Heading toward the dressing room after a recent practice at Joe Louis Arena, the Detroit Red Wings' Steve Yzerman passed a gaggle of young admirers. One of them, a skinny, blonde, buck-toothed girl, looked to be about nine. Yzerman held his stick out to her and asked, "Want this?"
She froze. Of course she wanted the All-Star center's stick. But wouldn't he be smiling if he wanted her to take it? "Take it!" hissed her friend. "Take it!" Finally, as if in a trance, she did, with both hands. Afterward, Yzerman, a genuinely nice fellow who just happens to leave his game face on even when there's no game, wondered aloud if he had upset her.
Shyness and humility are qualities not often associated with professional athletes, just as "division-leading" and "10-points-over-.500" are modifiers seldom applied to the Red Wings. But Yzerman and the Wings are both having exceptional seasons. Detroit is averaging crowds of 19,590 per home game—a testament to the loyalty and tolerance for physical discomfort of several hundred Wings fans, as the Arena has only 19,275 seats. Motown is turned on by coach Jacques Demers's passionate antics behind the bench, and some fans no doubt also come to see Bob Probert, Yzerman's right wing and the NHL's penalty-minutes leader, dispense rough Norris Division justice. But mostly they flock to Red Wings games in hopes of catching an Yzerman offensive display, and No. 19 has obliged them with impressive regularity. At week's end, Yzerman had 37 goals and 44 assists, putting him fourth in the league behind Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux, Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky and Chicago's Denis Savard; he had points in 39 of the Wings' first 44 games, and his 22-game scoring streak, which ended Jan. 13, stands as the longest in the league this season.
"Stevie Yzerman is not a self-promoter," says Demers, who made the then 21-year-old his captain before the 1986-87 season. This is an understatement. If Yzerman were any less self-promoting, his tongue would atrophy. Consider the end of a recent interview:
February 8, 1988
Q.: So, what are you driving these days?
A.: A Pontiac.
Q.: Interesting. One might think a young millionaire like you would opt for a Porsche or Ferrari or something.
A.: Actually, I do drive a Porsche.
Q.: But I thought—
A.: But it's put away. I usually don't drive it past November. I drove the Pontiac today. (Smiling) That's what you asked me, right?
Q.: Good point.... Let's see, I'm just about out of questions. Is there anything else I should know about you? (Yzerman shakes his head.) Dating anyone? Perhaps the commissioner's daughter?
A.: No. But I did get engaged a couple weeks ago.
Q.: Congratulations. That's newsworthy. Why didn't you mention it earlier?
A.: You didn't ask.
Yzerman, who would just as soon lend you his safely stored Porsche as discuss his on-ice brilliance, explains the career year he is having this way: "The team has improved around me."
And in truth, the perennially underrated Gerard Gallant has contributed 21 goals and 33 assists to the Detroit attack, while rookie Jeff Sharpies and second-year-man Rick Zombo have solidified the defense. Probert already has 23 goals and will join Yzerman at the NHL All-Star Game in St. Louis on Feb. 9.
This season is shaping up to be Detroit's best in a decade. When it is finished, after all the testimonials to Demers's coaching genius and general manager Jim Devellano's keen eye for hockey flesh, after Lee Norwood, Gil Delorme, Mike O'Connell, Darren Veitch, Shawn Burr, Sharples, Zombo and the rest of the Red Wings' lunch-bucket brigade are endlessly and justifiably celebrated for their work ethic, Yzerman will deservedly receive the lion's share of credit.
"We have improved 40 points from a year and a half ago," Demers says. "You can't do that without a superstar—that's what Steve is. He is like an Isiah Thomas. He is a meal ticket for a coach."
