As a seven-year-old who was allowed to play in the peewees, Steve dominated the 12-year-olds. At 15 he toyed with 19- and 20-year-olds. By then his parents had become wholehearted supporters, paying for Steve's summer hockey camps and driving him to practices and games. At 16 Steve left home for the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League.
Devellano was criticized by some when he took the 18-year-old Yzerman as his first pick in the 1983 entry draft. His critics, however, were silenced once the season got under way, for Yzerman had 39 goals and 48 assists and was runner-up to Buffalo goalie Tom Barrasso for the Calder Trophy as NHL Rookie of the Year.
Questions about his toughness were answered early that season in a game against the Blackhawks. After Yzerman scored two goals, Chicago defenseman Behn Wilson--who would be given a four-game suspension for the infraction--splayed the rookie's nose with a high stick. Yzerman had to be helped to the bench, his face a mess. He had his nose packed and skated his next shift as if nothing had happened.
In January 1984 Yzerman became the youngest player selected for an All-Star Game, and that summer he beat out the Blackhawks' Savard, among others, for a spot on his country's roster in the Canada Cup. In the '84-85 season he popped for 30 goals and 59 assists, and the Red Wings made the playoffs--and promptly went to hell in a handbasket.
In their first-round playoff series, against Chicago, the Red Wings were swept in three games and outscored 23-8. Heads rolled. Before the '85-86 season Devellano replaced coach Nick Polano with Harry Neale, whom he fired 35 games into the season in favor of Brad Park. The new regime was spectacularly disorganized. Highly paid, unestablished free agents shared the dressing room with lower-paid, resentful veterans. Detroit gave up 415 goals, lost 57 games and finished last in the league.
Devellano was not trafficking just in head coaches that year. "He gassed about half the team," Yzerman says, including Lane Lambert and Claude Loiselle, Yzerman's best friends on the club. With Lambert and Loiselle gone, Yzerman withdrew and became a loner. "Our team wasn't close at all," he recalls. "After practices and games, everybody went their own way, and so did I."
Before the 1986-87 season Devellano hired Demers to coach the floundering franchise. Yzerman drove from Ottawa to meet his new coach at the NHL entry draft in Montreal in June.
"That showed me something," says Demers, who was thinking about who his captain would be. "Little gestures like that say things about a guy."
Making Yzerman captain was one of Demers's first moves--and biggest gambles. But Demers had called Yzerman's parents and his coach at Peterborough and knew that Steve responded well to challenges. The team captaincy was just that--a challenge to Yzerman to stop retreating into his Walkman. It worked.
The Wings improved by 38 points over the previous season. In the second round of the playoffs, Detroit trailed the Maple Leafs 3-1 in games but eventually won the series. The cover of this season's Red Wings media guide shows Yzerman's celebration after scoring a goal in that series, a picture of unbridled ecstasy. It is the most animated that anyone can remember seeing him.