Commentary

Yzerman was 'fierce competitor'

Updated: November 5, 2009, 5:18 PM ET
By Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

The scene was Joe Louis Arena during the pregame warm-up before Game 2 of the 2002 first-round playoff series between the Detroit Red Wings and Vancouver Canucks.

Steve Yzerman could barely stand the pain in his right knee, which at that point was being held together by smoke and mirrors. He had gutted it out through the Olympics a few months earlier and was determined to battle through it again for the NHL playoffs.

But on this night, it hurt so much that one of the gutsiest and toughest competitors in the history of the game was wilting. He went over to Detroit coach Scotty Bowman and told him how much he was hurting.

"Quite honestly, part of me wanted him to say, 'You're not going tonight,'" Yzerman said to ESPN.com in a recent interview. "And he never did that."

Instead, Bowman suggested Yzerman simply take key faceoffs and play in certain situations. They would play it by ear. So, the Red Wings captain played that night. And again the next night, and the next, and the next ...

"He really willed us through the Vancouver series," said Red Wings GM Ken Holland, whose team rallied from a 2-0 series deficit to beat the Canucks en route to winning the Stanley Cup.

On one leg, Yzerman put up 23 points (6-17) in 23 playoff games and somehow got to the glorious end of another Cup run.

"It was a difficult thing to do," said Yzerman. "And, honestly, the only reason I kept playing is because Scotty didn't take me out of the lineup. One game led to another, led to another and eventually we got through it."

This is what set Yzerman apart during his playing career, which will be celebrated Monday night with his induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Yes, there were the 692 regular-season goals and 1,755 career points, as well as the three Cup rings and the Olympic gold medal. But this is a player whose character and toughness were rarely paralleled during his 22 NHL seasons.

"You want to talk about passion for the game? Geez," said Holland. "He's a special human being. And for everything he's accomplished, he's incredibly humble."

Let's dissect Mr. Yzerman a little bit, shall we?

The focus

Bowman said he's rarely seen anything like it. He rarely ever saw an athlete get focused like Yzerman.

"The one thing about him is that he was in such a zone, people didn't see that part of him," the legendary coach told ESPN.com. "He was such a fierce competitor, that once the game started until the time the game was over, he was totally wound up on that game. All he could think about was that game. His focus, I think, was his strongest point. A lot of people didn't see that because he doesn't show [emotion] much."

Yzerman said it depended on the night.

"There were games I felt I was in a zone, and then there were games that I felt I was in outer space," he said with a laugh. "I just tried to come to work and get prepared. I learned throughout my career that I performed better when I was relaxed, when I wasn't overly jovial or too fired up. I just tried to stay even keel, and the more I did that, the more comfortable I was."

Holland knows what Bowman is talking about, calling Yzerman "a fierce competitor."

"Sometimes I'd be sitting there in the press box and he'd be having an off game or things weren't going his way," recalled Holland. "He'd come off the ice after a shift, and you could see him go halfway down the hallway and snap a stick over his knee or something. You knew then he'd come back out on the ice and take his game to a whole other level. Because he's an incredibly fierce athlete. And as the leader, it was about business, it wasn't about joking around. It was about focus and competing each and every day."

But did he ever smile?

Igor Larionov was stumped. The Hall of Famer was asked by ESPN.com to come up with a funny anecdote involving Yzerman. You know, something goofy, a prank or a joke Yzerman might have told during their eight seasons together in Detroit.

Sorry, nothing.

"He was a serious guy," said Larionov, laughing. "And he's still a serious guy. I saw him a few weeks ago at a game at The Joe. And yes, he's still serious."

Larionov, still laughing, said he simply asked Yzerman how the 2010 Canadian Olympic team was coming along and the Team Canada GM put on a serious face.

"He said, 'Are you working for the Russian team?,'" laughed Larionov. "I said, No, no, no, I'm not. You can tell me anything you want. I won't tell anyone there.'"

Turns out, Yzerman's famous game face has carried over to his new management career.

"Like Igor said, he was a very serious guy," Bowman said. "You couldn't get him to joke around much."

