Due one more shot at glory

BRUCE GARRIOCH -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 3:21 PM ET

DETROIT -- The Warrior points to the aches and pains of a 22-year NHL career as he sits in a restaurant deep in Detroit suburbia, the sun beaming through the window. Pain. Plenty of it. Neck. Back. Shoulder. Knee. Eye. Injuries that would have sent mortal men scurrying to their hockey afterlives.

But Steve Yzerman played on, sometimes in excruciating pain. With pride. With courage. And with purpose. He knows his NHL career is winding down, but he vows to soldier on. In his own unassuming way, of course.

There's no doubt Yzerman has star power. There's a mural of the Red Wings centre in downtown Detroit. And he can't go far without being recognized. As he walks into Champ's restaurant, the waitress introduces herself and he's quick to say: "Hi, Carolyn." It's a small thing, but it's the small things that say so much about The Warrior's character.

Earlier as Yzerman, dressed in casual black, pulls up to the Troy Marriott behind the wheel of his white GMC Envoy, he apologizes for being late by 20 minutes.

An intensely private man, he doesn't seek the limelight. He draws the line at talking in great detail about his wife Lisa and children Isabella (11), Maria (6) and Sophia (5). Isabella just started playing hockey. The No. 19 wasn't available, so she settled for 20 on her jersey.

Yzerman likes to golf -- he's a 14-handicap and with spare time on his hands, he's been at the range hitting balls. He's a member at Oakland Hills, home of the 2004 Ryder Cup.

In a peek at the inner Yzerman, he's a wine collector -- and a big English soccer fan. On this day, he's wearing a Liverpool jacket.

And while Yzerman prefers to remain low key, others line up to give testimonials.

"Steve likes to lead by example," says Wings defenceman Nik Lidstrom. "He plays with his heart and with his soul. He lays it all on the line.

"When I think of Steve Yzerman, I like to think about 2002 when we won the Stanley Cup. He was basically playing on one leg. He couldn't practise for two months and he even had a difficult time taking part in the 15-minute warmup. But when the puck was dropped, he was there and he performed. We've been together for 13 years. He's tough as nails."

But that's Steve Yzerman. The quiet kid on the school bus who never knew the meaning of the word quit.

The rink behind D. Aubrey Moodie was cold and dark as Jean Yzerman ventured out from her Arnold Dr. home trying to make sure her 11-year-old son got out of the cold and finished his homework.The boy begged for one more minute, then another, but the mother knew this could turn into hours and school was just as important as launching one more puck at the net or studying the curve on the stick.

"There was hockey and school ... and hockey always came first," said his father, Ron Yzerman.

Steve Yzerman was a natural athlete. At age 10, he moved to Nepean from Kamloops, B.C., when his father got a government transfer. He gave up his life with the Moose Pup Reps and put on the No. 14 to play minor hockey with the Nepean Raiders. He may not have been the biggest player or most natural skater, but he had three things that put him head and shoulders above the rest: Talent, heart and desire.

"When I looked at the other boys, I thought the difference with Steve was that he was not single-minded. He was always looking to move the puck and always trying to be a team player," said his dad. "He wasn't selfish. I know that sounds corny coming from his father, but that's just the type of guy that he was. He would always be at the top of the league in scoring, but I always thought that he could have had more goals if he'd just shot the puck more. That wasn't him and that wasn't his style."

Yzerman would play hockey any chance he got. Morning, afternoon and night. It didn't matter how cold it was, he was consumed by hockey. He also played soccer and baseball in Nepean, but hockey was his game.

During the summer, Yzerman would play street hockey in the parking lot of a Loblaws on Greenbank Rd. with buddy Darren Pang and other friends. While some kids may have been just killing time, Yzerman was chasing a dream.

"The guy just loved the game," says Mike Goddard, a Nepean resident who coached Yzerman at the bantam and junior levels. "Hockey, hockey and hockey. That was all he thought. Other kids would have parties to attend or there was a dance on Friday night and they didn't want to practise. Not Steve, he was always on the ice.

"He would come, he would work hard and he wouldn't say much. He was just a polite kid. You knew he was special. You knew he was going to go somewhere. He wanted it badly and he wanted to be the difference."

At age 16, he left to play junior hockey with the Peterborough Petes. His parents wanted him to keep up his schooling. But his studies suffered.

"I got word that he had been leaving school midway through the morning so that he could attend hockey practice with the junior team in Nepean. I guess they had some 20-year-olds who weren't in school," says his dad. "I had supposedly signed this note to allow him to leave for these appointments every day and I didn't know anything about it. When I heard about it, I made sure it didn't happen again because education was important to us."

Yzerman switched to No. 19 in summer hockey school because he liked New York Islanders star Bryan Trottier. Like Trottier, 39-year-old Yzerman will someday have his No. 19 retired to the rafters at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena.

