Longtime captain of the National Hockey League's Detroit Red Wings, Steve Yzerman (born 1965) was the key player on three Stanley Cup champion teams and the linchpin of Detroit's hockey dynasty in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Young Hockey Sensation
Yzerman was born in Cranbrook, British Columbia, on May 9, 1965. By Canadian hockey standards, he was a bit of a late bloomer, not picking up the game until he was seven. But once bitten by the hockey bug, Yzerman spent all his free time on the ice. When he was nine, the family moved to Nepean, Ontario, a suburb of Ottawa. Yzerman became a member of the Nepean Raiders, the local peewee hockey team. Asked by Ottawa Sun reporter Bruce Garroch if Yzerman's potential was evident at that early age, former Raiders coach Elwood Johnson replied: "Was he a great player? I'll give you a hint: We had Dave Lowry [now with the Calgary Flames] playing left wing on a line with Steve Yzerman in 1978, and we finished with a 78-2 record, and we won nine straight tournaments. We won the Ontario peewee championship because we had Steve Yzerman. We had a lot of other great players, but he was the guy that everything was built around. He was a guy who could get the job done."
In 1981, at the age of 16, Yzerman joined the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League. In his debut 1981-1982 season with the Petes, he compiled 21 goals and 43 assists. The following season, Yzerman doubled his total goals to 42 and posted 49 assists. After two years in the juniors, he was selected by the Red Wings in the first round of the 1983 National Hockey League entry draft.
On October 5, 1983, Yzerman made his NHL debut in a game against the Winnipeg Jets, posting a goal and an assist. For the season, he put up a total of 87 points and 48 assists, more than any other rookie that year. His 39 goals for the season were second only to the 40 scored by Sylvain Turgeon of the Hartford Whalers. At season's end, Yzerman was named Rookie of the Year by the Sporting News and was runner-up for the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year. Most significantly for the Red Wings, Yzerman's dazzling play propelled the team into the playoffs for the first time in six years. In post-season play, the Red Wings center scored three goals and six points.
Red Wings Stalwart
In 1984-1985, his second season with the Red Wings, Yzerman played in all 80 games of the regular season and finished tied with Ron Duguay with 89 points. He led the Wings in assists with 59. Yzerman's brilliant play once again helped carry the Wings into the playoffs, where he scored two goals in three games. Sidelined with a broken collarbone for the last third of the regular season in 1985-1986, Yzerman nevertheless managed to score points in 27 of the 51 games he played. However, without its star center at full strength, the Red Wings failed to make the playoffs.
In recognition of his leadership abilities, Yzerman in 1986 was named captain of the Red Wings, becoming at age 21 the youngest captain in franchise history. Once again back at full strength, he played in all 80 games of the regular 1986-1987 season, posting points in 53 of those games. For the season, Yzerman scored 31 goals and 59 assists. A knee injury on March 1, 1988, cut short Yzerman's season in 1987-1988. Although he played in only 64 games, he still managed to lead the team in goals (50), assists (52), and points (102). He missed 16 regular season games and 13 playoff games before returning on May 7, 1988, to play in the Campbell Conference Finals against Edmonton.
During the 1988-1989 season Yzerman scored a career-high 65 goals and 90 assists. He also led the Red Wings in power play goals with 17. Yzerman scored points in 70 of his 80 regular season games. In the playoffs, he led the Red Wings in goals (5) and points (10). For his impressive performance, Yzerman was rewarded with the Lester B. Pearson Award as the NHL's top performer in balloting by the National Hockey League Players Association. Also impressed were hockey fans, who voted Yzerman Player of the Year in a fan poll conducted by Hockey News.
Yzerman turned in an almost equally impressive performance in 1989-1990, scoring 62 goals and 65 assists. He was only the sixth NHL player in history to post successive 60-goal seasons. In 1990-1991, Yzerman managed 51 goals and 57 assists, posting his fourth consecutive season with more than 100 points. He repeated this feat in 1991-1992 with a total of 103 points and in 1992-1993 with 137 points, the second-highest point total of his career.
A herniated disk kept Yzerman out of action for 26 games during the early months of the 1993-1994 season, but he nevertheless managed to score 24 goals and 58 assists for a total of 82 points. Between December 27, 1993, and January 19, 1994, he scored in 11 straight games. In late February 1994, Yzerman won Player of the Week honors after scoring 10 points in only four games. By season's end the Red Wings, with 46 wins, had captured the NHL's Central Division title. Once again, Yzerman performed brilliantly in the playoffs, scoring four points in three games. After the playoffs, he underwent surgery to remove the herniated disk from his neck.
