Friday, August 20, 2010

The Greatest Red Wings of MY Time - #1

Look, let's be completely honest with each other; we all knew who #1 was going to be. So instead of some drawn out introduction, let's just get to it. The Greatest Red Wing of My Time.

Steve Yzerman

Pertinent Stats: 1514 GP, 692 G, 1063 A, 1755 P, +202
Awards: Lester Pearson Award - 1989; Selke Trophy - 2000; Conn Smythe - 1998; Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy - 2003; Lester Patrick Trophy (for contributions to hockey in the US) - 2006
Stanley Cups: 4- 1997, 1998, 2002, 2008 (as an executive)

Was there ever a doubt?

I was going to do what I did with everyone else: trace his career and then talk about what he meant to the team. But so many people have done that in the past few months, especially after he took the Lightning job. Plus, let's face facts: we all know the Steve Yzerman story.

It's extremely ironic to me that the man that was the most important on-ice reason for the turnaround of the franchise wasn't even the Wings' first choice when he was drafted. The Wings wanted American-born Pat LaFontaine, but the Islanders swooped in and picked him up, so the Wings had to settle for Yzerman. He had a fantastic rookie season, and (surprise, surprise) he finished second in Calder voting to Tom Barrasso. He bounced back to be the offensive superstar for the Wings in the '80s, but after repeated regular season success followed by playoff failures, he transformed his game to become one of the best defensive forwards in the league, ultimately leading the Wings to 3 Stanley Cups. But I'm not here to rehash his career; I'm here to talk about what Yzerman was to me.

Like many people around my age, especially those of us that never lived in Detroit or Michigan, Yzerman was THE reason why I became a Red Wing fan. My Steve Yzerman story began in 1986 when I saw him play for the first time. I was 8 years old, and I was mesmerized. As a young lad in Toronto, I was bombarded with Maple Leaf fans and coverage; in hockey school, most of the guys I was with said that they were the player on the Leafs that corresponded with their uniform number. I got #24, which was Dan Daoust (and if anyone remembers Dan Daoust, you know that's not that big a deal). As I say in my "About" section, I never felt a real connection to the Leafs or any of their players. However, when I saw Yzerman, I knew that this was someone I wanted to know more about. So, over the next 2 years, I followed him; I would check the boxscores to see if he had any goals or assists in the previous night's game; I would read The Hockey News and any other magazine I could get my hands on for news about him. That season saw the Leafs play the Wings in the 2nd round of the playoffs, and it was my first time seeing Yzerman play on a regular basis. And after 2 years of doing this, I started to learn about the other players and the team in general, and realized they were pretty darn good, so in 1988 I officially declared myself a Red Wing fan.

I have so many memories of Yzerman, especially as a young kid. When I was 12 years old the Wings were playing the Leafs on HNIC, and Stevie scored the first 3 goals of the game in the first period. In what is my favourite saying by an announcer, Bob Cole enthusiastically announced the score as being "3-0 Yzerman!" Back in those days, we didn't have TSN or Sportsnet, so the only time I could see him play was when it was against the Leafs, which was pretty good because the Wings usually won. Once the playoffs would start I would get more coverage, but it was never enough. The worst year was 1993, when the Wings lost to the Leafs in the first round. 1994 wasn't much better because the Wings once again lost in the first round, this time to the Sharks. It was during that summer that the unheard-of happened; there was talk of trading Yzerman, and the big rumour was to Ottawa, who were absolutely horrid at the time. It's funny to think about now, but there was a very good chance that Yzerman was not going to be a Wing forever. Thank God the trade never materialized, because I don't think that I could have become a Senators fan; although since they are the Leafs' biggest rivals, I'm probably a pseudo-Sens fan anyway.

