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Heading TO THE DRESSING ROOM AFTER A PRACTICE AT JOE Louis Arena, the Detroit Red Wings' Steve Yzerman passed a gaggle of young admirers. One of them--a skinny, blonde, buck-toothed girl--looked to be about nine. Yzerman held his stick out to her and asked, "Want this?"
She froze. Of course she wanted the All-Star center's stick. But wouldn't he be smiling if he wanted her to take it? "Take it!" hissed her friend. "Take it!" Finally, as if in a trance, she did, with both hands. Afterward Yzerman, a genuinely nice fellow who just happens to leave his game face on even when there's no game, wondered aloud if he had upset her.
Shyness and humility are qualities not often associated with professional athletes, just as "division-leading" and "10-points-over-.500" are modifiers seldom applied to the Red Wings. But the 1987-88 season has been exceptional for Yzerman and the Wings. Detroit is averaging crowds of 19,590 per home game--a testament to the loyalty and tolerance for physical discomfort of several hundred Wings fans, as Joe Louis has only 19,275 seats. Motown is turned on by coach Jacques Demers's passionate antics behind the bench, and some fans no doubt also come to see Bob Probert, Yzerman's right wing and the NHL's penalty-minutes leader, dispense rough Norris Division justice. But mostly they flock to Red Wings games in hopes of catching an Yzerman offensive display, and number 19 has obliged them with impressive regularity. Through the end of January, Yzerman had 37 goals and 44 assists, putting him fourth in the league behind Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux, Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky and Chicago's Denis Savard; he had points in 39 of the Wings' first 44 games; and his 22-game scoring streak, which ended Jan. 13, stands as the longest in the league this season. (Yzerman ended the season with 50 goals and 52 assists, which ranked 12th in the NHL.)
"Stevie Yzerman is not a self-promoter," says Demers, who made the then 21-year-old his captain before the '86-87 season. This is an understatement. If Yzerman were any less self-promoting, his tongue would atrophy. He explains the career year he is having this way: "The team has improved around me."
This season is shaping up to be Detroit's best in a decade. When it is finished, after all the testimonials to Demers's coaching genius and general manager Jim Devellano's keen eye for hockey flesh; after Lee Norwood, Gil Delorme, Mike O'Connell, Darren Veitch, Shawn Burr, Jeff Sharples, Rick Zombo and the rest of the Red Wings' lunch-bucket brigade are endlessly and justifiably celebrated for their work ethic; Yzerman will deservedly receive the lion's share of credit.
"We have improved 40 points from a year and a half ago," Demers says. "You can't do that without a superstar--that's what Steve is. He is like an Isiah Thomas. He is a meal ticket for a coach."
Of course, in much of the U.S., Yzerman enjoys nowhere near the name recognition of Thomas, or even, say, Bruce Babbitt. It has not helped that for three of his five seasons in the NHL he has played on a sad-sack team. And it is difficult for fans to remember a Dutch-German name they find hard to pronounce--it's EYE-zer-man. Last month Yzerman announced his engagement to Lisa Brennan, a sophomore at Algonquin College in Ottawa. Another NHL center, Gretzky, chose the next week to announce his plans to wed actress Janet Jones. Guess who got the headlines?
Always impeccably attired, Yzerman tops off his look by maintaining a week's worth of stubble on his face. It is not there to appeal to the opposite sex. Yzerman is sufficiently dashing not to need help in that department. (If anything, he needs a bodyguard and a car waiting at the back door.) The scruff, he hopes, makes him look older than his 22 years. One big reservation he had about taking the team captaincy when Demers offered it was how the older Red Wings would react. Whatever doubts they may have had at first, the team elders--defensemen Harold Snepsts, 33, O'Connell, 32, and Dave Lewis, 34, who retired earlier in the season to become an assistant coach--have gotten behind Yzerman, although O'Connell says, "He doesn't need much help. Steve is a pretty independent thinker. He has his own ideas about how things should be done."
Says winger Joe Kocur, "We don't hear much from him unless we're in a slump." At which point Yzerman will call meetings, talk to individuals or, "on rare occasions," says Snepsts, address the team. "When he does talk, he really knows how to grab your attention."
Yzerman's generally low-key brand of leadership seems drawn from his father, Ronald, the director of assistance in welfare services in Canada. Both men, says Jean Yzerman, Steve's mother, "are quiet, subdued and keep a lot to themselves, but occasionally they explode." At home in Ottawa, Ronald and Jean were initially dismayed by young Steven's obsession with hockey and his apathy toward formal education. Their four other children--sons Michael, Gary and Chris, and daughter Roni-Jean--have all been strong students. Roni-Jean, 25, is a computer programmer for Bell Northern Research; Michael, 24, is studying toward his master's degree in social work; Gary, 20, is majoring in commerce at Carleton University; and Chris, 15, is still in high school and an above-average student.