I don't NECESSARILY WANT TO START A TRIBUTE with bathroom material, but this story must be told: A short time after Detroit Red Wings general manager Jim Devellano had trudged up to the podium to announce that he was pleased to select Steve Yzerman with the fourth pick in the 1983 entry draft, he was in a restroom at the Montreal Forum muttering imprecations about the hockey gods and the New York Islanders, who, one spot ahead of the Red Wings, had snatched an honest-to-goodness Detroiter, Pat LaFontaine, the perfect fit, a man-child seemingly capable of resuscitating his moribund hometown franchise. (Over the years Devellano has steadfastly denied that the Wings preferred LaFontaine to Yzerman, but I was in the room. I was, er, privy to his thinking.) In the end Plan B worked far better than anyone dared dream. LaFontaine went on to score 468 goals in a Hall of Fame career spent principally with the Islanders and the Buffalo Sabres, but he never had the chance to do what Yzerman did. Yzerman took a franchise from Dead Things to Hockeytown.
You can distill everything from Yzerman's 22 seasons in Detroit--692 goals, 1,063 assists, three Stanley Cups, immeasurable grit--and it comes down to that: The team was the Dead Things when he came in, and Detroit was Hockeytown when he went out. He didn't win Cups until the Red Wings assembled a suitable supporting cast more than a decade later (Nick Lidstrom, the Russian Five, Brendan Shanahan and the others), but the revival had to start somewhere. It began the June day in Montreal when Devellano called Yzerman's name. When the boyish 18-year-old center arrived that fall, you could have fired a cannon (or an octopus, for that matter) in the upper level of Joe Louis Arena and probably not have hit anyone. Now 20,066 proselytes are there every night, cheering the Franchise That Yzerman Rebuilt. In the NHL's nine decades only Rocket Richard and Montreal and Mario Lemieux and Pittsburgh have been so inextricably intertwined as Yzerman and Hockeytown.
In a career neatly bifurcated at the midway point, Stevie Y has been Stevie A and then Stevie B. The first Yzerman was the offensive dervish. After averaging 1.06 points per game over his first four seasons, Yzerman rattled off six consecutive 100-plus-point seasons, including a 65-goal, 90-assist masterpiece in 1988-89. Being a first-line center in the NHL at the time was like being a New York City centerfielder in the Willie, Mickey and the Duke '50s. Yzerman was neither Wayne Gretzky nor Lemieux, but when the discussion expanded to include LaFontaine and Dale Hawerchuk and Mark Messier, well, he was as worthy as any. Like another center who would soon join the elite company, Joe Sakic, Yzerman possessed an accurate shot and a creative genius. At the height of his scoring prowess, during the 1991 Canada Cup training camp, Team Canada coach Mike Keenan, almost inconceivably, cut Yzerman (saying he needed to free a roster spot for another defenseman). Not until 2002, when Yzerman played superbly on basically one leg as Canada ended an Olympic gold medal drought of 50 years, did his country fully grasp his worth.
This was the second Yzerman, the two-way force. In the lockout-shortened 1995 season he failed to average a point per game for the first time since his third year, but Detroit reached its first Stanley Cup final since 1966. The captain had evolved into one of hockey's best leaders, a quiet man with a ready smirk who never hesitated to go to the danger areas to score a goal or block a shot. His stall was on the near wall of the dressing room, affording him the chance to seek out all his teammates' eyes. As the offensive star receded, a valiant player emerged. It was a metamorphosis that would translate into three Cups in one six-year stretch. In his stubborn way--Yzerman would want to know from his coaches why the Red Wings were breaking out of the defensive zone on this side of the ice and not that--Stevie B was even more estimable than Stevie A. During that last Cup run, in 2002, he could barely climb the steps of the team's charter, and coaches and players would mumble, "Stevie can't go tonight." But he always did, playing in all 23 playoff games.
Now he is going again, this time into hockey immortality. There may have been two Steve Yzermans, but in Detroit--wait, make that Hockeytown--he was the one and only.