The Reddest of Wings
December 11th, 2006
There have been many great players to play in the National Hockey League; Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, Guy Lafleur, Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Terry Sawchuk, Jean Beliveau, Johnny Bower, Jacques Plante, Phil Esposito, Glenn Hall, and Stan Mikita, just to name a few. Who, of these great players, or even those not listed, is truly thee all-time greatest the NHL has ever seen? The answer – none.
No, the numbers do not all compare to those of other record breakers, but nonetheless, Stevie Y is The Reddest of Wings.
Steve Yzerman was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings in 1983, as the fourth overall pick. For those curious, names like Pat Lafontaine, Cam Neely, Dominik Hasek, Tom Barrasso, Russ Courtnall, Gerald Diduck, Stu Grimson, Uwe Krupp, and Jeff Beukeboom were taken in this draft (remember the good old NHL?). At this point in time, Yzerman was drafted to this depleted and diminished Detroit Red Wings hockey team in desperate need of a saviour. The Wings were literally the laughing stock of the NHL, with a sub-.500 record in a weak Norris Division (yes, back with Patrick, Adams, and Smythe divisions). They had made the playoffs just twice in the past 16 seasons. Yuck.
Hockeytown was in need of success. Wanting Pat Lafontaine, Jim Devallano, the man who drafted Yzerman, decided to settle on him rather than Pat. In a move essential to building the team for the future, the Red Wings new GM Ken Holland promoted a 21-year-old Yzerman to captaincy of the franchise.
“”When I was looking for a captain, I wanted a guy with the Red Wings crest tattooed on his chest. Steve Yzerman was that guy.” said Coach Jacques Demers.
Owner Mike Illitch (also the founder and owner of Little Caesar’s Pizza) approved of this move, as they had noticed Yzerman’s tremendous skill, saying, “After one (training camp) session, you knew he was a tremendous hockey player.” Due to his phenomenal play and leadership skills, Yzerman remained Captain the next season. And the next. And the next. 20 Times. That, my friends, is the longest serving Captain in the history of the NHL. And to be honest, any General Manager or Coach that tries to make it 20+ years must be trying to get their player into the record books, as it is simply a slap in the face to the Detroit Red Wings and to Steve Yzerman’s legacy.
While tearing apart the league since his adoption by Motown in ’83, Yzerman has been scoring goals, tallying helpers, and so much more. Three Stanley Cups ensued (1997, 1998, 2002), with a Bill Masterton Trophy (perseverance), a Selke Trophy (best defensive forward), a Conn Smythe Trophy (playoffs MVP), a Lester B. Pearson Award (player of the year selected by NHLPA), a Lester Patrick Award, nine All-Star teams, a First-Team All-Star, a member of the All-Rookie All-Star team (youngest player to do so at 18 years and nine months), a Canada Cup Championship, a bronze medal, and a gold medal in 2002. What hasn’t this guy done?
But to be frank, hardware does not equal greatness. Neither do goals in a season, points in a season, or number of times on a highlight reel. Yzerman brought to the table what few people can bring.
Leadership. Class. Guts.
Yzerman was twice asked to be Captain of Team Canada several times, with him humbly turning them down in order to allow someone else to take the honour. Yzerman did not need Captaincy on Team Canada – he simply wanted to represent his country, and to win gold. No biggie? Guess again. Yzerman pulled out of the 2006 Olympics in late 2005 due to nagging injuries, feeling that another player that was 100% could perform better than him. He also understood that he had tasted gold before, and some of the other players in the league lacked the experience needed to take home a medal for the future. How did they do? Well, they didn’t take home a medal, and when you live in Canada, hockey is your pastime, your pride, your life. Anything short of gold is failure.
Wayne Gretzky, often labeled “The Great One”, elected to retire #19 from Team Canada, stating that no one will ever wear that number again. Joe Sakic, another true Canadian hockey player, flips 19 around and uses 91 when playing for Canada. Joe Thornton, along with Brad Richards and Shane Doan all wear #19, electing to wear something else. It’s simply the right thing to do. When someone backs out of playing the game they love to let others have a try, you don’t go and wear that jersey. It’s a sign of respect to retire it, and I thank Gretzky for enforcing this.
