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Austin Murphy
March 20, 1989
Motown's Steve Yzerman, the NHL's third-brightest star, could climb even higher on the charts
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March 20, 1989

No. 3 With A Bullet

Motown's Steve Yzerman, the NHL's third-brightest star, could climb even higher on the charts

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Each new unhappy tiding brought a fusillade of tough questions for Yzerman, the team captain. "It got to be a bit much there for a while," says right wing Tim Higgins. "A lot of 23-year-old guys would have cracked. But Stevie just dealt with it."

The chaos burdened the Red Wings on the ice as well. Demers had expected Klima and Probert to score 80 goals between them. Probert had four when he was expelled, Klima 18 through Sunday. The line of Yzerman, left wing Gerard Gallant and right wing Paul MacLean, who played the previous seven seasons for the Winnipeg Jets, had to pick up the slack. Until this month, when the line of Klima, Adam Oates and Dave Barr came alive, the Yzerman trio had accounted for more than 50% of Detroit's goals.

Yzerman's scoring has tailed off over the past fortnight. He was held pointless in a 5-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs last Saturday night. The reason for his minislump is that the shadowing he has been subjected to all season is finally taking its toll. "It's ridiculous," says Gallant. "They're not paying any attention to the puck, just to Steve."

Let them shadow to their hearts' contents, says Demers. On March 4 in St. Louis, Blues center Rick Meagher had a hand on Yzerman's stick all night. But St. Louis forgot about Klima's line, which accounted for four goals in Detroit's 5-4 overtime win. On March 9 the New York Rangers' Lucien DeBlois was in Yzerman's face all evening and finally took a critical holding penalty early in the third period. With DeBlois in the penalty box, the Wings scored the tying goal in an eventual 3-2 victory.

Yzerman's status as an MVP contender—"Throughout all the turmoil he didn't quit and he wouldn't let other players quit," Demers says—has overshadowed his chances of becoming the comeback player of the year. Minutes after scoring his 50th goal of 1987-88, against the Buffalo Sabres on March 1 last year, Yzerman drove to the net, lost an edge on a skate and crashed, knee-first, into the goal post. The collision ruptured the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Doctors said the injury would be season-ending and possibly career-ending. They were twice wrong.

Forgoing major reconstructive surgery, Yzerman worked two to three hours a day to strengthen the muscles around the destroyed ligament. "He attacked his therapy better than anyone I've ever had," says Red Wing physical therapist Jim Pengelly. "Not a whiff of self-pity. It was just, 'Let's get to work. Whatever it's going to take, let's do it.' "

Yzerman returned to action on May 7, for Game 3 of the Campbell Conference finals against the Edmonton Oilers. When Yzerman took the ice at the start of the game, the fans at Joe Louis Arena gave him a one-minute standing ovation. Detroit won 5-2 for its only victory of the series.

Had Yzerman undergone major surgery, he would be returning to the ice only this month. "With the operation," he says, "the doctors graft in a new ligament and attach it with screws to your tibia and your femur. Often it's difficult to get the right tension. It's not a very exact procedure, and there's no guarantee that it'll be better than if you never had the surgery."

During last year's playoffs, Yzerman wrote a column for the Detroit Free Press. Far from the ghost-written pap that is the norm for guest articles, Yzerman's pieces were provocative. He castigated the NHL for its failure to maintain order in the Boston- Montreal series. He criticized the playoff format as too long and, with 16 teams qualifying, too inclusive.

Like Gretzky, Yzerman is opinionated and well-spoken. With regard to fighting in the NHL, Yzerman has an unusual but meritorious idea. "The league could commission a study," says Yzerman, whose father, Ronald, is a high-ranking bureaucrat in the Canadian government. "They could eliminate fighting in one of the Canadian junior leagues for a season and study the effects of the ban on that league. That way the NHL could see if there is a detrimental effect on the game."

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