Bruins coach and former NHL defenseman Dave Lewis knows Steve Yzerman as well as anyone in the league. He is the only man to play alongside Yzerman (in 1986-87 and '87-88) and serve as his head coach (from 2002 to '04). A member of the Red Wings' organization for two decades, Lewis offers his thoughts on what number 19 has meant to the franchise.
I DISTINCTLY remember the first time I played against Steve Yzerman. During the 1983-84 season [Yzerman's rookie year] I was a defenseman with the New Jersey Devils, and when we came into Detroit, I had already read and heard about the hype surrounding this kid. During one shift I went into the corner with him, and he didn't have a lot of strength. You could see the flash and dash in him, but in battling him one-on-one, he didn't have the strength that I was used to with the guys who were the superstars of the game. He hadn't developed yet.
That would soon change. [Former Red Wings coach] Jacques Demers named him captain at the start of the 1986-87 season, which happened to be my first year in Detroit. It was an interesting time for the franchise. [General manager] Jimmy Devellano went out and brought in a bunch of veteran guys like myself because the year before had been one of the worst in franchise history. I remember talking to Steve about it. He did not know what to do as a captain, especially with a bunch of guys who had been around the league. He asked a lot of questions: How do you deal with a teammate who needs to be challenged or corrected? How do you deal with a coach? How do you deal with the media?
One of the biggest things in his development was his right-knee injury late in the 1987-88 season. How did an injury help him? He was probably more determined than anyone I've ever seen to get back. He aggressively took on his rehabilitation. I think that mind-set helped him later on in his career.
As a player Steve reminded me a lot of Bryan Trottier in terms of his mentality. I'm looking for the right word. Stubborn? That's not a good enough adjective. I think it's more like a certain belief system. To accomplish what needed to be done Steve was as focused and determined as anyone I've ever known. Was he a vocal guy in the locker room? Not really. He didn't say a lot, but when he did, people listened to him. When he was upset with his performance or a breakdown on the ice, he would react coming back to the bench, often breaking a stick. He didn't have to say a word. It was a reaction that said, You can't do this and expect to win.
I think he went through three different stages in Detroit. The first stage was here was this high draft pick, this unbelievable talent who the fans were going to hang their hat on and watch lead them to the Stanley Cup. He soon achieved all the accolades, all the All-Star Game selections, but we never really had playoff success. So what followed was a period of major criticism. There was a notion of a lack of leadership from Steve Yzerman and an inability to lead Detroit to the Stanley Cup. He carried that criticism starting with the 1993-94 season--the year before we lost to New Jersey in the finals--until we won the Stanley Cup in '97. From then on, he sort of became a legend around here.
Obviously, he's the greatest player I've ever coached. Whenever there was a critical moment in a game, you wanted him on the ice. And that was whether it was an offensive or a defensive situation. As a coach, you can't find many players like that, someone who you would want on the ice against anybody at any time with the game on the line. The ultimate compliment for a player? Your coach has a belief in you, your teammates have a belief in you, and you can accomplish what they believe in. It's going to be totally different without him. It'll be different for the players, for management and for the people watching in Detroit and around the country. It will be odd not to see number 19 on the ice. When he didn't dress for a game, you could still look at his locker and sort of say, What would Steve do? Now that will be all gone.
I'll never forget the championship parade in '97. You saw generations of people lined up on the streets. It was like this weight was finally lifted off their shoulders. The strength of the franchise is Steve's legacy. The Red Wings were Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay and Alex Delvecchio and success, and then they got lost for 20-something years. Stevie brought it back.