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Yzerman takes another hit

5/18/2004

"A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader
takes people where they don't necessarily want to go, but ought to be."

-- Former U.S. First Lady Rosalynn Carter

At the zenith of his NHL career, it was clear Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman was a leader of a different make. Like his idol Bryan Trottier, Yzerman never had the physical measurements to make a nightclub bouncer so much as flinch; grandiose locker room rah-rah sessions weren't his bag, either. Rather, it was the most clutch of step-ups in play, coupled with an ability to ignore the kind of pain new medicines are invented for, that crafted the core of Yzerman's legend.

Three Stanley Cup rings confirmed what most of the hockey world already knew about "Stevie Y": he would plow any path, bite any bullet, abandon all pride, all in the name of becoming a champion. He took his people where they wanted to go. And now, at the end of his 21st NHL season ­and because of the horrific eye injury that ended his and his team's playoff run ­ Yzerman has evolved into the great leader of which Jimmy Carter's wife was speaking.

The scene at Joe Louis Arena in Game 5 of Detroit's first round series with the Calgary Flames wasn't unfamiliar, but familiarly unsettling: there was the player lying face-down on the ice, hands covering his face, his frantic tics and kicks projecting his panic to the entire arena. Only this time it wasn't a third-liner whose lack of a visor instantly put his career into question. This time it was a bona fide icon that went down, an ingredient so integral to his team's recipe for success you could hear Detroit's winged wheel trimmed to its rim as Yzerman was helped to the trainer's room.

Then came the diagnosis: A scratched cornea. A broken orbital bone. A small tear in his iris. The possibility of permanent eye damage. All the usual stuff that frightens the daylights out of players -- but only after they've been admitted to the emergency room.

Yzerman's career, already on the proverbial back nine, seemed primed to be attached with the "kaput" label. After all, that's the way many of our heroes go out: not with ticker-tape and trumpets, but with an IV unit and a new appreciation for advances in medical technology. Yzerman's fate appeared locked-in, until he held a press conference announcing otherwise.

"I don't know what the final point is going to be when I say, 'that's it'," Yzerman said. "But I'm not there."

Then came the really good stuff.

"I have three daughters that don't play hockey, but if I had a son and he was turning pro I'd want him to wear a visor," Yzerman said. "You don't need an eye injury. This is the first one I've had.

"The first thing that went through my mind was, 'I don't want to lose my eyesight.' I really believe guys should be wearing (visors). I wouldn't have said that (before the injury)."

It was a breathtaking choice of words, the silver bullet for Don Cherry's wolfman shtick, the comeuppance to all who argue only pantywaists and pacifists play with protection. Not only was one of the toughest players in NHL history suggesting he would wear a visor upon his return to game action he said all players should be wearing them.

That's big, people. That's not the usual route your garden-variety NHLer takes when he nearly loses an eye. The usual route, the one Bryan Berard and so many others have taken, is to wave the white flag of personal choice and say that visors should be used at a player's discretion.

Yzerman said nothing of the sort. He took a stand, knowing full well it would alienate some of his colleagues -- not to mention the NHLPA, which doesn't think twice about grieving the size of goalie pads to no end, yet avoids the visor issue like Brian Burke avoids subtlety -- and put him squarely in the line of the debate's fire. He did it anyway, like a great leader should, because it is the right thing to do.

Apologies to Gene Hackman, but that is a valor almost entirely uncommon to the NHL. Most players are content to let the Brett Hulls and Jeremy Roenicks
do their ranting for them. Most are happy to forego the risking of necks in favor of the cashing of checks. Most are too busy dealing with the here and now to think of the good of the game.

Not Yzerman, not any more. Like many NHLers, he has experienced how a career and life can be changed in an instant. He knows now that all the bravado, all the talk of a player's right to choose, all of it vanishes the instant you think you'll have to watch your kids through one eye for the rest of your days.

It is easy for hockey players to talk about drive and heart, determination and guts. It is a piece of cake to talk about how winning means everything and excuses are for losers. Such black-and-white banter is almost exclusively the domain of the sports world these days. But what is monumentally more difficult is taking sides on an issue that polarizes and provokes. That's what Yzerman did, at a time when he could have been forgiven for worrying about his own situation.

And that's why Steve Yzerman's legacy took a quantum leap forward when he counted himself in for the visor debate. He might not play old-buddy-old-pal with the press and he might not play for many more years, but he knows how things ought to be.

E-mail Adam Proteau at aproteau@thehockeynews.com.

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