God, just writing this is bringing all sorts of good memories back; the run in ’95 that, while it didn’t end the way I wanted it to, was still a lot of fun. The double OT goal in 1996 against the Blues. That game was a roller-coaster of emotions; at one point I was literally in the fetal position on the floor, and when Yzerman scored, I jumped so high that I nearly hit my head on the ceiling. I then did my “Yzerman Dance” – I ran up and down the hallway screaming “Stevie! Stevie!” at the top of my lungs. When I watched a game, I would hoot and holler when the Wings scored, but I would go absolutely insane if Yzerman was the one who got the goal. Winning the Cup in ’98 and immediately turning and placing it in Konstantinov’s lap, touching off the greatest Stanley Cup celebration ever. I remember every single shift of his in 2002, from the Olympics on, especially in the playoffs when he had to use his stick to just stand up. Every time he went down, I (like I’m sure a lot of you) winced as I watched him get up. After that season he had knee surgery, and the stories that were circulated were that this was a surgery normally reserved for the elderly. Mortal men would have had their careers ended by it; Yzerman played 16 games the next season. I cringed when he was struck in the face with a puck in 2004 against the Flames, especially after seeing the pictures in the following days showing just how bloodied and bruised the eye was. I was afraid that the injury, combined with the upcoming labor stoppage, might have ended his career. Thankfully he came back for one more year in 2005-06, but it was just not to be. I found out about Stevie’s retirement in a very unusual way: I was watching Around the Horn on ESPN, and Jay Mariotti “won” that day. If you’re not familiar with the show, they have 4 national sportswriters talking about anything and everything in sports, although hockey is rarely discussed. The “winner” is judged by the host, and he gets 30 seconds at the end of the show to talk about whatever he wanted. Mariotti used his time to talk about how classy and great Yzerman was, and ended it by stating that he had announced his retirement. I immediately hopped online and read anything and everything I could get my hands on. I choked up as I watched his retirement press conference, and when he stood up and walked out of the room, I realized that a big chapter of my life had just closed. It was really tough to deal with, knowing that my hero would no longer be doing what I had come to love about him the most: making the Red Wings a great team.

However, any memory I had of Yzerman that I considered to be the best is trumped by the night he picked up the Stanley Cup and took it for the solo lap around the Joe. I cried that night, and some of that were tears of relief because no more would I have to hear shit like “Yzerman is a choker” or that he “couldn’t win the big one”. Every negative thing that I had to endure as a Wing fan in enemy territory was wiped away in one second. But what I remember from that celebration was something that might have been missed by a lot of people. Being Canadian, I only had access to CBC to watch the games. 1997 were the days before Don Cherry completely lost his mind, and I wanted to see how he would react to the Wings being in the Finals and ultimately winning. Unfortunately, this was around the time that his wife passed away, so he was not on any of the broadcasts. The reason for his absence was not given, but after the Wings had won and were giving on-ice interviews, Ron Maclean got a hold of Yzerman and was talking to him. Once the interview was over, Stevie looked at Ron and said that he wanted Don Cherry to know that he was thinking of him and his prayers were with him. This man had just reached the pinnacle of his professional career, a place that only a select few men have ever been to, and he has the presence of mind to give his sympathy to Don Cherry on the loss of his wife.

And that’s why Yzerman was amazing. Besides my father, this was the man I looked up to the most. I wanted to be like him on the ice as a player; I always fancied myself as the quiet, hard-working type, although I didn’t have nearly the amount of talent that he did. But I also wanted to be like him off the ice. To this day, I have never heard a negative story about Yzerman. I’ve never met him in person (as evidenced by the fact I have never peed myself in public), but if I did, I would expect him to be gracious, soft-spoken and….nice, just like he appears to be. Maybe I’m na├»ve about that, but I don’t care. The man not only took the Red Wings to great heights on the ice, but he represented the Wings with class, grace and dignity off of it. When he was named as the GM for the Canadian Olympic team, I wanted him to succeed with every fiber of my being, because I knew that non-Wing fans would not appreciate him if they lost. When Canada won gold, I didn’t care about the players; I only cared about Yzerman being known forever as the architect of the team that won a gold medal on home ice.

I always used to joke that I had a non-sexual crush on Stevie. I would be ok with going out with him and talking, maybe even with a little hand-holding; but that’s as far as it would go. My sister used to tell me that he was “cute”, and more than once I told her that I didn’t care, and deep down I didn’t, but the fact that women found him attractive only added to his awesomeness.

Stevie’s importance for me went well beyond just being a great hockey player. As a kid, I wasn’t the most out-going person, and I had few really close friends that I could count on; I guess you could say I was a bit of a loner. Yzerman, and the Wings, were one of the first real “connections” I ever made to something beyond my family. When they disappointed me, I would be hurt, but I had pledged my undying loyalty to them, and it was all due to Stevie. I defended them against anyone who dared to question their greatness, and took particular offense if anyone derided Yzerman in particular. Even now, 22 years later, that connection is as strong as it ever was, and might even be getting stronger thanks to my connection to all of you. You see, for most of my life, I was the only Red Wing fan I knew: I didn’t have anyone to share my experiences with. When they won, I laughed and cheered alone; when they lost, I would wallow in my depression for days with no outlet except my friends (who usually laughed) or my parents (who told me to get over it). I yelled at refs, trash-talked opponents and celebrated victories, and when I used to see all the fans at the Joe cheering, I felt like I was there with them.

