He meets his assailant in enemy territory, leaning to within inches of his angry face.
He is drenched in fatigue, unshaven, eyes burning. He has a weapon, but so do the six hostiles staring at him. The clock starts its tick and he hits the deck, dropping into the line of fire. Surely this will not end well.
Then Steve Yzerman, on his knees in the left faceoff circle of Rexall Place, backhands the puck away from Oilers center Michael Peca, directing it to Red Wings teammate Mathieu Schneider, who rifles the kill shot past Edmonton goalie Dwayne Roloson. Game 3 is tied, and doom is averted. For now.
He is hockey's Jack Bauer, able to withstand torturous pain, outwit foreign snipers and even sidestep the second-guessing of suits to rescue everyone at the last minute with his guts, instincts and timing. Yzerman even looks the part of Kiefer Sutherland's special agent: face boyish and weathered, eyes earnest and scanning, mouth careful and tense. He has a palpable impatience, an urgency that's surprising at first but infinitely reassuring when the prospect of sudden death nears. Yzerman is 41; Sutherland is nearly the same age. As season after season goes by, we've come to know one thing about each man: He doesn't die easy. So as impossible as Yzerman's entire hockey life has seemed, the sight of No. 19 walking off the ice and into the Rexall tunnel after another stunning first-round exit looks even more unrealistic. Is this really it?
We'll know soon enough, but all signs say this long-running thriller is over. Not that you'll hear its star complain about it. Hockey has seen Mark Messier, Brett Hull and Jeremy Roenick trade allegiances and wind down careers on poor teams, lashing out instead of letting go. Other sports have seen Brett Favre have a press conference to announce nothing much at all, Roger Clemens decide to retire unless he changes his mind and Michael Jordan scrape the icing off his perfect cake. Yzerman leaves watchers wanting a little more even as they wonder if the show has lost its juice. As he sat on the bench in the last seconds of Detroit's 4-3, season-ending loss to the Oilers, the CBC announcers fairly wailed about his exit from the stage. Not Yzerman. As with Bauer, part of the admiration The Captain has earned comes from his ability to face down situations others could not with the calm of, well, a secret agent. And Stevie Y has always known that the odds were against him.
He knew the mission could have done him in. The brass wanted to draft local boy Pat LaFontaine in 1983 and would have been thrilled if Sylvain Turgeon had still been around. But both those guys went before Yzerman, whom Detroit got with the fourth pick. Back then the team was known as the Dead Things, and not everyone Yzerman worked with could be trusted. "The dressing room wasn't the friendliest," says then-teammate John Ogrodnick. Yzerman became captain three years later not because he'd won over the cliques but because he was so obviously the best player on a wretched team. "This wasn't Hockeytown back then," says former GM Jim Devellano.
He knew management could have done him in. Devellano didn't want Yzerman to wear the C, deeming him too young. The Wings improved after the GM purged most of the roster in 1986, but new coach Jacques Demers got as much credit as No. 19. Stevie Y went from great player on a worthless team to trade bait on a mediocre one. Yzerman says the Wings nearly dealt him once, but it was actually three times: to Buffalo in 1991 and to Ottawa for a package of players and picks in 1993 and 1995. This is where bridges usually start burning, but The Captain said nothing. And if the front office didn't fully appreciate what it had, one old warhorse did. "I'm happy as hell they didn't trade him," Gordie Howe says. "They would have lost the heart of the club."
He knew change could have done him in. You didn't see Mario Lemieux embrace the left-wing lock. Nor Wayne Gretzky, nor Jaromir Jagr. But Yzerman, who averaged more than 50 goals a season from 1987 to 1993, overhauled his game after the Wings signed Sergei Fedorov. He kept his counsel and morphed from Allen Iverson into Bruce Bowen, winning the Selke Trophy for best defensive forward in the 1999-2000 season. He also set a precedent for such lone stars as Mike Modano, who made the same transformation in Dallas. Now wannabe winners-and leaders-on other teams have Stevie Y's lead to follow.
He knew politics could have done him in. The lockout meant certain doom for older, pricier players with bright names and faded games. Yzerman, coming off an 18-goal season, was set to earn $8 million. The backstabbers had him as a drag on the team, on the ice and at the bank. So he kept his mouth shut and took a $6 million pay cut.
He knew his body could have done him in. Yzerman first injured his right knee almost 20 years ago, when he careered into a goalpost after scoring his 50th goal of the 1987-88 season. "It was a strange feeling," he says. "Something wasn't right." That something was cartilage, which has now withered to nothing. Yzerman has played into the playoffs again and again with bone scraping against bone. He can skate, but he'll never run again.
"Very few would have played through what he played through," says Wings GM Ken Holland. "He would leave the rink dragging his leg behind him."
Two years ago, against the Flames in the second round of the playoffs, a puck shattered the orbital bone of Yzerman's left eye, and fans thought that, finally, he was history. Nope. And recently, even as he was starting to move the idea of retirement from the back of his head to the front, Yzerman had his knee realigned so he could start shredding another chunk of cartilage. He didn't skate during the lockout and nearly quit earlier this season because he was frustrated by his lack of production. But the job came first. "Over time it's going to wear out," he says. Pause. "I'll be all right."
