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Yzerman now looks back on that painful yet ultimately successful 2002 season with a special fondness. "Canada won the Olympic gold medal in February, then the Wings won the Presidents' Trophy and the Stanley Cup," he says. "It was a special time. We had a such a bunch of unique players, guys who hadn't been with us in '98, some who'd never won a Cup before. Steve Duchesne, Luc Robitaille, Brett Hull, Chelios, Dominic Hasek. I'll always cherish that year."
In the summer of 2002 Yzerman had an osteotomy, a radical operation that totally realigns the knee. "Athletes don't do it," says Holland. "It's usually something you have done in your 50s or 60s to postpone total knee replacement surgery."
Yzerman missed the first 66 games of 2002-03, but against all odds he returned to the Red Wings' lineup for the last 16 games and was awarded the NHL's Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, which exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. Yzerman returned to form in '03-04, playing 75 games in the regular season and leading the team to another first-place finish in the Central Division and another Presidents' Trophy. His importance in the playoffs was again highlighted when, tied at two games each, Yzerman suffered a fractured orbital bone in Game 5 of Detroit's second-round series against Calgary. Without the Captain, the Wings lost that game and the next one, which Yzerman couldn't dress for, by 1-0 scores.
After the lockout eliminated the 2004-05 season, Yzerman, at 40, again had to battle through injuries in '05-06. He pulled a groin in training camp, then struggled with his timing and conditioning when he returned. Mike Babcock, the Red Wings' first-year coach, didn't give him the playing time he was used to. Still, Babcock recognized the value Yzerman brought to the entire organization, both on and off the ice. "I've never seen anybody that his teammates think so highly of," Babcock said, "but as good a leader as he is, he's a way better human being and family man. He's touched so many people. We've got cancer kids around all the time, people that he reaches out to that you never hear about because he's not going to share himself in that way. This is a good man."
A good man who still believed he could contribute on the ice. Yzerman had taken a big pay cut to return for one last run at a championship, negotiating his own salary from a high of $8 million a year down to $1.25 million so the Red Wings could stay within the salary cap. "He understood he was getting toward the end of his career and that his was more of a checking role now, playing on the third line with the ability to win some face-offs," says Devellano. "He wasn't one of those former superstars who still had to play 18 to 20 minutes a game and be on the power play."
"I'm just trying to help out," Yzerman said with characteristic humility. "I'm a role player now, and the situations I used to play in are for younger, stronger, healthier players."
Still, as his final season progressed, the old warrior proved he still had some gas in the tank. The 11-game point streak he put together from March 19 to April 8 was the longest by a Red Wing all season, and he scored 11 points in his last 10 games. Along the way he passed Lemieux in goals and Howe in assists. Said Devellano during the playoffs, "The last couple of months he was like the Steve Yzerman of old."
Despite missing two games with a painful rib injury, in the first round of the playoffs Yzerman scored four points in four games. The Wings, though--again regular-season Presidents' Trophy champions--were upset in six games by the Edmonton Oilers. Of Yzerman's absence in the critical Game 5 loss in Detroit, goaltender Manny Legace said, "That's a big hole in the lineup. Just having Steve Yzerman on the bench is an inspiration."
It was so for 23 years. Overshadowed early in his career by the supernovas of Gretzky and Lemieux--in their prime the two greatest centers in the history of the game--Yzerman now steps aside secure in the knowledge that no player of his era was more selfless, more respected and more complete. In 2000 the former 155-point scorer was given the ultimate compliment of being awarded the Frank J. Selke Trophy as the NHL's best defensive forward. He could win face-offs, block shots, score and inspire. He was a winner to the core.
"Since I came into the league, there's been three types of hockey played," Yzerman said in April. "At first it was a high-scoring game, very violent in terms of fighting, in which everyone concentrated on offense. Then, starting in about 1994, the trap took hold, and offense was more of a counterattack. It was a methodical, plodding game with less fighting. Now, since the resolution of the strike, it's more of a flowing game, more open, very tightly refereed, with less violence than any time in my career. The thing is," the Captain said, thinking back on his years wearing the winged wheel, "a good player can adjust to any type of hockey."