The little boy held on to that Vic hockey stick even before he knew what it was. The piece of wood was too small to ever use to play, but Braxton Davis wedged it in his pudgy fist as if it were a security blanket, or his dad's pinkie. How the boy wailed when the nurses took the Vic away. Brant Davis wanted so badly to tell his only son that the stick would be waiting for him after surgery. But Braxton wouldn't understand. He wasn't even a year old.
More than 10 years later, Brant Davis still looks at that stick every day.
Davis can recall just about every moment of 1995. His first and only son born March 6; the way his tiny hand latched on to that Vic; the wonder at Braxton's pupils being two different sizes; the worry when the doctors ran blood and urine tests to figure out why; and the terror when the initial tests led to more tests, then a bone marrow biopsy.
"He's a baby," Brant thought. "His bones aren't even hard." The diagnosis came Dec. 12. Braxton Davis had neuroblastoma, cancer of the nerves. According to WebMD, only 25 percent of babies diagnosed with the illness are cured.
But that wasn't all. Braxton also had lymphoma, cancer of the lymphatic system. Doctors told Brant that his boy was one of only 78 humans to be diagnosed with both cancers.
"Babies are the only thing a human can make," Brant remembers thinking, "and I did it wrong."
On the day after Christmas '95, even before Braxton's first New Year's, nurses took the Vic away and wheeled the infant in for three hours of surgery to determine the progress of his cancer. Three hours became five, and five hours became eight. Braxton had a tumor wrapped around his spine -- three inches by two and a half. He barely survived into 1996.
Brant decided that Braxton would have to live as much as possible in whatever time he had. "He wasn't going to live in a bubble," Davis said. "I was going to treat him like a normal kid."
Yes, there would be plenty of chemo, plenty of pain, plenty of impossible conversations. But Braxton did get his stick back. And that brought hope. Brant noticed that Braxton took to the color red as he began to toddle. A love for the Red Wings followed. Dad avoided trying to explain that everyone in Denver hated the Red Wings (especially in the mid-1990s), but little Braxton would grow to find out himself. As soon as he was old enough to put stuff up in his room, Braxton had pictures of Steve Yzerman everywhere.
Braxton made it to age 6. He ignored comments about his love of the Red Wings just as he ignored comments about his hairless head and the half of his face that would not glisten or glow red no matter how much he ran around. Just part of being Braxton.
"Kids would make fun," Brant laughed, "and he would punch them. And then he would go to the principal's office."
But Dad sweated out every single day. He worked at a hockey shop, and things fell apart with Braxton's mom soon after the diagnosis (they have since divorced and share custody), so Brant had no idea how he would finance annual medical charges that soared past half a million dollars. He reached an agreement with a Denver hospital and paid whatever he could, but he saved a few pennies to finance Yzerman hockey cards and posters for Braxton. Kids at school would offer a Sakic and a Roy for an Yzerman, and Braxton said no. He would get entire box sets as presents and throw out everything but the Red Wings cards. So Dad figured he would take a chance and write an e-mail to Hockeytown. Maybe when the Wings visited the Avs, somebody could leave a pair of tickets at the Pepsi Center door. Or maybe not.
The phone soon rang, and the caller ID read "BLOCKED." Brant picked up anyway. "Hi, is Brant there?" The voice was quiet. Brant couldn't place it. Then: "This is Steve Yzerman."
Suddenly, Brant was taking Braxton out of school for a completely different reason -- to drive him to Red Wings practice. "It was mind-blowing," he said. Braxton's eyes bulged as he saw in real life all the players he watched on television on so many nights. And then, right there in front of him, stood his hero.
Yzerman did not pat him on the head or lift his eyebrows in compassion; everyone in Detroit knows The Captain doesn't do maudlin. "There are some people who know he's sick," Brant said. "They ask how he's feeling. That makes him feel different. Steve didn't do that."
Yzerman told the boy to stick around and watch practice. Braxton did, and his eyes locked on the players as they whizzed by. Brendan Shanahan zipped over and handed Braxton a broken stick. Brant gasped, but Braxton hardly raised an eyebrow. "That's cool," he said. "But it's not Steve's." Brant grimaced and looked around, hoping no one heard. But behind him, then-goalie Curtis Joseph roared in laughter. The next night, Yzerman invited Braxton to the Detroit locker room.
