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Out of The Darkness
E.M. Swift
July 13, 2006
Steve Yzerman arrived in Detroit as a shy, 18-year-old center and left 23 years later as the Hero of Hockeytown
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July 13, 2006

Out Of The Darkness

Steve Yzerman arrived in Detroit as a shy, 18-year-old center and left 23 years later as the Hero of Hockeytown

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Yzerman had killed penalties while playing for prior Red Wings coaches--he still holds the team record for most shorthanded goals, with 50--but he'd never been asked to subjugate his offensive skills for defense. "Scotty wanted to know he could put me out on the ice in any situation and have us not be scored on," Yzerman says. "He wanted me to be the way Jacques Lemaire had been for him in Montreal. At that point in my career all I cared about was winning a Stanley Cup, so I told him I'd do whatever it takes. It was a good change, almost like playing for a new team. You fall into the same habits year after year, and that new role was very reenergizing for my career."

Reenergizing and successful. In 1995 the Wings cut their goals-against average from 3.27 per game to 2.44 and advanced to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1966. They lost to the New Jersey Devils, but they established the foundation that would bring them three Stanley Cups in the next seven years. "Yzerman transformed himself from one of the great offensive players in the game to one of the greatest two-way players in the game," says Ken Holland, who's been the Detroit general manager since '97. "And if you're sitting in that locker room seeing a guy with his skills chipping the puck out of the defensive zone, blocking shots, staying high in the slot to prevent odd-man rushes, winning face-offs, playing hurt, hitting the bike and the workout room after the game is over, you're going to worry about those things too. He leads by example. He set the tone for our franchise."

With Bowman behind the bench and Yzerman slipping into his new role as a suffocating two-way player with a propensity for scoring timely goals, the Wings year in and year out became the team to beat in the NHL. In 1996 Detroit set an NHL record with 62 wins in the regular season, but despite Yzerman's dramatic Game 7 goal in overtime that eliminated the St. Louis Blues in the quarterfinals, the Wings again lost to the eventual Cup champions, this time the Colorado Avalanche in the semifinals.

In 1997, however, the 42-year Cup drought finally came to an end. Yzerman, whose credentials as a big-game player were by now firmly established, had two game-winning goals in the playoffs and finally was able to capture what for 14 seasons had eluded him. "That first Cup was such an incredible relief," he remembers. "I don't know if I enjoyed it that much while it was happening. Until it's over you're just such a bundle of nerves."

The next year was different. The Wings repeated as Cup champions in 1998, and this time the Captain was able to savor the entire experience. With 24 points in 22 games he led all playoff scorers and was named winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as MVP of the playoffs. "Probably the biggest thing you notice about Stevie is, the bigger the game, the better he plays," says Kris Draper, a teammate since 1993. "He's always been able to elevate his game when it's been needed."

Never was that more apparent than during the 2002 playoffs, when Yzerman, playing on a knee that had been operated on arthroscopically in January and would require major reconstructive surgery in the off-season, led the Wings to a third Stanley Cup. They became the first team in NHL history to lose their first two playoff games at home (to the Canucks) and still go on to win it all. "Before the third game he just nonchalantly and casually addresses the team, and the next thing you know, we go out and win four straight," says Draper. "That's how legends are made. He doesn't speak a lot, but he knows when to speak, and that's what makes him such a great leader."

"He really willed us through the Vancouver series," says Holland. "He scored the first goal of Game 3 when he could hardly walk."

Yzerman had to have his knee drained twice during the playoffs, and he received an anti-inflammatory shot before every game. He iced his knee between periods and grimaced in pain whenever he fell, using his stick as a crutch to help himself up. The training staff held their breaths on every shift. Still, the hobbling Captain managed to lead the team in scoring in the postseason with 23 points in 23 games. "I just asked him to see how far he could go," says Bowman, who retired after winning that 2002 Cup--his ninth, breaking a record he'd shared with Canadiens coach Toe Blake. "Steve was in a lot of pain, but he just kept going. He's a highly, highly competitive player. Really an intense competitor, and very skillful, like Henri Richard. A complete player. The bigger the challenge, the more he'd rise to meet it. And he never let anything fester. If somebody goofed up, he didn't pull any punches."

"Steve's leadership will be missed huge," says goaltender Chris Osgood. "Guys just naturally work harder when they're around him. His presence in the room always makes the team better."

"You see what he's done through the injuries and the pain he's had to play through," says forward Kirk Maltby, "and you know you have to go out there and do it yourself."

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