In the 1994-1995 season, shortened to 48 games by a lengthy lockout and strike, Yzerman scored 38 points in 47 games, leading Detroit to the President's Trophy championship. Scoring 15 points in 12 playoff games, Yzerman helped the Red Wings win the Clarence Campbell Bowl in the Western Conference finals before falling to the New Jersey Devils in the conference finals. The following season, he captained the Red Wings to the team's second straight President's Trophy championship with a league record of 62 wins. On January 1996, Yzerman reached a career landmark, scoring his 500th goal. In the playoffs, he scored 20 points in 18 games.
Stanley Cup Champions
One of the most important achievements of Yzerman's hockey career came in 1996-1997 when he led the Red Wings to their first Stanley Cup championship in more than four decades. In the 20 games he played during the post-season, Yzerman scored 13 points. The following season, the Red Wings finished the regular season in second place in the Central Division but managed once again to fight their way to the Stanley Cup. In the regular season, Yzerman led the Red Wings with 45 assists and 69 points. He was selected the most valuable player in the playoffs, winning the coveted Conn Smythe Trophy.
With 74 points and 13 power play goals, Yzerman led Detroit to another Central Division title in 1998-1999. He was selected to start in the mid-season All-Star Game but was forced to miss the game because of an injury. Scoring nine goals in 10 games, he led his team into the second round of the playoffs. In 1999-2000 Yzerman once again led the Red Wings with 79 points and 15 power play goals. He scored his 600th career goal on November 26, 1999. In the post-season, Yzerman contributed four assists in eight playoff games. The following season, he led the Wings to their sixth division title in 10 years.
By far the most remarkable performance of Yzerman's career came in 2001-2002, when he led the Red Wings to their third Stanley Cup championship during his tenure as captain. Over the years the veteran center's knees had taken a beating, and an MRI taken after he played for Canada's hockey team in the 2002 Winter Olympics revealed there was virtually no cartilage left in his right knee. For the remainder of the regular season and into the playoffs, Yzerman was forced to play with severe pain. Of Yzerman's ability to play through that pain, Red Wings trainer John Wharton told ESPN magazine: "His pain tolerance—I cannot fathom it. I wonder if his nervous system is different than the rest of us."
Never Considered Retirement
On August 2, 2002, less than two months after leading the Red Wings to their third Stanley Cup title in six years, Yzerman underwent an osteotomy, or realignment of the knee. The operation was designed to remedy the acute arthritic condition of his right knee, a condition rarely seen in someone so young. Even Yzerman's knee surgeon, Pete Fowler of London, Ontario, was astounded at the hockey player's rebound from surgery. "I don't know of a pro athlete who has had an osteotomy," Fowler told Ryan Pyette, sports reporter for the London Free Press. "I certainly don't know of a pro athlete who has had an osteotomy while they were still a pro athlete. We didn't do it (the surgery) so Steve could return to hockey. We did it so Steve could return to walking without pain and for day-to-day activities."
But, amazingly, Yzerman came back. Although Yzerman limited his time on the ice after his return to the game in late February 2003, just having him back with the team lifted the morale of his Red Wings teammates. Most importantly, Yzerman's comeback meant a return to the tough practice sessions he'd instituted as team captain. On February 20, 2003, Red Wings coach Dave Lewis handed the team over to Yzerman at the end of the Wings' regular practice session. Although Yzerman could have let the team rest up for the next night's game, he decided instead to subject his teammates to a sprint session. As Lewis told Jason La Canfora of the Washington Post, "We had already had a full practice, but Stevie skated them hard, and we ended up having pretty good success the next night. That's just one little example of what Stevie Yzerman means to this team. He demands and commands as much of his team as he commands and demands of himself. And Stevie has pretty high standards."
Yzerman never really considered retirement as an option. More than two decades in professional hockey had not dulled his enthusiasm for the game. He told La Canfora: "It never really occurred to me… . I'm just not ready to retire. Whether it's due to my knee condition or one day I just lose the desire to play, I'll know that then, but I don't have that now. I definitely haven't lost any desire to play. Until I get out there and know that I can't play anymore, then I'll stop."
Yzerman's unprecedented rebound from surgery confounded just about everybody around him, particularly the sports writers who were prepared to write the final chapter to his brilliant career.
ESPN, June 14, 2002.
London (Ontario) Free Press, February 27, 2003.
Ottawa Sun, August 25, 2002.
Washington Post, February 22, 2003.
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