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Long before STEVE YZERMAN BECAME RECOGNIZED AS ONE OF the great leaders and character players in hockey history, he was merely one of the most overlooked when Canada gathered for international tournaments.
There was no debating Yzerman's status as one of the most talented Canadian-born players on the planet, but coach Mike Keenan, in choosing his rosters for the 1987 and 1991 Canada Cups, felt that other forwards--notably Brent Sutter, Kevin Dineen, Dirk Graham, Russ Courtnall and Shayne Corson--while not nearly as skilled, were better suited for the team concept that Keenan felt was needed to surpass the formidable Soviets in tournament play. Over the years those slights both motivated Yzerman to emerge as one of hockey's most respected captains and whetted his appetite for a chance to wear the maple leaf on the world stage. "It's a rare opportunity to represent your country," Yzerman said. "It's different. It's an honor. The whole country is relying on you."
That's why Yzerman heartily embraced the chance to play for his homeland the first two times the NHL paused its season to allow its star players to represent their countries at the Olympics, even though he was hampered by injuries both times. He endured the low of missing the medal stand at the 1998 Nagano Games and reveled in the high of winning Canada's first hockey gold medal since 1952 at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.
Yzerman's Olympic debut was nearly interrupted by a knee-on-knee check by Phoenix forward Rick Tocchet just over a week before the '98 Games. Tocchet received a five-game suspension for the hit, which left Yzerman on all fours for more than a minute. He wasn't sure until days before the team left for Japan that his sprained left knee would be well enough for him to play.
The trip was unlike any other Yzerman had experienced. On the plane from Vancouver to Tokyo the players watched a videotape of the famous goal by Paul Henderson that enabled Canada to beat the Soviets in the 1972 Summit Series. The players, who were used to staying in hotels, arrived at the dorms in the Olympic Village and found their uniforms placed atop photos of themselves wearing their childhood jerseys. Yzerman began sneaking down to the cafeteria for late-night ice cream with teammate Brendan Shanahan. "Everybody is here from all over the world," Yzerman said, "but it reminds you of a Midget tournament with guys hanging out in the hallways and going off to see their families. It's a tame party, I guess."
The party continued for Canada, which rolled through the first three games with victories against Belarus, Sweden and the U.S., outscoring foes by a combined 12-3. Yzerman, who skated on a line with Wayne Gretzky and Shanahan, set up former Red Wings teammate Keith Primeau for a memorable shorthanded goal against the U.S. team.
In the quarterfinals Yzerman and Shanahan scored goals 32 seconds apart as Canada beat Kazakhstan 4-1. With his left leg feeling better, Yzerman was unusually feisty in the game. He threw a gloved punch at Kazakh defenseman Igor Dorokhin with less than two minutes to play after Dorokhin virtually tackled him. "I took a lot of abuse," Yzerman said. "They had their sticks everywhere."
Canada entered the semifinal game against the Czech Republic as the heavy favorite, but Czech goaltender Dominik Hasek was spectacular, yielding only Trevor Linden's tying goal in the final 1:03 of regulation. All across Canada fans screamed at their television sets when, after a scoreless overtime, coach Marc Crawford decided to leave both Yzerman and Gretzky on the bench during the five-man shootout. As Robert Reichel scored on the Czechs' first shot, Canada's Patrick Roy and Hasek took turns stopping subsequent shots. Yzerman watched from the bench as Hasek turned back Theo Fleury, Ray Bourque, Joe Nieuwendyk, Eric Lindros and Shanahan and the Czechs won the shootout 1-0. "We came here to win the gold medal," Yzerman said after the game. "I would say we're still sick in the stomach."
To make matters worse, Canada then fell to Finland 3-2 and went home without even a bronze medal. Headlines and news clips across the country proclaimed all manner of despair from WOE, CANADA to NATIONAL DISASTER after the loss to the Finns. Yzerman assumed his international career would end in disappointment.
But four years later Gretzky, who had become Canada's executive director, surprised his former Olympic linemate by selecting him to play in the Salt Lake Games. As before, Yzerman's status was uncertain before the Olympics because he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee two days before the Games began. Boston's Joe Thornton was named as Yzerman's potential replacement.