Backstory: Detroit's blade runner
Steve Yzerman: icon on ice
Inside a small souvenir shop at Joe Louis Arena, just off the Detroit River, a cashier is on the phone. "There's only one Yzerman hat left. Send up some more," she says. There's only one problem: There are no more. The stockroom is out. "OK, well, if you get more we could use some." She looks over the register. "We sell a lot of Yzerman hats here. We sell a lot of Yzerman everything."Skip to next paragraph
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Indeed, if one wanders the streets here on a night when the Detroit Red Wings are playing at home, it can seem like a large portion of the city is named Yzerman. Men and women, boys and girls, and even entire families are decked out in the familiar jerseys of the team - an army clad in oversized red-and-white sweaters - bearing the name Yzerman atop the number 19.
Yzerman is Steve Yzerman. In simplest terms, Steve Yzerman is a forward on the Red Wings hockey club and the team's captain. But he is more than that. In this city that loves its hockey, the state of Yzerman (pronounced EYE-zur-mun) is as much a topic of conversation as the state of General Motors. Even though he no longer brings the flash to his game that Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux were known for, he is, nonetheless, an icon. In his twilight years, he has gained respect by becoming the ultimate "grinder," dueling unselfishly for the puck in the corners and playing as much defense as offense.
At 40, Yzerman is a throwback, more an image of what sports was than what it is. In an age where bravado rules the locker room, where individual achievement leads to notoriety, and where free agency has made player movement a fact of life, he is an exception. For 21 seasons, he has led quietly, changing his game to help the team. And he has done it all in Detroit, where he has spent 19 seasons as captain - a record.
This summer, after the NHL missed a season due to a lockout, many of the game's older stars walked away. But Yzerman decided to lace up his skates for one more year. Why does a player with three Stanley Cup Championships, an Olympic Gold Medal, and a slew of personal awards return to the ice? Because, he says, he can.
"When you retire, you have to know that you're done for whatever reason, either you have no desire or you simply aren't capable of playing anymore," he says, standing in the team locker room after a practice. "And to have retired without coming back and trying - I think I would have had some regret that I could have played again."
How well Yzerman can still play is something of a question. Already, he has spent the early part of this season fighting through injuries. At 5 feet 11 inches and 185 pounds, he is not a big man in a sport defined by uncivil contact. Many thought he might retire after he led the team to the 2002 Stanley Cup championship essentially on one leg. (He played with a serious knee injury.) In 2003, his season ended when a puck broke a bone in his face. Still, he came back.
It is these traits that endear Yzerman to Detroit fans. Until last year's lockout, a giant picture of him adorned the Cadillac Square building, looming over the city's Campus Martius Park and a rink there. "Well, they took that down. So it's hard to feel good about yourself," he says, with a hint of a smile. "I have it pretty good here. But, you know, I've been here a long time. You get recognized, but it's not a big deal."