Yzerman seemed surprised by that assessment.

What me, serious?

"I don't know, I never really thought about that," said Yzerman. "We used to joke a lot about that. I think people used to misinterpret some of the things I said with a straight face, thinking I was serious when a lot of times I was not."

Holland chuckled when asked about Mr. Serious. He was reminded of a moment during an off day in the 1997 Stanley Cup finals. The Wings were up 2-0 against the Philadelphia Flyers and on their way to a sweep and their first championship during the Yzerman era. Stevie Y was soaking his bruised body in a hot tub when Holland walked by.

"We had come into the organization back in '83 together," said Holland. "I remember saying to Steve while he lay there in the hot tub, 'Everything we've been through in 15 years, to win a Cup ...' He basically glared at me and told me we hadn't won anything and there was a lot of work to do. End of story. He didn't want to talk about it. He was incredibly focused."

And today?

"We get him laughing a bit more here on management side," said Holland. "But certainly, he's very, very serious."

The meeting

Everyone involved seems fuzzy on the exact date, but at some point early in Bowman's coaching tenure in Detroit, there was a sit-down that forever changed Yzerman's career. And the fortunes of the Detroit Red Wings.

"The team was good offensively, they could score goals, but they played by the seat of their pants," said Bowman. "And the goaltending was never up to snuff. I called Steve in and I said, 'You have a lot of good individual stats, but if you don't play a lot more defense, then the rest of the guys will probably keep playing the way they are.'"

It was a career-changing conversation, one that Yzerman looks back on fondly.

"I remember it well," said Yzerman. "We were a good team, but our idea in a close game was that we were going to outscore you, and more often than not, we'd make a mistake or we couldn't get that goal. Looking back now, the difference between those teams and the teams where we won Stanley Cups is that we became a team that was very comfortable playing in a 0-0 game and could play in it all night long if we had to and we weren't going to make mistakes and give the other teams opportunities."

Bowman sold Yzerman by recalling a similar chat he had had some 20 years earlier with Jacques Lemaire. Bowman believed the powerhouse Montreal Canadiens of the '70s didn't really start winning championships until Lemaire sacrificed some offense and became a two-way player.

Yzerman bought in instantly. After all, the team had been stunned in first-round upsets to Toronto (1993) and San Jose (1994).

"At that time, I still felt we were a Stanley Cup contender and all I wanted to do was win," said Yzerman. "That was the time for me to show that I really meant that. So I was quite comfortable doing it and relished the opportunity, really."

Yzerman, who posted six consecutive 100-plus-point seasons from 1987-88 to 1992-93, would never surpass the 100-point plateau again in his career.

"You saw Steve, who was one of the premier offensive players in the game, accept sacrificing some offense, accept the fact that his name wouldn't be in the leading scorers, in order to be a shot-blocker, a guy that could win draws, be a good defensive forward, chipping the puck off the boards when that's the right play," said Holland. "His desire to accept that and commit is the reason we went from being a great offensive team and a real disappointing playoff team into being the Detroit Red Wings that won championships.

"When Steve made that sacrifice and that commitment to go from a great offensive player into being a great two-way player, that really set the standard for who we are today."

The playoff struggles

The scrutiny of Yzerman from fans and media after those first-round upset losses to Toronto and San Jose was unbelievable. Could he really lead the team to victory?

"Those were very disappointing seasons," Yzerman said. "But honestly, it was after we went to the finals in '95 and got to the conference finals in '96, that's when I thought, 'Oh geez, we kind of had our run here and maybe we've missed it.' That, to me, was even tougher to take."

It was after that stunning playoff defeat to San Jose when Yzerman had another chat that had a great effect on him.

"I had a great conversation with a sports psychologist after '94 that worked with our team," said Yzerman. "He was really, really good."

Like many star players, Yzerman was beating himself up after the playoff losses, wondering what else he could have done to avoid those results.

"He said to me, 'Steve, guess what, it's not all about you. Stop thinking that way. Go out and perform. You can't do it all. You rely on teammates, you rely on coaches, you rely on scouts, you rely on general managers to make trades and draft players. There's so much that goes into it, so all you can do is go out and play.' And that's some of the best advice I've ever got."

