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Steve Yzerman Leaves for Tampa Bay

It’s been a rough few months for Wings fans.  The regular season was filled with more stress than any in recent memory, and that eventually led to an early playoff exit for our boys.  We’ve also been debating whether or not to welcome Jiri Hudler back after he bolted to the KHL last summer, but that’s actually been a nice distraction from the agony of waiting to hear Nick Lidstrom’s decision about retirement.  When the news broke about Steve Yzerman leaving the organization to take the GM job in Tampa Bay, it immediately sent ripples through Red Wings Nation.  Actually, scratch that, it sent a tidal wave through Red Wings Nation.  I went outside with a compass to check that north was still north and punched 2+2 into my calculator just to make sure it still added up to 4.  That’s how jarring the sight of Stevie Y wearing a lapel pin with the logo of another team on it was to Wings fans.

I don’t know if I can explain what The Captain means to Wings fans.  For fans of my generation (I was born two months before he began his first season as Captain), he IS Hockeytown.  He IS the Red Wings.  Up until Tuesday, there had not been a single day of my life in which he wasn’t part of the Wings.  He’s one of the reasons that I love hockey so much.  If you told me that you were a Wings fan, but somehow didn’t love Steve Yzerman, I’d call you a liar.  It’s just not possible.

How do you explain something that seems as obvious as adoring Steve Yzerman?  Try defining “the.”  I use it hundreds of times every single day, but if you asked me to give you a definition right now, I’d stand here and stutter.  That’s what this is like for Wings fans.  It’s such a part of me that it’s almost impossible to explain.

It’s more than just his lengthy tenure as The Captain (and yes, when you capitalize the “The” at the front, it still means Steve Yzerman, not Nick Lidstrom).  It’s more than seeing him finally lead the Wings back to the Stanley Cup in ’97.  It’s more than the other two Cups he hoisted as Captain.

A lot of fans focus on the ’02 Cup run as the epitome of Stevie’s career.  The leadership he showed during those playoffs was incredible, but I don’t think you can define the man with just those few weeks of hockey.  There’s so much more than that.  I think of him being the guy sent in to win an important faceoff late in a game. I think of sitting on my family room couch as my dad, just a few months old when the team won the 1955 Cup, tried to hide his tears as The Captain hoisted Stanley for the first time in ’97. I think of him coming back from a ridiculous knee surgery because he still had something left in the tank. I think of standing in the lower bowl of Joe Louis Arena in my bright red #19 jersey clapping until my hands were red the night he scored his 600th goal. I think of the way a picture of him hoisting the Cup can still bring grown men in this city to tears. I think of seeing him play an exhibition game at Yost during the lockout and sticking around to sign autographs for all of the junior players and some of the NHLers too. I think of sitting in the upper bowl in December of 2005, knowing that I was moving to Florida and that he would probably be retiring soon, watching every shift he took and wondering if it would be the last time I saw him set foot on the ice in person. I think of standing on a concrete barrier, craning my neck to catch a glimpse of my hero during the ’02 parade.  I think of the way he almost shies away from all of the praise and attention that continues to come his way. I think of the love that transcends the traditional fan/player relationship that the people in Detroit have for him.

I can’t think of another leader whose personality came to embody a team in the way that The Captain’s did. This is even more amazing because of how understated Stevie’s public persona was. Even with the veritable all-star team that the Wings fielded in ’02, there was never any question that he was the guy. And that year, when expectations were higher than ever, he led the way. On one leg.  That’s heart.

It’s been four years since he retired, but every once in a while, I catch a flash of the C on Lidstrom’s jersey and half expect it to be #19.  Not having him around seems unnatural for folks around here.  Yzerman isn’t just the Red Wings.  He’s Hockeytown.  He’s Detroit.  This city is the target of a lot of jokes from just about everybody else, but we’re a proud bunch of people.  We love our hockey.  We love our city.  In order to fully understand our attachment to Stevie, you have to know what makes us tick.

At the most basic level, we’re a blue-collar town.  We love hard work.  We value gritty folks who are willing to put in the extra effort to get the job done.  We like modesty and humility.  (We’re Midwesterners, after all.)  We value loyalty and perseverance.  Steve Yzerman embodied every single one of those characteristics and topped it all off with an incredible amount of skill.  He wasn’t a native Detroiter, but there could not have been a better fit for a player and a city than Stevie Y and Hockeytown.  Several years ago, there was a billboard in the city that read “Born: Cranbrook, BC, 1965  Adopted: Detroit, MI, 1983” with a gigantic picture of Yzerman.  Truer words have never been spoken.  If you ask a Wings fan who their favorite player is, the most common response will be, “You mean other than Yzerman?”  And that’s the way it should be.

You can have him as your GM, Tampa, but he’ll always be our Captain. I have no doubt that he’ll succeed with the Lightning.  He’s got everything it takes to do well.  His legacy, though?  His legend?  They’re still ours.  Steve Yzerman isn’t really gone.  He’s on the ice every time one of the “old guard” guys takes a shift or when future leaders like Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk wow the crowd.  He’s in the locker room when new players join the team and buy into the system without question.  He’s there when the team’s stars give interviews singing the praises of teammates or opponents but refuse to hype themselves.

For 27 years, he’s been all ours.  There’s a banner hanging in the rafters of Joe Louis Arena that proves he’s a Wing for life. It hurts to see him walk away, but in the end I can’t help but be happy for him. So no, I won’t say goodbye to Stevie Y…just good luck.

  1. May 31, 2010 at 1:29 am

    Well said. Tampa may succeed with Stevie Y as their GM, but there is no other team that he will be associated with in the first breath past Detroit.

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