There’s no questioning Yzerman’s place in the history of his team: only Gordie Howe had as great an impact on the franchise as Stevie did. Yzerman ranks second in every single offensive statistic in team history except assists (in which he is first), and owns almost every single-season offensive record for the team as well. In 1988-89 he became one of three players to score 150 points in one year (talk about a good year to hop on the bandwagon, eh?) He is third in games played, and holds the unbreakable record of being the longest serving captain of 1 team (19 consecutive years). He was the face of the franchise for his entire career, and his retirement left a gaping hole in the team and in our hearts. He played the game the right way: with style and grace, but with a competitive edge. He was never a dirty player, and was universally respected by his peers. That respect carried over to off the ice as well, where he was known as a gentleman and team player. He was not just an amazing Red Wing, but one of the greatest players of all time. He could easily have stayed an offensive superstar and racked up other-wordly numbers; instead he chose to develop every facet of his game so he could make the team better. It's no fluke that half of the players in the NHL today (including bitch Crosby and Toews) consider Yzerman to be their hero growing up; they obviously have some taste. I could go on and on, but this is long enough as it is, and I’ve got to wrap it up sometime. Stevie Y, Stevie Wonder, The Captain; whatever you want to call him, Steve Yzerman was and always will be the Greatest Red Wing of My Time.

8 comments:

  1. All the prizes to you sir. Outstanding read.

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  2. @CaptNorris5,

    Thanks a lot. Like most of us, Stevie meant a great deal to me. I hope I was able to show that through the post. I appreciate the kind words.

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  3. Breath taking Graham,

    I can sense your true devotion to our great team with these past few posts. Definite tear jerker material you've been composing. It's a real shame you never got to meet someone that meant so much to you growing up. Hopefully one day though!

    It was an honor to read all of these!

    -Brandon

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  4. Graham:

    I'm more than twice your age. Grew up on the farm in rural Ontario. When I was nine, our next door neighbours bought the first TV in the area. Went over one Saturday night to watch hockey--Leafs versus Red Wings. Midway through the game, a big, slope-shouldered Red Wing player picked up the puck in his own end; skated through the entire Leaf team; and roofed the puck on Harry Lumley. That's when I became a Gordie Howe fan, and a Red Wing fan for life. So I know how you feel about Steve. His arrival was a ray of light for me, too, after a decade-and-a-half of darkness.

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  5. This summer has been an ride through hockey memories: the unexpected, and tragic, death of Probie; the NHL Networks Top Ten and their replay of the Stanley Cup finals games; your The Greatest Red Wings of MY Time; and Puck Daddys Mount Puckmore. Oh, and there was also that anticipation waiting for the signing of Mo - feeling hope like when Brett, Luke or Dallas joined the team - "cuppy, cuppy, cuppy."

    All of this has made for an emotional remembering of all the ups and downs of the last 20 hockey seasons. Gratefully most of them were ups and not downs (RIP Probie). Thanks to the Red Wings cast of characters assembled by a great organization that truly treats its players, staff and fans like family.

    The #1 Greatest Red Wing of MY Time has to be the Ilitches. I realize you were doing players and I agree there, but without them we might never have had the last 20 years to celebrate. Their commitment to making, and keeping, a championship team in Michigan (from Hockeytown North so can't say Detroit) has made all of this possible.

    -wingsluver4ever

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  6. Finally found the time to catch up on the rest of these-well written all throughout and I can't argue with any of them. Bravo, good sir. I think we could fill many volumes of books with Steve Yzerman memories from fans, and I'd read every single one of them. My favorite player not just in hockey but in any sport.

    @TheNorm41

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  7. I have really enjoyed reading all of these entries. Great writing and you can tell how much passion you have for the people you have been talking about.

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  8. Graham -

    Nicely done buddy. Worth every minute of reading going through them - ALL of them.

    Not trying to make you jealous here at all, but I did meet Steve once. He was very young, just into the league, and well here's a shock - he was extremely polite and just as you would imagine. The kid was downright nice. Almost shy and reserved. He came into the car audio shop I worked at and bought a system for his car. Probably 1984? I think. He spent a decent amount of $$, but not like the football players today or anything close. We installed the system that day and he was gone.

    I was already a big Wings fan - I grew up going to Olympia Stadium, watching Gordie, Delvecchio, Nick Libbett and others. Of course, the Wings were not a good team then - so Steve was looked at pretty much as "the savior" (not that he wanted that title mind you, but we were desperate for anything hopeful).

    It was kind of a fleeting moment for me, and I'm sure he doesn't even remember it - but still very cool, especially for a Wings fan like I was - I was talking with everyone in the shop and it was very clear that I was pretty much the only real hockey fan among them, since no one else really cared much about the Wings or Steve Yzerman.

    My wife and Steve share a birthday too, so anytime his birthday comes up on Wings TV games, my wife never hesitates to point out their shared day.

    Anyway, nuff said - I thought you might enjoy a couple personal anecdotes from the Heartland. Your whole series was a great read dude - thanks for bringing back a whole bunch of great memories.

    Keep in touch - I'll be reading.

    Smitty

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