the Stanley Cup, defeating the Philadelphia Flyers in four straight games. Yzerman did his part, tying for second in playoff goals and third in playoff points. It was the Wings first Cup in 42 years, breaking the longest Stanley Cup drought in the NHL at that time. During the celebration, tragedy struck the Wings family when punishing defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov was left incapacitated after a brain injury suffered when his limosuine crashed. The next season, Yzerman and the team vowed to win the Cup for Vladdy and kept good on their promise by sweeping the Washington Capitals. Suddenly, the Motor City, without a championship for 40 plus years, had two in a row. The Captain was the leading playoff scoring and notched the Conn Smythe trophy as Most Valuble Player. At the victory parade, Detroit citizens turned out in droves to shower their Captain was adoration. Steve Yzerman was the working class hero of a working class city.
Yzerman's transformation from high scoring hot-shot to hard nosed defensive stalwart was completed in the 1999-2000 season when Yzerman was award the Selke trophy for best defensive forward. For a player who would go on to finish sixth in scoring in NHL history, winning the Selke trophy was a true honor. It symbolized all the personal sacrifices Yzerman made for the Detroit Red Wings and the city of Detroit.
In 2002, Bowman had his swan song. The Wings, with all-world goalie Dominic Hasek in net, went on to capture their third Stanley Cup in the last six seasons. After the victory, Bowman and Hasek announced their retirements and many thought Yzerman would follow suit. At 37 and with three Stanley Cup championships, ten All-Star game appearances, a Selke Trophy and a Finals MVP, Yzerman had nothing left to prove. Plus, his right knee, shredded in a horrific injury fifteen years ago, was falling apart. But Yzerman's competitive fires still burned. After the season, he underwent a radical surgical procedure on his knee, one that most doctors said would leave him unable to play hockey again.
After the procedure, Yzerman made a valient comeback, but he only managed 8 points in 16 games. The Red Wings were upset in the first round of the playoffs by the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and speculation once again swirled that Yzerman would retire. Instead, he suited up for his 21st season in 2003-2004. The Wings were undergoing changes and younger players were carrying more of the load. Yzerman saw his role changed and his ice time reduced, but the aging Captain never complained. He did whatever the team needed and managed to put up a respectable 51 points in 75 games. The Wings started the playoffs strong, but lost their Captain when he was hit in the face by a puck, shattering his orbital bone. After the loss of their leader, the Wings suffered another early exit from the playoffs and then the league went dark, shut down by a labor dispute between the owners and players. The entire 2005 season was wiped out, giving Yzerman time to reflect on his career and let his battered body heal. At the end of the lockout, Yzerman felt rejuvenated enough, even at the age of 41, to give playing another shot. He returned for the 2006 season in which the Wings revamped roster looked unbeatable. Yzerman put up 34 points in 61 games and girded himself for the playoffs. But it was not to be. The Wings were stunned in the first round by the upstart Edmonton Oilers and were sent home for some serious soul searching.
During the offseason, Yzerman knew it was time to hang up his skates. His heart was willing, but his body could no longer handle the grind of the NHL season. He finished his career 8th all time in goals scored, 7th in assists, and 6th in all time scoring. But Yzerman is perhaps more proud of his other distinction: he played his entire career with the Detroit Red Wings and finished it as the longest serving captain with one team in NHL history. In a few short years, Yzerman will be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame, but to millions of fans in Detroit and elsewhere, his legacy has already been enshrined in their hearts and minds.
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