DETROIT -- Nobody will ever replace Gordie Howe as the most legendary figure in Detroit Red Wings history.
But even Mr. Hockey knew the day would come when he would make some elbow room atop the Motown hockey throne for Steve Yzerman, the 22-year Red Wing great and longest-serving captain in NHL history.
The 41-year-old sure-fire first-ballot Hall of Famer and current team vice-president called Stevie Y and The Captain in Hockeytown saw his famous No. 19 hoisted to the Joe Louis Arena rafters alongside fellow Wing kings Howe (No. 9), Ted Lindsay (No. 7), Terry Sawchuk (No. 1), Alex Delvecchio (No. 10) and Sid Abel (No. 12) in an emotional ceremony last night.
"It took until my 14th year to win a Stanley Cup, and our plan was to win it in five, so we were a little bit behind schedule," the three-time Stanley Cup champ and 2002 Olympic gold medallist said to a capacity crowd, hordes of former teammates and a virtual who's who of hockey elite before the Red Wings took on the Anaheim Ducks last night.
"The expectation and demand for excellence was truly an inspiration for me. It drove me when I wasn't feeling well. My first game was in October in 1983 against the New Jersey Devils and 23 1/2 years later, you (the fans) still never disappoint me.
"I'm honoured to be here, but I stand up here representing everyone who wore the jersey from 1983 on."
On a bus ride back to the arena following an afternoon reception in which Yzerman became the seventh person given a key to the city, Howe was holding a street sign reading "Yzerman Drive," the name of a roadway at Atwater and Third streets near the rink.
"Oh, so that's how you spell (Yzerman)," Howe joked, adding he knew Yzerman had arrived "when he put a 'one' before my 'nine.' "
"We saw him coming out of junior and on his first few shifts, you could tell he was going to (be) something special. I know what nights like this are like and he's not going to feel it until he's lying in bed and going through everything in his mind, wishing he said this or that, but he's going to feel pretty good."
Yzerman, one of the few hockey and sports stars in an era of more liberalized free agency to spend his entire career with one team, speaks with reverence of being part of the Red Wings tradition. He said he felt the aura of the Original Six franchise the moment he walked into the building.
"I'm certainly proud to have him join those ranks -- he raises the stature of that group, that's for sure," Lindsay said. "He was a great player and the last four years, he had all the knee troubles but last year in the playoffs, he was still the best player on the ice for Detroit or Edmonton -- and he was doing it on one leg.
"I remember when he first came to Detroit at 18 because I was still working out in the dressing room lifting weights then. He'd be in there and he was just a scrawny kid then but the way he carried himself, you just knew he was going to be great."
Hockey icon? Reps at the State of Michigan wanted to officially name yesterday "Steve Yzerman Day", but because it had already been officially designated as a national day of mourning for U.S. President Gerald Ford, Yzerman's day has been moved to Jan. 13.
Leader? Yzerman received his only boos of the night when he said his image as a great leader was over-blown and said he simply fitted in with a bunch of other hockey greats to play in Motown. Brett Hull, who played with Yzerman at the tail end of their careers, said every day at Joe Louis reflected the passion and drive of their captain.
"Steve was an incredible leader and he breathed confidence into all of his teammates," he said. "He led by example and he was a lot different than me. I was so emotional and I'd fly off the handle at times, but he was so composed. He was a quiet personality but he was respected."
Friend? Yzerman's personality made it easy for his teammates to flock back to Detroit to support him and cheer him on last night. Goalie Mike Vernon said it was a privilege to simply be able to fly in from Calgary and watch his ex-teammate be honoured.
"He was one in a million," another ex-Red Wings teammate Pat Verbeek said. "Everyone needs stuff (memorabilia) signed and he was the kind of guy who would not only sign everything you wanted him to but he would get in the car and drive over to your house to do it."
Player to watch? It doesn't take much to connect the dots on why local TV numbers have been down for Detroit this season -- even though the Wings again boast one of the better teams in the NHL. Yzerman held that kind of influence on public interest in his sports and ratings surely took a leap thanks to last night's ceremony.
From Hull to Vernon and Shanahan, most of the Wings who played with Yzerman said he instantly gained the respect of his teammates. He didn't talk much but when he did, even the most obnoxious of teammates shut up and listened.
"He came into the league like a lot of guys as a scorer and he scored a lot of goals early in his career," ex-NHLer and current London Knights head coach Dale Hunter said.
"But he worked hard and turned himself into a complete hockey player. He could do it all."
"He was the quietest smartass you've ever seen," Verbeek said. "He would hardly ever say a word but if he felt someone wasn't giving what they had to offer, he would speak up. He'd use this sarcastic tone -- he had a ton of great one-liners -- and it would send a jolt through the room because you just weren't used to hearing a peep out of him.
"Guys' eyes would be wide as saucers after that. They'd be rattled by it and say, 'Steve said something to me. I better pick it up.' That's what kind of leader he was."
Desire? Scotty Bowman said no player he has ever coached could match Yzerman's pain threshold. Four years ago, the aging Detroit captain went to London to see renowned orthopedic surgeon Peter Fowler about what to do with his ailing right knee.
The ensuing surgery, called an osteotomy, involved sawing the tibia nearly in half and realigning the joint with a donor bone. Fowler's goal was to allow Yzerman to walk comfortably enjoy his family for the rest of his life.
Yzerman, however, fought back from that surgery -- like he had so many other injuries -- and continued to play at a high level.
"He came into the league like a lot of guys as a scorer and he scored a lot of goals early in his career," ex-NHLer and current London Knights head coach Dale Hunter said. "But he worked hard and turned himself into a complete hockey player. He could do it all."
Is there one enduring on-ice moment of Yzerman? No, there's several. Joyfully holding the Stanley Cup as his daughter Isabella stood at his side. Handing Bowman the Stanley Cup and the old coach whispering to him that he was retiring from the bench. Rushing down the ice and blasting the puck in the top shelf to eliminate Wayne Gretzky and the St. Louis Blues in overtime during the 1996 playoffs. Winning the Lester B. Pearson award as player's choice for MVP, winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP and leading the Wings to five regular-season league titles.
"Steve was the cornerstone on which the franchise was built," Vernon said. "The Red Wings weren't very good when he got here but they picked the right guy to build around, that's for sure."
Yzerman was the fourth pick overall in the 1983 entry draft from the Peterborough Petes. It remains the best selection the Detroit Red Wings have ever made.
Shortly after he was drafted, Yzerman had a talk with Wings GM Jimmy Devellano about career goals: 17 years and five Stanley Cups.
Yzerman got close to the Cups, but everyone, especially in Detroit, would agree he ended up doing so much more for his adopted city, the Red Wings and Canadian hockey as one of hockey's great players and, yes, leaders.