In only a few short years of playing, Yzerman gained the reputation of being one of the best two-way forwards in the NHL. None of this cherry-picking or stick-slapping you sometimes see with NHLers today. This is a guy who hustles from one zone to the other, playing every shift as if it was his last. Yzerman was a selfless player, who always put his team and his coach before himself. He was never afraid to sacrifice his body if he knew that it would stop a shot, stop a goal, or stop a scoring chance. He proved that with knee surgeries and an eye surgery. Not many players like this exist in the NHL anymore. He is a dying breed, one that may never reproduce with today’s materialism and financial wants, with players getting more than they deserve. Yzerman was not a player who changed from team-to-team or take pay cuts in order to jump ships to the league’s next best team – he stayed faithful to the team that decided to spend a draft pick on him, and he rewarded them. Yzerman started from scratch, and worked his way up to where his legacy remains today. Many of the players Detroit has today have been born and raised in the Wings farm system; guys like Tomas Holmstrom, Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, and Henrik Zetterberg.
Stevie Y was a true leader. He was a humbled man who was never comfortable with being praised by media or other players. Yzerman knew that it took a team to win a game or a Cup, and that one player cannot do it by themselves. There was no swearing at media reporters, no press conferences with him refusing to take part in team practice, no calling out of players not pulling their own weight, no selling out (doing side jobs to earn extra moolah), no dumb rap albums, and no fights with fans in the stands. Yzerman played the game the way it should be played. With grit and determination. He knew where the puck was at all times, where the open man was at all times, and where the opposition was coming in at all times.
Let’s flashback to 1997, if you will. Stanley Cup playoffs, Detroit Red Wings hosting the St. Louis Blues, double overtime. Yzerman, Fedorov, Vernon, Lidstrom vs. Gretzky, Hull, MacTavish, and Casey. Detroit brings the puck up around their net and up towards their blue line. The defense makes a poor passing decision, and an aware Wayne Gretzky picks off the pass. He then fumbles (that’s right, the so called “Greatest” fumbles the puck in the neutral zone), which is recovered by a nimble Steve Yzerman, who carries the puck up to the Blues blue line. Surrounded by four, recount, four Blues, with no offensive help within passing range, Yzerman decided to try his luck. From inches inside the “Fun Zone” as some Red Wings coaches have called it, Stevie Y rips rubber from the top of the screen (TV broadcast) and hits the net, where Jon Casey stands, determined to guard the pipes. Ping! From one side of the ice to the other, Yzerman snipes a shot over a right-handed Casey’s elbow/blocker to the back of the net, signaling an eruption of cheers and hats to flood Joe Louis Arena. The Wings won it. To this day, it is simply know as “The Goal”. Thanks in large part to Stevie Y.
Now let’s crunch some numbers. Yzerman is 8th all-time in regular season goals, and 6th in all-time scoring overall. He is 7th all-time in assists, and 8th place in all-time playoff scoring. For the franchise, Yzerman sits 2nd in every single offensive category, behind only the great Gordie Howe. No, he is not first in everything; but that is not important. Yzerman was beloved because of his dedication to his team, as well as to the sport itself. Few players have the guys to dive to block passes, fight in the corner for pucks, or fight players that will destroy them when they know that their team is being pushed around. Yzerman is a player that will never be reproduced.
Ladies and gentlemen, hardware does not equal greatness, as I have said earlier. And neither do goals or points. Neither does number of highlight reel appearances. And numbers are only half the game. If numbers meant everything, guys like Danny Markov, Brian Leetch (post-lockout), Brian Campbell, Scott Stevens, and other Power Play or Penalty Kill specialists would potentially have no value to a team. Knowledge of the game, leadership, luck, selflessness, and yes, talent, all play a part in determining greatness.
Number 19 is untouchable. It’s as simple as that. No one will ever be as great as Steve Yzerman. As the clock ticks, Yzerman humbly awaits his name to be called to enter the prestigious Hockey Hall of Fame, where he will be remembered for his contributions to the game of hockey. Yzerman not only brought a team out of the slumps, he did so with class and integrity. He truly was a Hockeytown Hero – The Reddest of Wings.
Some say the ‘C’ on Yzerman’s jersey stands for class. Some say it stands for a champion. Others say, he is simply “The Captain”.
22 Seasons, 3 Cups, 1 Team.