Steve Yzerman, the Detroit Red Wings' captain, was going for
three in a row last week. Stanley Cups? Yes, he was going for
three Stanley Cups, too, but his mind was often drifting to
something that would weigh substantially less than 35 pounds.
Yzerman had been present when his first two daughters, Isabella
and Maria, were born, and he was determined not to miss the
birth of his third, due on May 12. In Denver last weekend he had
a pager clipped on his belt, a cell phone in his hand and a
chartered aircraft at the ready to whisk him from here to
maternity. Yzerman always had heeded the call of his franchise,
helping turn the Red Wings into the envy of the NHL and earning
himself the reputation as one of the best leaders in the sport,
but now he was listening to the voice in his head. If his wife,
Lisa, went into labor, Yzerman would bolt the psychotically
nasty second-round series against the Colorado Avalanche, even
though with three goals in Detroit's first two victories,
including a pair in a 4-0 Game 2 rout on Sunday, he was the
player the Red Wings could least do without. Still, Yzerman was
He knows that sometimes life gets in the way, but he didn't
always understand that. Yzerman needed to win a Stanley Cup
before he learned. He had been raised near Ottawa and spoon-fed
Cup lore, internalizing every myth that turned a silver trophy
into a grail and its pursuit into a measure not of hockey skills
but of self-worth. The heretical truth--that the Stanley Cup is
no more or less than a swell piece of hardware--did not dawn on
him until the morning after Detroit won the Cup in 1997, when
his three-year-old, Isabella, trundled down the stairs, admired
the prize for a minute and then skipped away.
"When we won in '97, I realized it wasn't the most important
thing in the world," says Yzerman. "The moment we won it, I felt
awesome; it was thrilling, but it didn't give me as much joy as
spending time with my daughter. We found the Stanley Cup didn't
change our lives. Going into the playoffs last year, we were
just playing to win, to have fun, not to prove what we were made
of. We weren't going to prove our character, change the world or
He is a grounded Wing. There is a sense of order in his life and
in his game, all based on an effort to do the right thing. There
are the small, sweet gestures that illuminate the man, such as
joining teammate Darren McCarty, a recovering alcoholic, in
sipping a soft drink from the Cup in 1997, or trying to arrange
another charter flight last Saturday between Games 1 and 2
against Colorado so that he could fly to Peterborough, Ont., to
attend the funeral of his former teammate, Steve Chiasson, who
died in an automobile accident last week. "It was not realistic
to get there in time," Yzerman says, the regret audible in his
Yzerman plays by what linemate Brendan Shanahan calls a code:
taking care of your own battles ("I've never liked it when guys
on my team have gone out and fought somebody after I got hit,"
Yzerman says); giving the odd sneaky slash ("You're going to get
it whether you return it or not, so you might as well hack
somebody once in a while"); refusing to fake injuries; and not
screaming at the opposition or referees, which sometimes
requires remarkable restraint for a naturally hot-tempered
player. Early in his career he spewed a torrent of profanity
from the penalty box at a referee, then sheepishly turned and
said, "Sorry, Mary," to a Detroit newspaper photographer who was
also sitting in the box. "In hockey and at home I've done stupid
things," Yzerman says, "but if you conduct yourself in a certain
way, then maybe your teammates conduct themselves in the same
way. I'm trying to do things right so the guys on my team can
His 16 seasons on one team, his two Cups, his Conn Smythe Trophy
as playoff MVP and his 592 career regular-season goals make him
special, but his willingness and ability to reinvent himself as
a player make him extraordinary. He has transformed himself from
a one-dimensional scorer (he's a five-time 50-goal man) into a
responsible two-way center who can check, win big face-offs and
still be nifty enough to slip a shot under Colorado goalie
Patrick Roy's armpit, as he did in Game 1 last Friday. A few
other star players have retailored their games in mid-career,
notably Carolina Hurricanes center Ron Francis, but the best
analogy to Yzerman might be baseball's Dennis Eckersley, who won
149 games as a starter before turning into a Hall of
Fame-caliber relief pitcher.
The boldest change, at least in the eyes of the hockey public,
was from a good player incapable of inspiring his teammates to
the perfect team captain. Now that Yzerman is the Wings'
unquestioned leader, he is not seduced by the praise. "I'm
definitely not the great captain everyone makes me out to be,"
he says. "I've learned more about it, and I'm more comfortable
confronting situations or addressing players, whether it's
positive or negative, than in the past. But I'm not the leader
I'm made out to be."
If Yzerman is unduly modest, he still is the largest figure on a
team with booming personalties such as Shanahan, centers Igor
Larionov and Sergei Fedorov and defenseman Chris Chelios. His
knack for problem-solving in the dressing room goes beyond the
ordinary, like a few weeks ago when he helped find the
sweatshirts and headbands Chelios's two young daughters had
misplaced. "I've got two daughters and another one on the way,"
Yzerman says. "I guess I'm partial to girls."
"His leadership the last three or four years has been
outstanding," Larionov says. "Watch him on the ice. Opponents
try to get him off his game, but you'll never see him
retaliate--at least not the next second. He waits until he knows
he's not being watched, then he gets back at a player. He'll
never put his team in jeopardy."
After surviving the opener, 3-2, against Colorado on an unlikely
overtime winner by fourth-line forward Kirk Maltby, the Red
Wings were never in jeopardy in Game 2, thanks to two goals and
an assist by Yzerman--who celebrated his 34th birthday that
day--and the goaltending of 12-year veteran Bill Ranford.
Ranford was a mere spare part in Detroit's March 23 four-deal
trading jamboree, rescued from the horrendous Tampa Bay
Lightning. Earlier in the year, after a typically dreary
Lightning loss, he had been excoriated by Art Williams, the
team's owner at the time. "But Mr. Williams," Ranford finally
interjected, "I didn't play tonight."
He hadn't played much for the Red Wings recently, either. In
fact, before he started Game 1 against the Avalanche because
starter Chris Osgood had sprained his right knee in Game 4 of
the first-round series against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, it had
been 23 days since Ranford was on the ice. Ranford is a
1980s-style goaltender who uses a flat blade on his stick and
doesn't drop into the butterfly style to cover the lower half of
the net. Few teams can stride into the arena of a premier team
such as Colorado with a backup goalie and walk away with two
playoff wins, but in the past few years Detroit's goaltending
has been a peripheral issue. The Red Wings won the Cup with Mike
Vernon in 1997, with Osgood in 1998, and, if coach Scott Bowman
decides to stick with Ranford and they take the title this
season, it would be the first time an NHL team has won three
titles in a row with a different goalie each year.
If that happens, Yzerman will be happy but unfazed. He flew back
to Detroit on Sunday with the Wings, who were halfway to the
sweep that would make a return trip to Colorado unnecessary. For
an expectant father and stay-at-home forward, this was the life.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Hot Wing In Game 2, Theo Fleury and the Avalanche couldn't contain Yzerman (19), who had two goals in a 4-0 win.
COLOR PHOTO: TIM DEFRISCO Ice storm Colorado's Shjon Podein (25) and Detroit's Ulf Samuelsson get physical in Game 2.
There is a sense of order in Yzerman's life and in his game, all
based on doing the right thing.