Yzerman was tremendous in the 1995 and 1996 playoff runs before finally hoisting Lord Stanley in 1997, 1998 and 2002. Detroit's playoff struggles were a distant memory.

Who needs two knees?

When Team Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky phoned Yzerman before the 2002 Winter Olympics, Yzerman just had knee surgery and was hoping to recover in time for the Games in Salt Lake City.

"He said to me, 'Take your time and make your decision,'" said Yzerman. "I played two games after having that surgery and I felt good. I called him and I said, 'Wayne, I feel totally fine. I played full minutes. I feel really good.' So we got into the Olympics, and about halfway through the Sweden game [the opener for Canada], I felt like, 'Uh oh, maybe I was wrong.' But I just felt that I had to get through it because I had made a commitment."

Yzerman was instrumental in helping Canada end its 50-year gold-medal drought. Then, after the Olympics, he gave the knee some serious rest and an MRI showed he barely had any cartilage left on the knee. He took the rest of the regular season off except for the last game, then buckled up for the playoff run.

"He basically was on painkillers every game in 2002," said Holland.

"It was a struggle," said Yzerman. "I was relieved when it was over."

Larionov said Yzerman could barely walk around the dressing room.

"When you went to the trainers' room that year, Steve was easily the most damaged guy, and it took him a while to prepare for every game," said Larionov. "They had to tape him up for a long time. It was amazing to see how much pain he went through.

"That's all dedication, commitment and love for the game. All the younger kids playing hockey should see that as a prime example of how to be dedicated to the game, how to carry yourself as a leader."

Two months after the 2002 Cup win, Yzerman underwent an osteotomy, a rare operation for a pro athlete that essentially realigned the knee. The radical surgery was needed because Yzerman had done so much damage to his knee at the Olympics and in the playoffs. Honestly, he now says, he didn't know.

"At the time, I really didn't understand what was happening," Yzerman said. "The doctors were explaining stuff, but you don't really listen. It's simply, 'What do I need to do to get back on the ice?' So I never really understood at the time the damage that I was doing to the knee."

Yzerman's surgeon, Pete Fowler, said he didn't know of any other pro athlete at the time who had had this kind of surgery.

"I certainly don't know of a pro athlete who has had an osteotomy while they were still a pro athlete," Fowler told the London (Ontario) Free Press that year. "We didn't do it so Steve could return to hockey. We did it so Steve could return to walking without pain and for day-to-day activities."

But Yzerman did indeed return, playing parts of three more seasons before retiring after the 2005-06 season.

The new career

Yzerman, 44, has adjusted smoothly to his new career. He wears a suit all day long now, the pads and skates are long gone. Learning under the tutelage of Holland and Wings assistant GM Jim Nill is about as good as it gets.

"I just give my input when I can and I spend as much time as I can with them," said Yzerman, whose title with the Wings is vice president of hockey operations. "I've really learned a lot and enjoyed being in the office with those guys and learning the day-to-day operations of the team, the day-to-day decision-making, the minor ones and major ones. ... It's been great."

His job with Team Canada has taken his apprenticeship in hockey management to another level.

"Being with Hockey Canada first, at the World Championships and now at the Olympics, has given me an opportunity to make those types of decisions and have more responsibility," he said. "I've really enjoyed it. I like being busy and I like being involved in hockey."

Holland, one of Yzerman's assistants on the Olympic management team, said those attributes that made him a Hall of Fame player are now on display as Team Canada GM.

"He's not in it because of the salary or because of the perks, he's in it because he loves what he's doing every day," said Holland. "He did that as a player -- he loved to play, loved to practice. And you see that now. He loves to compete. He's representing his country. He wants Canada to win gold. It's a labor of love and he takes it very, very seriously."

It's clear Yzerman has the GM bug, and that will make for an interesting career decision down the road.

"I said through my playing career that it might interest me to stay involved and run a team one day," said Yzerman. "This experience has reaffirmed that. It's something I definitely want to pursue."

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.