The ultimate leader

BRUCE GARRIOCH -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 3:15 PM ET

One more time, the faithful in Hockeytown will salute a modern-day Red Wing legend tonight at Joe Louis Arena.

It's been a long road for Steve Yzerman since those youthful times at the Loblaws parking lot on Greenbank Rd. or the outdoor rink behind D. Aubrey Moodie on Arnold Dr. But tonight, he'll take his rightful place alongside the all-time Red Wing greats with the retirement of his No. 19 before tonight's game against the Anaheim Ducks (CBC, 7 p.m.).

He was the quiet kid who loved hockey. A young boy who lived for playing the game, who had to be dragged off the rink by his mother Jean and father Ron just so he'd do his homework for school.

RETIRING NO. 19

But who would have ever thought all those dreams would come true? A standout career with the CJHL's Nepean Raiders, OHL's Peterborough Petes and then being drafted No. 4 overall by the Red Wings in 1983. Named captain, he spent 22 years with the same team and led them to three Stanley Cups. Now, Yzerman will join the likes of Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay, who have had their numbers retired by the Wings.

"I don't mean any disrespect here, but I don't think anybody ever could have envisioned this," said Darren Pang, a former 67's goalie and Yzerman's best friend. "We all raised our arms during those days in the parking lot of that (Loblaws), but this kind of career is something that you dream about.

"This isn't the kind of career that you can plan. To think of everything that Steve Yzerman has gone through in his career and the accomplishments ... He just made such incredible contributions for that organization. This is going to be a special night."

Yes, it will be.

Yzerman, who has moved into the Wings' front office as a senior VP, will be surrounded by family (wife Lisa along with children Isabella, Maria and Sophia), friends and former teammates. His parents made the eight-hour drive to Motown from Ottawa on New Year's Eve, while brother Chris will make the trek today. Former Wings coach Scotty Bowman, VP Jim Devellano and a lot of the players from those three Stanley Cup teams are going to be on hand for the one-hour ceremony.

Former Montreal Canadiens great John Ferguson Sr., who makes his home in Windsor, is battling cancer, and buys Red Wings' season tickets. The only pair he and wife Joan kept this year was for this game, because nothing is going to keep "Fergie Sr." from witnessing what will surely be one of the greatest nights in the history of sports in Detroit.

"I had him at the world championships in 1989 and he was just such a classy guy," said Ferguson. "He never said much, but he played with heart, grit and determination. You don't see many like him."

HEART OF HOCKEYTOWN

This is what sports is all about, isn't it? Sure, Howe is Mr. Hockey is Detroit, but Yzerman is the heart and soul of Hockeytown. That's why a huge mural hangs downtown to salute a man who played with the heart of a champion. A man who willed the Wings to championships in 1997, 1998 and 2002 -- the final Cup won while basically playing on only one good leg.

"Just a great player," said Senators coach Bryan Murray, who spent seven seasons with the Detroit organization as both a GM and coach. "Early in his career, he received a lot of criticism because his career didn't really go the way people thought it should go.

"As his career went on, he became the symbol of leadership. One of the guys in hockey (who) people regard as one of the great captains. He won Stanley Cups and he played injured. From the talent and character point of view, he has to be regarded as one of the great players in our game. He was a great guy for me to be around."

Yzerman didn't just lead by saying the right thing at the right time, he led by example. It was his determination during the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City that helped lead Canada to a gold medal. He needed reconstructive surgery on his knee, but nothing was going to keep him away. He walked with a limp off the ice, but didn't look like he was hurting one bit once the puck was dropped.

"I was talking to (Team Canada executive director) Wayne Gretzky the other day and he was telling me this story about going into the training room before the gold-medal game (against the U.S.)," said Pang, a colour analyst for the Phoenix Coyotes.

"Yzerman was laying on the training table, getting treatment on his knee and Gretzky asked (trainer) Kenny Lowe how Yzerman was doing? Lowe said: 'Well, let's put it this way, 'If this was Game 7, he wouldn't be playing.' "

That's the way it was during Yzerman's career. You can't keep a good man down and there's no better place to remember him forever than high in the rafters at the Joe, where only champions reside.


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