Backstory: Detroit's blade runner
Steve Yzerman: icon on ice
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Not a big deal? Yes and no. Spotting Yzerman in this city may not be the equivalent of seeing J.D. Salinger at the corner Starbucks. But the respect fans give him - one tells of how the corner of her living room is a virtual Yzerman shrine - is special. "He is the heart and soul of this franchise," says Gary Smyth, between periods of a game. "He just goes out and does his job. That's all you ever see the guy do. He doesn't want accolades. He only wants to win."Skip to next paragraph
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For fans, that is what separates Yzerman from other players and may be the real reason he is back for (at least) one more year. Jason La Canfora, a Washington Post sportswriter who once covered the Red Wings, says that of all the athletes he's written about, "no one cared about winning more or hated losing more."
Throughout the 1980s, as the Red Wings struggled, Yzerman racked up goals and assists. In 1987, he had 50 goals. In 1988, he had 65 goals. In 1997, when the Red Wings won their first Stanley Cup in 42 years, he had only 24. His role with the team had changed.
"He was a goal-scoring machine early in his career, but when I got there in 1993, we had other guys that could score," says Scotty Bowman, the former longtime Red Wings coach and Hall of Famer. Did Bowman need to talk it through with him? "No. No. He just wanted to win," Mr. Bowman says. "He was ready to change his game. Sometimes it's not easy for a guy with great skills to be a captain, to lead by example, but he could do it because of how he plays. He has great skills, but he is a grinder too."
Yzerman talks a lot about doing "whatever you need to do, change positions, anything" to help the team. "I don't know anybody who likes to lose. At least I've never met the guy," he says, deflecting compliments. Up close, he doesn't seem like the warrior he is on ice. He's quiet, self-deprecating, humble. But he remains, above all, a competitor. "I was here a long time before we won the [Stanley] Cup, and it really became something of an obsession, not just for me, but for our ownership, our general manager, and our fans," he continues. "We have to win now. I've learned to be comfortable in that and it's made me a better player."
It motivated Yzerman to come back at a greatly reduced salary with little to prove except maybe to himself. He admits that a career of collisions means that sometimes it's an effort to take off his pads after a practice or game. But if it weren't hockey, you get the feeling it might be biking or badminton or some other competition that got him out of bed each day. He is a competitor who simply has a gift for playing hockey. "I enjoy playing. I really, really enjoy the game," he says. "But I enjoy playing at that highest level. I don't know that I'll play a lot once I'm done."
He wants to stay involved in the game, possibly as a general manager. But right now his focus is on the next line shift, the next goal. That means, among other things, honing his face-off skills - an overlooked talent in hockey he excels at. At the end of the Red Wings practice, he lines up against other players and wins far more than he loses. To him, the key to face-off success really isn't that complicated. "You do whatever you can to get an advantage," he says, including whatever shenanigans the referee will let you get away with.