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Yzerman Takes One for the Team

By Christopher P. Anderson

Last Saturday in Detroit, the crowd at Joe Louis Arena sat in shock as the man known across hockey as “The Captain” lay sprawled on the ice, victim of a deflected puck to the face. No one said it, but everyone watching knew it might have been the last of one of the great ones.

In a sport full of passion and controversy, few topics go uncontested like the legend of Detroit Red Wings center Steve Yzerman. In a revolving list of top-flight names (most recently Shanahan, Hasek, Hull, and Chelios), his has always stood out as the oil of the Red Machine. His team counts on him to push them to their peak, in the fashion of Larry Bird, Joe Montana, and Mario Lemieux. The importance of that leadership was apparent after Saturday’s injury, as the Wings lost their punch and dropped out of the playoffs with two 1-0 losses to the Calgary Flames.

A lifelong Red Wing (21 seasons), the Ottawa product was named captain at the tender age of 21. He has since ascended to the right hand of Red Wings patriarch Gordie Howe -- practically a hero in perhaps the most fervent American outpost of professional hockey, the place they call Hockeytown. He has skated three Stanley Cups around the “Joe,” as well as winning gold on Canada’s 2002 Olympic team. Steve is so popular that last year Detroit erected a ten-story downtown mural of him, but he’s the kind of guy that if it were his decision, it never would have happened.

Fitting was the sight of Yzerman handing the 2002 Stanley Cup to Wings coach Scotty Bowman -- legend to legend. He epitomizes leadership and class and the qualities that go with them: toughness, confidence, high performance, and humility. In these respects, Stevie Y is all but unparalleled in sports. He’s the captain all coaches wish they had, an unselfish superstar who pulls everyone up with him.

His injury is expected to heal, but whether he will have a season to play is under discussion. With the current collective bargaining agreement about to expire, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has called for an across-the-board reduction of the arguably inflated players’ salaries. Unfortunately, the only method for this proposal by the owners is a lockout, cancelling next season to force negotiation with the Players’ Association. This could mean the early retirement of some of the league’s best players -- Yzerman, Hull, Colorado’s Peter Forsberg, and Toronto’s Ed Belfour, to name a few.

Yzerman quipped in 2002 that he “couldn’t afford” to retire. I doubt hockey can afford it either, but at age 39, his laces aren’t getting any longer. If there is a work stoppage next season and he decides to hang ’em up -- if the last image of Steve is him shuffling off the ice guarding his cheekbone, his team whimpering without him -- I will never forgive Bettman, Wings owner Mike Ilitch, and the rest of their gang. Nor will the city of Detroit. Nor should any hockey fan.