By Darren Eliot –
It is so difficult to compare players from different generations and definitely say “who was better.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not shying away from my stance that Steve Yzerman is the greatest Red Wing ever. It’s just that there needs to be context to differentiate the buddy debates over beers when the local ‘Bard of the Barstool’ weighs in with an “I was there” or “you shoulda seen” personal account that is supposed to end all arguments.
With that, I put forth that Steve Yzerman is the most important Red Wing player ever, thus making him the greatest player. He arrived as a fresh-faced 18-year-old and spent the next 20 years committing completely to gaining top-of-class status as a player. Yzerman transformed himself from star to superstar through hard work off the ice and matured as a person and player over time in Detroit. He grew up in the public eye and spanned the arc from precocious scorer to revered leader of championship teams. The resume at the end is complete with three Stanley Cups, Hall-of-Fame induction, top-10 in goals, assists and points in NHL history, and a healthy personal trophy case that includes the 1998 Conn Smythe and 2000 Selke awards.
Certainly, the mark and measurement of greatness is in the numbers and achievements, but for Yzerman, his importance goes far beyond his on-ice exploits. The fact that he captained the Red Wings longer than any man had done for any team in any sport in North America – ever – speaks as loudly as the numbers screaming from the record book. He played in 1,514 games in all – a lifetime dedicated to restoring the Winged Wheel to prominence. It was Yzerman as the on-ice constant, from teenager to sage and ravaged leader. He grew up, grew as a player, cultivated a culture, changed his game at the behest of iconic coach Scotty Bowman, and retired into management with the same thoughtfulness, dedication and drive he had always shown on the ice.
Steve Yzerman and the Red Wings’ organizational progression from Dead Wings to model franchise are intertwined to the point of being indistinguishable. They are one and the same. It was certainly a case study in proving the adage that it is about the journey, not the destination. But in the ultra-competitive and often cruel world of professional sports, winning is the destination and validates the journey. To that end, Yzerman and the Wings first vied for the Stanley Cup in 1994-95 – the first time the Wings had gotten to the Final since 1966 – only to lose to the New Jersey Devils. It wasn’t until 1997 that Yzerman and the Red Wings reached the ultimate destination – thirteen years into the symbiotic odyssey.
The next season was all about overcoming the grief of losing teammate Vladimir Konstantinov to debilitating injuries suffered in an auto accident as the team was out celebrating the ’97 championship. Yzerman was now in full bloom as a leader, keeping the team together and coming through when it mattered most – the playoffs – winning the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Red Wings repeated as Stanley Cup victors by sweeping the Washington Capitals. It is the last time a team has won back-to back titles to date, which gives credence to the feat, especially given the back drop. In one of the most poignant sports-meets-reality moments ever, Yzerman as captain took the Cup and immediately gave it to a wheelchair-bound Konstantinov as the team gathered around. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house, as everyone in attendance knew they were witnessing an immortal gesture rapt in the euphoria of winning, underscored by the very real example of our shared mortality.
Yzerman and the Wings won it all again in 2002, when a completely exhausted Yzerman told me after the Game 5 clincher against the Carolina Hurricanes, “I’m too tired to take my equipment off. I’m just glad I don’t have to put it back on again tomorrow.” The exhaustion of the grind to win it all was evident, but so too was the joy in celebrating with his daughter. The boyish face was still there, but you had to peer around nicks and accumulated abrasions to see it now. He had delivered his team to the final destination and the scars on Yzerman’s face gave testament that the journey was anything but easy and certainly not linear. The kid who arrived 18 years earlier as an 18-year-old now had kids of his own. Yzerman was now leadership personified.
And he played a few more seasons, the 2004-05 lockout deferring retirement until a last hurrah in 2006 and overcoming yet another knee surgery – this one usually reserved for senior citizens, not iconic athletes. Yet, the definitive on-ice season that proved Yzerman had grown like few others ever in the game – just as he had done so off the ice as a franchise linchpin and leader – was 2000. In that season, at 34 years of age, Yzerman won the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. This from the same guy who amassed 155 points in 1989 – only Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux have ever put up more points in a season.
Change that: It wasn’t the same guy. And that is the point. That is why Steve Yzerman is the most important and thus, the greatest Red Wing player ever. He was thrust into a situation where a team needed saving. He was brought into to be the centerpiece of that salvation. He proved to have the character and conviction to see it through, from wunderkind scorer to the best two-way player in the game; from fresh-faced rookie to legendary leader and from Stevie Y to simply ‘The Captain’. No shortcuts and no doubt: Detroit Red Wings & Steve Yzerman, Steve Yzerman & Detroit Red Wings. Forever linked, each defining the other, as you would expect from the greatest player in team history.
To read Kevin Allen’s argument for Gordie Howe, click here.
To read Michael Caples’ argument for Nicklas Lidstrom, click here.