From kid to hockey hero

MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:03 AM ET

Forced to stop running, Terry Fox kept on looking up and seeing kids lining the highway near Thunder Bay.

And so he would run on, unwilling to let anyone see him quit, just the way the Detroit Red Wings' Steve Yzerman had run on until yesterday, outlegging horrific eye and knee injuries and the savage indignities heaped upon his body over a 22-year-career.

It is sacrilege, of course, to compare any hockey player, even one as great as Yzerman, to Terry Fox -- but for the fact that they started as audacious kids and ended as heroes.

"I wanted to be in the NHL since I was a little kid," Yzerman said at his goodbye news conference in Detroit. "It's all I've ever wanted to do."

Their transcendence, Fox from a shy, stubborn runner to a national icon, Yzerman from statistical marvel to consummate captain, made for captivating viewing because they both had it: A greatness that burst forth in unimaginable measure.

For Yzerman, the Wings' 2002 Stanley Cup win, where he hobbled about the ice on one sound knee yet finished with a point a game, was a mark of delineation, his crowning achievement.

Even at 41, Yzerman, considered one more run. He would make up his mind to come back, then sleep on it. Unassailable instinct would take over when he slept. "Every time I'd wake up and say, you know what, it's time to retire," he said.

"I've had a wonderful career," he said with his voice breaking. "I really enjoyed it."

It was a career that in its first half mirrored those of the great unfulfilled talents, the Gilbert Perreaults, the Marcel Dionnes.

He scored 39 goals as an 18-year-old and was the youngest player to wear an all-star sweater. A captain at 21, he ripped off seven 100-point seasons and the Wings won absolutely nothing.

By his 30th birthday, Steve Yzerman's career path seemed written. He would score, the pitiful Wings would lose. Twice, Yzerman was left off Canada Cup rosters by Mike Keenan.

The arrival of Scotty Bowman shoved Yzerman's game into the stratosphere. Yzerman's point total dropped from 137 to 82 in Bowman's first year. He would never clear 100 points again but he would spend his final 11 years as a plus player. Bowman transformed Yzerman into a formidable weapon: A checker able to exploit the kind of glaring defensive weaknesses that once pockmarked his own game.

It took four more years before the Red Wings would win Yzerman his first Cup.

The next year, 1998, he put the Stanley Cup in the stricken hands of Vladimir Konstantinov as the Conn Smythe Trophy winner.

The one-way talent was now a two-way star. Yzerman won two consecutive Selke Trophies for defensive excellence.

He would win an Olympic gold in 2002, return from a horrific eye injury and manage a respectable 14 goals and 20 assists last year. A rib injury forced Yzerman out of two first-round games against Edmonton. He shouldn't have played the rest of the series but of course, did.

The longest-serving captain in NHL history, he remains sacrosanct in Detroit and widely loved elsewhere. That's because Steve Yzerman is proof that even late in the game, stunning individual greatness can be traded, under the right circumstances, for something even greater.


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