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Here's a BRAIN TICKLER: IF THE MINNESOTA NORTH STARS had taken Steve Yzerman with the first pick in the 1983 draft instead of a high school kid named Brian Lawton, would the Stars have ever had to move to Dallas? Or if the Hartford Whalers, picking second, had chosen the 18-year-old Yzerman instead of Sylvain Turgeon, would there still be an NHL team in Hartford?
Who can say? But if a franchise had ever been in need of saving, the Detroit Red Wings of 1983 was that club. The once-proud Wings had missed the playoffs--a difficult trick in an era when 16 of 22 teams advanced to postseason play--for 14 of the previous 17 years. They hadn't won a divisional title since 1965 or a Stanley Cup since 1955. Thousands of seats in the four-year-old Joe Louis Arena went begging every night. The Dead Things, the team was mockingly called. Hockeytown? The Red Wings played in a place that could have been called Nowheresville.
Enter a hero. Into this mire of failure was plunged a young, shy center from the outskirts of Ottawa with the funny last name of Yzerman. "I said at the time we'd build our franchise around him," recalls Jim Devellano, the general manager of those sorry Wings, now the team's senior VP, who in his very first draft for Detroit took Yzerman with the fourth pick. "I said that he'd be our cornerstone, and that's exactly what happened. Steve's been a first-class human being and the face of the team ever since."
Yzerman, 41, who retired after 22 magnificent seasons with the Red Wings, is the rarest of professional athletes: a superstar who spent his entire career with the team that drafted him. He may be, with the Tigers' Al Kaline, the most popular athlete to ever play in Detroit. Certainly no one, not even Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe, is more strongly identified with the Red Wings. "It took a little longer to win one than I'd hoped, but from about '87 on we were always potential contenders for the Stanley Cup," Yzerman said in April. "I was never even tempted to leave. I've lived in Detroit longer than I've lived anywhere else. My three daughters were all born here. This is our home."
He hangs up his number 19 jersey, which no doubt will soon be draped from the Joe Louis Arena rafters, the C forever stitched to its chest, as the Wings' alltime leader in assists (1,063) and playoff points (185). He is second only to the great Howe in goals (692), points (1,755) and games played (1,514) by a Red Wings player. Only twice in his 22-year career did Detroit fail to make the playoffs. Team captain since he was 21--a 20-year tenure that is the longest in NHL history--Yzerman led the team to three Stanley Cup championships (1997, '98, '02), five Presidents' Trophies (NHL regular-season champions) and nine Central Division titles. Classy, humble and respected, Yzerman returned the glory to Hockeytown.
"He's one of the best leaders, if not the best leader, I've ever seen," says 44-year-old Chris Chelios, another future Hall of Famer, who joined the Wings in 1999. "I compare him to [Montreal Canadiens legend] Bob Gainey in that respect, one of those guys you really look up to for leadership. Just a quality person on and off the ice. He's been one of the best ambassadors for hockey there's ever been."
Individually, Yzerman leaves the game as one of the NHL's alltime leading scorers--he is sixth in points, eighth in goals and seventh in assists. Only 5'11" and 185 pounds, he had soft hands, a wicked shot and as quick a first step as anyone who ever played. He could stutter-step around you one time down the ice and stickhandle through you the next. Yzerman twice scored more than 60 goals in a regular season, and the 155 points he tallied in '88-89 has only been exceeded by two players in the history of the league: Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.
But the Captain was never motivated by individual awards and trophies, and midway though his career he completely changed his style of play in order to help bring Detroit a championship.
"We had some really good teams in the early '90s, but we couldn't get it done in the playoffs," says Devellano. "So we brought Scotty Bowman in to get us over the hump in 1993. Up until then Stevie was a tremendous one-way player, which we'd encouraged. In his early years we needed his goals and assists and, well, his glitz to sell tickets and to promote the team. Scotty didn't care about any of that. He was determined that players were going to play his way. Fortunately for us, Yzerman was willing to adjust."
Coach Bowman was given the additional title of director of player personnel after the high-scoring Wings were upset in the first round of the 1994 playoffs by the San Jose Sharks, and he called Yzerman into his office to discuss changes he wanted to see in his play. "Steve had set a lot of individual records and had carried the offense by himself," recalls Bowman, "but he'd been in the league for 10 years and the team had never won. I didn't have to do much convincing. He's an intense competitor and was more interested in team success."