Of course, in much of the U.S., Yzerman enjoys nowhere near the name recognition of Thomas, or even, say, Bruce Babbitt. It has not helped that for three of his five seasons in the NHL, he has played on a sad-sack team. And it is difficult for fans to remember a Dutch-German name they find hard to pronounce—it's EYE-zer-man. Last month Yzerman announced his engagement to Lisa Brennan, a sophomore at Algonquin College in Ottawa. Another NHL center, Gretzky, chose the next week to announce his plans to wed American actress Janet Jones. Guess who got the headlines?
Always impeccably attired, Yzerman tops off his look by maintaining a week's worth of stubble on his face. It is not there to appeal to the opposite sex. Yzerman is sufficiently dashing not to need help in that department. (If anything, he needs a bodyguard and a car waiting at the backdoor.) The scruff, he hopes, makes him look older than his 22 years. One big reservation he had about taking the team captaincy when Demers offered it was how the older Red Wings would react. Whatever doubts they may have had at first, the team elders—defensemen Harold Snepsts, 33, O'Connell, 32, and Dave Lewis, 34, who retired early this season to become an assistant coach—have gotten behind Yzerman, although O'Connell says, "He doesn't need much help. Steve is a pretty independent thinker. He has his own ideas about how things should be done."
Says winger Joe Kocur, "We don't hear much from him unless we're in a slump." At which point Yzerman will call meetings, talk to individuals or, "on rare occasions," says Snepsts, address the team. "When he does talk, he really knows how to grab your attention."
Yzerman hasn't had to write any speeches in a while. Before dropping a game on Jan. 16, the Red Wings were on an eight-game undefeated tear, and they're still practically running away with the Norris Division.
Yzerman's generally low-key brand of leadership seems drawn from his father, Ronald, the director of assistance in welfare services in Canada. Both men, says Jean Yzerman, Steve's mother, "are quiet, subdued and keep a lot to themselves, but occasionally they explode." At home in Ottawa, Ronald and Jean were initially dismayed by young Steven's obsession with hockey and his apathy toward formal education. Their four other children, sons Michael, Gary and Chris, and daughter Roni-Jean, have all been strong students. Roni-Jean, 25, is a computer programmer for Bell Northern Research; Michael, 24, is studying toward his master's degree in social work; Gary, 20, is majoring in commerce at Carleton University; and Chris, 15, is still in high school and an above-average student.
As a seven-year-old who was allowed to play in the Pee Wees, Steve dominated the 12-year-olds. At 15 he toyed with 19- and 20-year-olds. By then his parents had become wholehearted supporters, paying for Steve's summer hockey camps and driving him to practices and games. At 16, Steve left home for the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League.
Devellano was criticized by some when he took the 18-year-old Yzerman as his first pick in the 1983 entry draft. However, his critics were silenced once the season got under way, for Yzerman had 39 goals and 48 assists and was runner-up to Buffalo goalie Tom Barrasso for the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year.
Questions about his toughness were answered early that season in a game against the Blackhawks. After Yzerman scored two goals, Chicago defenseman Behn Wilson—who would be given a four-game suspension for the infraction—splayed the rookie's nose with a high stick. Yzerman had to be helped to the bench, his face a mess. He had his nose packed and skated his next shift as if nothing had happened.
In January '84, Yzerman became the youngest player ever selected for the All-Star Game, and that summer he beat out the Blackhawks' Savard, among others, for a spot on his country's roster in the Canada Cup. In the '84-85 season he popped for 30 goals and 59 assists, and the Red Wings made the playoffs—and promptly went to hell in a handbasket.
In their first-round playoff series against Chicago, the Red Wings were swept in three games and outscored 23-8. Heads rolled. Before the '85-86 season, Devellano replaced coach Nick Polano with Harry Neale, whom he fired 35 games into the season in favor of Brad Park. The new regime was spectacularly disorganized. Highly paid, un-established free agents shared the dressing room with lower-paid, resentful veterans. Detroit gave up 415 goals, lost 57 games and finished last in the league.
