Yzerman can see end, but won't quit just yet

One by one, they asked themselves those life-altering questions and came up with the most difficult of answers.

Stevens, Messier, Damphousse, Francis.

"Adieu." "Thanks for the memories." "We've had enough."

Steve Yzerman took that long, hard look into himself and came away with a different answer: Not yet.

Not that the captain of the Detroit Red Wings hasn't thought about the end; indeed, he welcomes the freedom that final decision will bring. But not just yet, thank you.

"You know, I'm comfortable with it and in some ways I look forward to it," Yzerman said. "As much as I'd like to compete, it's difficult. It gets old. You're battling; guys are big and strong and fast. You're fighting time. So in some ways, when it's over, I'll have a sense of relief. It's a lot of work and I enjoy doing it, but again I look forward to when it's over as well."

Just not now.

In announcing their retirements in recent days, both Scott Stevens and Mark Messier, who own a combined nine Stanley Cup rings, said the fact there was nothing left to prove -- no dreams to chase down or points to make -- was a significant factor in deciding that they had had enough.

Yzerman might well have come to the same conclusion. Having won three Stanley Cups and a playoff MVP award since 1997, Yzerman is the most prominent athlete in one of the best sports cities in North America. Apart perhaps from the incomparable Gordie Howe, Yzerman is his team's most important player ever.

"He's right up there with Gordie Howe," Detroit GM Ken Holland said. "Anything I add to that is going to diminish it.

"He came here and he really had to rebuild the franchise. He's a slam-dunk Hall of Famer, and he's going to be one of the best players of his era."

And still he is here at age 40, slogging through his 22nd NHL training camp. He is here with nothing left to prove, nothing left to accomplish, beyond feeding that powerful need to compete, and the equally powerful desire to be wanted, to be needed, to believe he can make a difference once more.

"I had 15 months there to debate it and back forth. At times, I was certain I was going to play and there were other times I was certain I wasn't going to play," Yzerman said. "Until the lockout ended and I had a chance to sit down with Kenny Holland to kind of discuss, 'Does it make sense for me to come back, economically, for the organization, personnel wise? What do you want to do with this team?'"

It could have turned out to be a much more delicate dance than it did.

The Red Wings, the biggest of the big spenders under the old system, were in tough with the new salary cap. Neither Holland nor senior vice-president Jim Devellano, the man who drafted Yzerman at his first draft 22 years ago, had a real inclination of what Yzerman wanted financially or what he expected his role on the team to be.

"The biggest thing Kenny and I didn't want to do was insult him," Devellano said. "We were a little bit nervous about that. We told Steve this right off the top."

But Yzerman understood the team's limitations and made things easy for them.

Although no one will be handing around a plastic bucket at Joe Louis Arena with Yzerman's name on the side, he is playing for the relatively paltry sum of $1.25 million.

More important to Yzerman's final decision was the fact Holland and Devellano wanted Yzerman back, not just as some warm fuzzy reminder of past glories, but as a player they consider critical to helping the team back to Cup contention.

"They want me to come back and play and do what I can do, just come and play and try," Yzerman said. "Hearing that from them, I'd like to play another year, go year by year with this thing, play and see how I do. That's what it came down to.

"Just knowing that I'm walking in there, not because of what I've done in the past but because they want me to be a part of it. Hearing that, I'm happy to be back."

This same thought process was behind Yzerman's invitation to the Canadian Olympic orientation camp in British Columbia last month. Both head coach Pat Quinn and executive director Wayne Gretzky singled Yzerman out for praise during the camp. Barring injury or a quiet word from Yzerman himself saying he's not up to it, Yzerman likely will be on the Canadian squad as it defends its gold medal in Turin in February.

"I think the Olympic camp was great for Steve," Holland said.

There are those who say Messier hung on too long before he finally called it quits. Francis was a disappointment as he tried for one last kick at glory in Toronto late in the 2003-04 season. Injuries had started to take their toll on Stevens even before he left the game midway through the 2003-04 season.

But Yzerman has had the rare ability to assess himself and his role in the game without sentiment. He has gone from a player who recorded seven straight seasons of 100 points or more, to a player who learned to lead a team by blocking shots and killing penalties.

When he sat down with Devellano and Holland, Yzerman told them he imagined himself playing 12 to 15 minutes a night, likely on a checking line, maybe logging some power-play time.

"He's got his head on straight. He reads himself properly," Devellano said.

At the start of the 2003-04 season, it was expected Yzerman would play 60-65 games but, said Holland, "that plan went down the tubes the first week of the season."

Yzerman played in 75 contests and was the fifth-leading scorer on a team that won the Presidents' Trophy for the second time in the past three seasons.

"He does so many different things for us," Holland said.

If Yzerman can replicate that kind of production and durability this season, "We'd be thrilled," Holland said.

"He may not put the numbers up that he used to, but he brings a lot more to the table, in the dressing room and the bench and even the composure he has on the ice," said teammate Kirk Maltby, who's been in Detroit since March of 1996 and is also a three-time Cup winner.

In the 2004 playoffs, the Red Wings faced gritty Calgary in the second round. After splitting the first four games, the teams were in a scoreless tie in the second period of the pivotal fifth game when Yzerman suffered a fractured orbital bone under his left eye and a scratched cornea when struck in the face by a puck.

The Wings didn't score again in the series. Coincidence? Holland doesn't think so.

"Throughout his career, Steve has found ways to make a big play at a critical point," Holland said.

There will, of course, come a time when the doors to the Red Wings' locker room will open and the captain's stall will be occupied by another player, the familiar No. 19 presumably hanging from the Joe Louis rafters.

"Yeah. Definitely it would have been different [if he'd retired]. Walking into that dressing room, I think no matter what, one of the things you'd always know is that Stevie was going to be there and be a part of the Red Wings," said Kris Draper, a Red Wing since the 1993-94 season. "I think everyone, not only in the organization but in all of hockey, is excited that Stevie's coming back for one more year and not ending this career the way that we saw happened in the game against Calgary."

Yzerman, the father of three children, ages 6, 7 and 11, has given it some thought, how he'd like to stay in the game somehow. Maybe coach. Maybe something else.

"I follow what's going on in the game, who's going where and what former players are doing," Yzerman said. "Whether you're in scouting or management or coaching, you have an impact and it matters how your team does. You make sure you do your job well because you have a potential to make a difference. Just being a part of an organization -- whether it be the Olympic program, or just your own club -- maybe you're not on the ice, but it still matters to you."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.