The phone was ringing at Yzerman's summer home in Muskoka last June and he didn't want to answer the call. He knew it was Wayne Gretzky calling. But Yzerman couldn't pick it up to tell Team Canada's executive director he wasn't going to be ready for the World Cup.

"I put off calling Wayne Gretzky as long as I could," says Yzerman. "I could see he was calling. I avoided returning the calls. I didn't want to have to tell him. That's a tough thing."

This time, Yzerman couldn't answer the bell. He was in too much agony, he wasn't in good enough shape and he didn't want to occupy a roster spot that someone else deserved.

Coming off a devastating eye injury that ended his playoffs in May, Yzerman admitted seeing straight was the least of his worries when it came to playing for Team Canada. The pain just caught up with him. He had a bout of tendonitis in his shoulder, a sore neck because of surgery earlier in his career and a rebuilt knee that won't allow him to run when he trains.

"He called in May. I was surprised because you don't expect a call from (Gretzky)," says Yzerman. "I got the call and I was fired up. I was going to show the world I was going to play well and this was going to be great. I got into training June 1 and (Gretzky) told me to keep in touch to let him know how I was feeling. I got into July and I really struggled trying to get myself ready to play. There were things with my body that made it difficult for me to get into the shape I needed to be in.

"I had to think realistically how I would get myself ready to play. As it got closer I was like, 'Who was I kidding, I'm not ready to play.' Especially when there were other guys who were ready to go like (Vincent Lecavalier and Keith Primeau). I didn't feel I'd be able to play at a high enough level to help the team be successful. It's a tough thing to do to call (Gretzky) and say, 'I'm not ready to go.' I didn't know whether it was the right thing or the wrong thing. I wanted to play, but I just couldn't do it."

All the injuries Yzerman suffered didn't hurt as much as saying no to Gretzky.

A brave decision by a brave player ... a decision that led to his replacement, Lecavalier, being named the MVP of the World Cup.

Yzerman is an icon in Detroit. So few players spend their entire career in one place. Even Gretzky was dealt, but Yzerman has spent his pro hockey life with the Wings.

"I would say we've both been fortunate the relationship has lasted as long as it has," says Detroit GM Ken Holland. "This organization has been committed to winning in this city and (owner Mike Illitch) has done what it takes to bring championships here. "You can't be successful if you don't have the support of ownership in the first place. Steve Yzerman has been popular here because the people see the passion he has for the game. He's done the job through his leadership on and off the ice."

It was in the summer of 1986 that a fresh-faced Yzerman, already drafted fourth overall by the Red Wings in 1983, showed up unannounced in Montreal at the Detroit draft table, wanting to introduce himself to new coach Jacques Demers. Yzerman drove from Ottawa because he wanted to make sure he got a chance to talk to Demers about the goals for the upcoming season. The meeting wasn't long, but it was enough to tell Demers he had a man who could be a future captain.

"That meeting told me a lot about the guy," says Demers, who went on to win a Stanley Cup with Montreal in 1993. "He came down from Ottawa and he just wanted to tell me he was having a terrible summer. He wasn't happy with the losing. He wanted success.

"That made me think long and hard going into training camp. To me, he looked like a boy, but he was a man and I just thought he was captain material. The one thing I respect about Steve Yzerman is he doesn't know the meaning of the word quit. That's not in his vocabulary. He didn't say a lot in the room, but when he did, he spoke volumes."

Demers is proud of his choice.

"I didn't make the decision right away, but I knew he was the right man for the job," says Demers. "I spoke with Mike Illitch and (former GM Jim Devallano) and they were concerned he was too young to be a captain. I knew I had made the right choice one night in Chicago. Yzerman wasn't happy with the way the game was going. The 'Hawks had guys like Doug Wilson, Steve Larmer, Al Secord and Denis Savard. Well, Steve didn't say anything, he just took matters into his own hands on the ice and led us to a victory. He hates to lose."

Losing almost became a way of life for Yzerman, who was nearly dealt to the Senators in 1996 when Ottawa was embroiled in one of its many contract disputes with Alexei Yashin. The deal was killed when then-Wings coach Scotty Bowman stepped in.

"(The rumours) were legit. They were very real. I'm not bitter about it," says Yzerman. "At the time, I was against it just considering where the Senators were at that stage of their franchise. I really wanted to play on a Stanley Cup contender. I didn't know if in eight or nine years I'd still be playing. I look at Ottawa as one of top five teams in league (now) and I think they will continue to be. (In 1996,) I was just trying to influence where I was going."

Yzerman won his first of three Stanley Cups in 1997. The atmosphere at Joe Louis Arena was electric that night as he hoisted Lord Stanley's chalice in the air.

"I heard Steve describe that moment once as all kind of happening in slow motion," says Ron Yzerman. "The funny thing is, I was in the stands and I felt the same way."

