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The least debated subject in the NHL, other than who has the ugliest home uniforms (the Vancouver Canucks, in a walkover), is, Who's No. 3? While fans argue passionately over who is the league's best player, Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, everyone agrees on who comes next: center Steve Yzerman of the Detroit Red Wings.
Yzerman's offensive skills are far beyond those of ordinary NHL players but not quite extraordinary enough to put him into the orbit of Gretzky and Lemieux. Last week Yzerman was asked what it's like to hold a long-term lease on third place. Is it discouraging? Do one's dreams take on a bronze hue? Yzerman ruminated for a few moments, as is his wont, and then offered this surprising answer: "Personally, I don't think I'm Number 3."
Here was a scoop. For Yzerman, who's known around the NHL as the star that self-importance forgot, this amounted to trash-talking of the most insolent sort. Tell us, Steve, he was asked, which of the league's two reigning demigods have you, in your own mind, displaced?
"No, that's not how I mean it," said Yzerman, smiling. "What I mean is, there are so many guys who do such excellent jobs with different roles at different positions, that it's unfair to single one of us out as third best. Who's to say Grant Fuhr isn't Number 3 or Ray Bourque or Paul Coffey or Sean Burke or Dale Hawerchuk or Mark Messier?"
A typical Yzerman move: wriggling out of a jam with self-deprecation. This is the guy who after only six years holds more single-season Red Wing scoring records than Gordie Howe, yet is too shy to approach Mr. Hockey and say hello. "What am I supposed to say," said Yzerman earlier this season. " 'Hey, Gordie, how's it going?' "
Yzerman, who is 23, needn't be so shy. When Howe is asked to compare Gretzky and Lemieux, he peppers his analysis with references to Yzerman, saying things like, " Wayne, Mario, Steve—all the great ones have that sixth sense around the net," and "Of the three of them, I think Yzerman's got the best lateral movement."
Howe could add another point: Unlike Lemieux, whose production has been erratic for the past month and a half, Yzerman comes to play every night. "He's working all the time; he's not a floater," says Detroit coach Jacques Demers, implicitly comparing his star with Lemieux.
It is generous of Yzerman to lump himself in with Messier, Hawerchuk and the others. Too generous. He is out of their league. At week's end, Yzerman's 137 points were (what else?) third best in the NHL, behind (who else?) Gretzky, who had 153, and Lemieux, who had 179.
Yzerman is the only player on the Norris Division-leading Red Wings not to have missed a game this season. He has excelled for a club so beset with turmoil that its dressing room on some days could be confused with a precinct holding pen. Further, he has excelled despite severing one of the four major ligaments in his right knee last March.
Turbulent from the start, Detroit's season has included the legal misadventures of right wing Bob Probert, who two weeks ago was arrested for importing half an ounce of cocaine into the U.S. and then was summarily expelled from the NHL. Probert and left wing Petr Klima had begun the season with demotions: Probert for missing a team flight. Klima for missing a practice. In addition, Klima was jailed for two days last month for driving while impaired—while on probation for having driven while impaired. In separate incidents last August and November, left wing Joey Kocur was charged with assaulting a woman. He pleaded guilty to one count of disorderly conduct in the first case and is awaiting a hearing on the second.