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Follow the Leader
Michael Farber
May 17, 1999
Detroit went on the road to Colorado and took home a 2-0 lead, thanks in large part to their levelheaded captain, Steve Yzerman
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May 17, 1999

Follow The Leader

Detroit went on the road to Colorado and took home a 2-0 lead, thanks in large part to their levelheaded captain, Steve Yzerman

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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 firm.

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 change history."

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 voice.

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 respect that."

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."

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