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."

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."

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."

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.

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