(No snark today. This post is all heart.)
Well, this day has been inevitable for quite some time now. Tonight the greatest Captain in all of sports officially takes his place amongst the hockey royalty in the Hall of Fame. The three years since his retirement have really just been a countdown to today.
I can’t believe it’s been three years since he hung up his skates for good. There’s still a little part of me that expects to see him out there taking a key defensive zone faceoff late in a game. Can you honestly say that you don’t briefly see Yzerman every time a Wing uses his stick to prop himself up as he gets to his feet? Or whenever you catch a glimpse of the C on Nick Lidstrom’s sweater? I was born in 1986 not long before the NHL season started that year. When Stevie retired, I had literally never seen another player wear the C for the Wings. I honestly worried that I wouldn’t feel the same about the game after he retired. My hockey fandom was incredibly tied up in my love for the Captain, and on top of that, I was living in Florida at the time, completely cut off from the hockey world (my access to games was limited and I pretty much cut myself off from it in order to stay sane.). I wondered if I would feel the same way I had before when I came back to Michigan. Obviously, it wasn’t an issue since I’m here writing this blog. But that’s how much Steve Yzerman meant to me as a fan of this hockey team. In my mind, he wasn’t just The Captain, he was the Red Wings.
When I first got into the game, I was drawn to the speed and flashy moves of Sergei Fedorov. I quickly came to realize, though, that Steve Yzerman was more my style. His public approach to the game was very similar to the way I approach my life. And I don’t think I’m alone. He’s the kind of guy we can identify with here in Detroit. We aren’t flashy. We don’t seek the spotlight. We’ve had our share of disappointments and setbacks, but we haven’t given up. We may never be the biggest city or the most respected or the richest or a popular destination, but that’s not going to stop us from trying. And here we are hobbling along with the auto industry barely staying afloat and hearing about a friend or neighbor or family member who lost their job on a daily basis, surviving by determination and heart alone. So it’s no wonder this area fell head over heels for Steve Yzerman.
I can’t think of another leader whose personality came to embody a team in the way that The Captain’s did. This is even more amazing because of how understated Stevie’s public persona was. Even with the veritable all-star team that the Wings fielded in ’02, there was never any question that he was the guy. And that year, when expectations were higher than ever, he led the way. On one leg.
As the latest round of career eulogies goes out to mark this occasion, there is a lot of focus on the ’02 Cup run as the epitome of Stevie’s career. It surely was a highlight, but in my mind there are other ways to define him. I think of him being the guy sent in to win an important faceoff late in a game. I think of sitting on my family room couch as my Dad, just a few months old when the team won the 1955 Cup, tried to hide his tears as The Captain hoisted Stanley for the first time in ’97. I think of him coming back from a ridiculous knee surgery because he still had something left in the tank. I think of standing in the lower bowl of Joe Louis Arena in my bright red #19 jersey clapping until my hands were red the night he scored his 600th goal. I think of the way a picture of him hoisting the Cup can still bring grown men in this city to tears. I think of seeing him play an exhibition game at Yost during the lockout and sticking around to sign autographs for all of the junior players and some of the NHLers too. I think of sitting in the upper bowl in December of 2005, knowing that I was moving to Florida and that he would probably be retiring soon, watching every shift he took and wondering if it would be the last time I saw him set foot on the ice in person. I think of standing on a concrete barrier, craning my neck to catch a glimpse of him during the ’02 parade. I think about trying to explain to my roommate why I felt the need to watch the replay of his jersey retirement ceremony that they showed last month even though I had a mountain of homework, and only being able to point to my misty eyes because I couldn't find words. I think of the way he almost shies away from all of the praise and attention that continues to come his way. I think of the love that transcends the traditional fan/player relationship that the people in Detroit have for him.
Steve Yzerman is and always will be my favorite player of all time. And I couldn’t be happier to see him entering the Hall of Fame tonight. I was lucky to grow up watching Stevie here in Hockeytown, and his is the standard by which I will measure every other player who dons the Winged Wheel. The odds of anyone living up to them are pretty slim.