It seemed that day could last the rest of Braxton's life. "It created a drive for him," Brant said. "Before, there was nothing that motivated this kid. Then it was 'Can we get to the rink? I want to play for the Red Wings. Or their farm team.'" Not long after meeting Yzerman, Braxton started to skate. Brant took the boy to his beer league games, sat him on the bench next to him, and taught his boy to swing open the door for the players when they came in from shifts.
Braxton defiantly wore red all over Denver. He would reply to taunts at the mall with quips like, "Ten Cups!" He wore a red practice jersey even when skating with his blue-white-and-yellow-wearing peewee team at the Avs' practice facility, even when Colorado's Steve Konowalchuk ribbed him about cheering for the wrong team.
Yzerman said he would be in touch, but Brant didn't take that literally. The man had done his good deed. Then, when the Wings came back to Denver, the phone rang again. Steve again. Would Braxton like to see another practice? Of course, the answer was yes again.
Braxton got through winter after winter, enduring eight major surgeries and countless upset stomachs, never asking to see his hero again but never straying too far from the phone. Last year, Yzerman called to invite Braxton and Brant to the playoffs in Detroit. A pal who worked for United helped with the flight, and the Red Wings put Brant and Braxton up at a downtown hotel. Yzerman let Braxton sit in the penalty box during warm-ups. Pavel Datsyuk shot pucks at him. Brant always thought athletes did charity work for the positive PR, but Yzerman always waited until all the cameras had left before greeting Braxton.
"He's very private," Brant said. "He doesn't hang out. You see a lot of articles about him, but you never hear biographies."
And that, maybe more than anything, will linger in the minds of those who watched Yzerman play for all these years. Some of the biggest Red Wings fans learned almost nothing about the personal life of a legend. Yzerman played in an era in which individual plotlines eclipsed team travails in all sports. Even Brett Favre, Yzerman's NFL equivalent, has become a bigger story than the iconic Green Bay Packers. The NHL itself has shifted its spotlight to the names on the back of the jersey and away from the logos on the front. Through all that, Yzerman remained true to his team and to himself, a painfully shy man with a gift he never failed to share in the quietest possible way. Braxton Davis, a little boy who wasn't even alive to see the younger Yzerman dance through Norris Division defenses, knows that better than almost anyone.
Yzerman called again this summer and invited Braxton to training camp. Braxton asked, "Will you be there?" Yzerman said he wasn't sure. He didn't know what his responsibilities would be. Brant knew what that meant: Stevie was retiring. Braxton was touched by the invite to Traverse City and the offer to stay at the team hotel and eat at some team meals. But Braxton wouldn't go. No Steve, no trip.
"I was kinda worried," Brant said. "Would this kill Braxton's drive?"
Of all the difficult conversations -- about being different from the other kids, about the unknowable reasons why -- Brant feared this talk as much as any. How to explain to Braxton that Steve was not going to play in Denver anymore?
"That's OK," Braxton said happily. "We can go into his office and he can close the door and we can just talk."
Dad didn't quite know what to say to that.
Yzerman invited Braxton out for the World Series, but the boy had just undergone treatment. He couldn't go. "That killed him," Brant said.
As soon as Braxton found out about Tuesday's retirement ceremony, he called Steve on his cell phone. "I'm going," he told his dad after leaving a message. "I'm going."
And he will be there. On New Year's Day 2007, 11 years and six days after the surgery that seemed to foretell the end of his life, Braxton Davis rode to the snow-blasted Denver International Airport on the way to see his idol say goodbye.
Hard to say when Steve and Braxton will see each other again after Tuesday night. The future, as Brant knows, is never sure. But both the hero and the boy have been nothing if not loyal, and nothing if not reliable. For more years than even their loved ones expected, both made it seem that there can be magic and strength in any old hockey stick. But both have shown that the magic and the strength is not so much in the stick itself but in the person who holds on to it as long as possible, then lets it go.
Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.