Soon after the triumph came tragedy. As the celebration continued for days in Motown, teammates Vladimir Konstantinov, Viacheslav Fetisov and masseuse Sergei Mnatsakanov were badly hurt when their limousine veered off a highway in Detroit.

From the exhilarating high of winning a Cup to standing at a hospital bedside, praying that his friends would survive, Yzerman's life took an abrupt turn.

"For one week, you feel like you're on top of the world and almost superhuman. It ended in one second when we got the phone call," Yzerman said in a 1997 interview with the Sun.

Still, Yzerman wanted to share the thrill of winning the Cup with his friends. He took the Cup to his house in Birmingham, Mich., for private parties and spent a lot of time just studying the names, the etchings that have brought immortality to so many.

On Aug. 28, 1997, Yzerman brought the Cup to the Nepean Sportsplex -- to the rink named after him. He walked in, and like he has on so many nights for Detroit hockey fans, provided a lasting memory. This time for family friend Steve Unger. Unger, 37, was paralyzed in a diving accident at Britannia Beach several years ago. A talented player himself, Unger was a member of the Raiders a couple of years after Yzerman left. Yzerman took one look at Unger and handed him the Cup.

"That meant a lot," says Unger. "That's just the kind of guy Steve Yzerman is. I got it. I wanted to lift it, but it was a lot heavier than I thought. It just meant a lot to me that he would do something like this. I was just there like everybody else wanting to get a glimpse of it."

Yzerman has always treated people with class. Treat people as you expect to be treated. Just good old-fashioned values.

Winning a gold medal and a Stanley Cup in the same season? And in 2002, he did it all on one leg. Troubled by knee problems going into the Olympics, Yzerman decided to have an arthroscopic procedure a month before the Games because he could "feel something there" and wanted to get it cleaned up.

He came back to play two NHL games before the Games began in Salt Lake City and felt good. Then, Yzerman felt the pain during a loss to Sweden in the first game of the tournament.

"We played Germany in the second game and after that it blew up," says Yzerman. "But it was too late for me to back out. I knew that since I had gone in there I had to keep going. I should have told them no beforehand.

"I committed. I told them my knee was fine because I thought it was fine. I wasn't sure what was going on with the knee and I didn't understand why it was happening. I didn't think about it. I just went out and played."

Then there was the Stanley Cup. Glorious. Wonderful.

"There's no question (that's the highlight of my career)," says Yzerman. "There's been a lot of highlights for me that maybe wouldn't have made a highlight reel, but they've meant a lot to me personally. But, if I look back on one year, then winning the gold medal and finishing No. 1 overall with Detroit and winning the Stanley Cup in 2002 means a lot.

"I persevered that year. It was a difficult thing to do. You could debate how effective I was on the ice. For myself, I was able to persevere and play through it and be somewhat effective. I felt pretty good about that."

A brave performance by a brave warrior.

He had his knee rebuilt following the season. Doctors told him to quit. Take it easy.

The surgeon understood the workings of an athlete's knee, but not The Warrior's will to compete. Yzerman had fought back before in his career and he wasn't going to let this stop him.

Darkness surrounds the car as Yzerman heads up I75 toward his home, his wife in the front seat and his parents sitting in the back. While Yzerman is answering questions from his mother, his mind wanders. He's replaying the game in his mind. "Should I have chipped the puck off the boards on that play in the third, dumped it in or carried it across the line?" He might be behind the wheel, but his mind is a million miles away thinking about what could have been done differently.

That's the hockey mind him in. And he plans to put it to good use when his playing career is finished, maybe as a team president or GM.

"I just don't think I would be into coaching. I don't think I'm made for that side of the game," says Yzerman. "I'm going to take a while once I'm finished. I don't want to rush into anything. That's something Paul Coffey and I talked about.

"He said to take time when it's over. That's why this lockout has kind of been something to get me ready for retirement. I've been busy spending time with my kids. It's been great to spend time with them."

Holland said Yzerman has a strong hockey mind.

"He studies the game and he knows a lot about what's happening in every league," says Holland. "I don't know if he's getting everything from the Internet or reading The Hockey News. He knows how prospects of ours or other organization's are doing in Europe.

"He thinks the game and he can relate to people. He's had a storied career and I believe when it's over, he'll be ready to make the next step into the front office."

Yzerman would like to model his career after Detroit Pistons star Joe Dumars, who went from being a standout player to a president who led the club to an NBA championship.

"That's the guy I kind of look at who is somebody I could learn from. He's shown a lot in his career," says Yzerman.

But Yzerman has unfinished business ... on the ice.

Imagine the scene at Joe Louis Arena on Yzerman's final night in the NHL. The crowd. The old players back to honour him as the No. 19 is lifted to the rafters.


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