He survived this season (as of New Year's Day, he had just four goals) for the same reason as always: He saw a purpose for himself and didn't care if he got any credit for it. Like Bauer, Yzerman prefers being effective in the shadows to being scrutinized under lights. All attention is bad attention to a man who says he is "uncomfortable" with the fact that a rink in Ottawa was named after him. When asked why, he averts his eyes and smiles. "It's just weird."
Of course it's weird; Yzerman never wanted to be a destination. He never wanted stardom in New York or LA. He liked Detroit, a city that produces (or used to) while other places promote. Howe remembers the first time he met the hotshot rook almost a quarter century ago: "He said, ' … Uhhhh.' " Yzerman admits that "I don't say a whole lot. I like being a hockey player. I don't get caught up in it."
As with Bauer, the moments when he does draw attention to himself generally come from necessity. In the first round of the 2002 playoffs, Detroit was down 2-0 to Vancouver and panic was setting in. "We need to say something," veteran forward Brendan Shanahan told The Captain. Yzerman dismissed the idea-"Let 'em play," he told Shanny-but then he changed his mind. Few Wings recall what he said, but just the sight of Yzerman standing up was almost enough. "He gave the whole team confidence," says defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, who scored the serieschanging goal in Game 3. "Settled us right down."
Yzerman, true to form, shrugs off the episode: "The only thing I did was time it right."
The Captain's style would seem fake coming from most other athletes of his caliber. Forward Jason Williams remembers meeting him at Williams' first training camp, in 2000. Yzerman walked up to the rookie and introduced himself, first and last names. "I know who you are," Williams sputtered, to which Yzerman replied, "I like the way you play. Keep it up."
Williams bolted home and called everyone he knew. Respect, though, does not come just from younger players. Schneider, a former All-Star, calls it "an honor" to play with Yzerman. Safe to assume that the Canadian Olympic team members, all of whom refused to wear No. 19 this winter, feel the same. Yzerman bowed out of the Torino Games, considering himself too beat-up. Like Bauer, he goes only where he's needed. And he was needed in Motown. After the Olympics, Yzerman once again became a major cog in Detroit. He went on a team-high 11-game scoring streak down the stretch, passing Lemieux in career goals. Teammates heard about it over the PA system and were completely surprised. As milestones go, this was in the vicinity of Bonds passing Ruth, yet few knew about it even as it was happening.
Yzerman's 20th playoffs began the same way.
He assisted on Detroit's first goal in a Game 1 win and dinged the post in a near-miss momentumchanger during a Game 2 loss. There he was, still wincing, glaring, sword-fighting before faceoffs, showing instead of telling. "You feel the pain with him," says forward Kirk Maltby. Playoffs are about overcoming and, as Williams says, "he overcomes everything."
Except Edmonton. And yet, when he was out of his skates for maybe the last time-after not missing a shift and getting an assist while playing with a torn muscle in his rib cage-he admitted that he didn't think about the end until it was upon him. All his fans gasped and winced and worried about it, but he just played-and called it "fun."
Yzerman will not send a retirement fax like Barry Sanders, nor will he grasp for one more SportsCenter moment like Jerry Rice. "I'm not into reality shows," he says, smiling and looking down. He figures Lidstrom will inherit his C. Lidstrom insists he will try to emulate Yzerman no matter what letter is on his sweater. "It's his work ethic," Lidstrom says. "He says something when it's needed, but only when it's needed." Yzerman shrugs off another compliment. "The fact that I'm captain is not all that important."
THE DAY after Game 1 in Detroit, Maltby and Shanahan and goalie Manny Legace are entertaining the media while Yzerman stays behind a curtain, getting treated for a bad back. Only after everyone leaves does he appear, in jeans and a T-shirt, holding DVDs for his daughters in one hand and tickets to Game 2 in the other. He presents the latter to the father of an energetic 11-year-old boy named Braxton who has lymphoma. For more than five years, since Braxton's condition was diagnosed, Yzerman has corresponded with him and visited whenever the Wings were in Denver, where Braxton and his dad live. Now the boy is in his hero's locker room, and
Yzerman gives father and son instructions on where to enter the building on gameday, where to go for food after, whom to call with questions.
He poses for a snapshot, and as in his team picture, Yzerman does not give a glamour-shot grin. He stares into the lens calmly, unsmiling. Then he apologizes for not spending more time and says he's off to see his own family. He gives Braxton a stick, an autograph and a smile.
"For all these years," Braxton's dad says, "I think Steve's been the only thing that's kept him rolling."
In last year's 24 season finale, Jack Bauer headed off into the sunlight, his mission completed but his future and return in doubt. Today, as Braxton runs around the locker room with his stick, no one watching this finale seems to realize or care that Yzerman has left in much the same circumstances.