Devellano was not trafficking just in head coaches that year. "He gassed about half the team," Yzerman says, including Lane Lambert and Claude Loiselle, Yzerman's best friends on the club. With Lambert and Loiselle gone, Yzerman withdrew and became a loner. "Our team wasn't close at all," he recalls. "After practices and games, everybody went their own way, and so did I."
You've heard of players bulking up. In '85-86, Yzerman, a 172-pound whippet to begin with, had decided he would lose weight. He dieted down to 160 pounds. It improved his quickness but cost him dearly in stamina. "If we played two days in a row, I had no strength," he says. "I was dead." Yzerman broke his left collarbone and finished the season with 14 goals in 51 games. Today Yzerman plays at 180 pounds and bench-presses 290. In 4½ NHL seasons, he has missed only those 29 games in '85-86.
Before the 1986-87 season, Devellano hired Demers to coach the floundering franchise. Yzerman drove from Ottawa to meet his new coach at the NHL entry draft in Montreal in June.
"That showed me something," says Demers, who was thinking about who his captain would be. "Little gestures like that say things about a guy."
Making Yzerman captain was one of Demers's first moves—and biggest gambles. But Demers had called Yzerman's parents and his coach at Peterborough and knew that Steve responded well to challenges. The team captaincy was just that—a challenge to Yzerman to stop retreating into his Walkman. It worked.
The Wings improved by 38 points over the previous season. In the second round of the playoffs, Detroit trailed the Maple Leafs 3-1 in games but eventually won the series. The cover of this season's Red Wings media guide shows Yzerman's celebration after scoring a goal in that series, a picture of unbridled ecstasy. It is the most animated that anyone can remember seeing him.
Fortunately, the shy Yzerman deals in a currency NHLers understand better than words—goals. His hat trick against the Winnipeg Jets on Jan. 3 salvaged a tie after Detroit had trailed 2-1. A week later, after accepting a plaque as the NHL Player of the Month for December, he outperformed Pittsburgh's Lemieux. The Penguins center had four goals to Yzerman's two, but Yzerman had three assists. Detroit won 7-5.
"I'm having some problems with my decorator," Yzerman apologizes as he greets a visitor. Getting to Yzerman's condo in the well-to-do Detroit suburb of West Bloomfield is no easy task. At the entrance to the development, visitors are interrogated by a uniformed guard, who then presses a button that controls a wooden gate.
When Yzerman bought his home two years ago, after signing a seven-year, $2 million contract with the Red Wings, he was probably the only 20-year-old millionaire on the block. Despite his tasteful furniture—despite even the presence of framed paintings, actual objets d'art rather than posters of, say, Farrah Fawcett or Bryan Trottier, his boyhood idol—there is something about the place that whispers "bachelor." A home-entertainment console stands empty in the living room, unused because Yzerman wants something more practical. "It's going back," he says. "I've just got to get it straightened out with my decorator." A putter and a scattering of golf balls lie on the living room carpet.
Tonight is the Tyson-Holmes fight. Yzerman's brother Gary has driven down from Ottawa with a couple of buddies, Tom Goddard and Don McDonald, for the weekend. "Steve gets lonely," Gary explains. "Sometimes he calls home even though he doesn't have anything to talk about." As Tyson wades into Holmes in the fourth round, knocking the challenger down twice, Gary and his friends start losing it.
"Rag doll!" shouts Gary as Holmes hits the deck.
As Holmes blinks groggily, Tommy yells, "The lights are on, but nobody's home!"
Only Yzerman is still and composed. He cannot take his eyes off Tyson. "Did you see how he came into the ring?" he says afterward. "Black boots, black shorts, no shirt, all business."
All business. Captain Yzerman can relate. Even away from the office, his thoughts run to business. Speaking of which, the Red Wings have an afternoon game the next day. It's past Steve's bedtime and time for the visitor to leave.
From outside, the lights in Yzerman's place are dim, vaguely uninviting—the way he is when his game face is on. But make no mistake, Steve Yzerman is very much at home.