The least debated subject in the NHL, other than who has the ugliest home uniforms (the Vancouver Canucks, in a walkover), is, Who's No. 3? While fans argue passionately over who is the league's best player, Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, everyone agrees on who comes next: center Steve Yzerman of the Detroit Red Wings.
Yzerman's offensive skills are far beyond those of ordinary NHL players but not quite extraordinary enough to put him into the orbit of Gretzky and Lemieux. Last week Yzerman was asked what it's like to hold a long-term lease on third place. Is it discouraging? Do one's dreams take on a bronze hue? Yzerman ruminated for a few moments, as is his wont, and then offered this surprising answer: "Personally, I don't think I'm Number 3."
Here was a scoop. For Yzerman, who's known around the NHL as the star that self-importance forgot, this amounted to trash-talking of the most insolent sort. Tell us, Steve, he was asked, which of the league's two reigning demigods have you, in your own mind, displaced?
"No, that's not how I mean it," said Yzerman, smiling. "What I mean is, there are so many guys who do such excellent jobs with different roles at different positions, that it's unfair to single one of us out as third best. Who's to say Grant Fuhr isn't Number 3 or Ray Bourque or Paul Coffey or Sean Burke or Dale Hawerchuk or Mark Messier?"
A typical Yzerman move: wriggling out of a jam with self-deprecation. This is the guy who after only six years holds more single-season Red Wing scoring records than Gordie Howe, yet is too shy to approach Mr. Hockey and say hello. "What am I supposed to say," said Yzerman earlier this season. " 'Hey, Gordie, how's it going?' "
Yzerman, who is 23, needn't be so shy. When Howe is asked to compare Gretzky and Lemieux, he peppers his analysis with references to Yzerman, saying things like, "Wayne, Mario, Steve—all the great ones have that sixth sense around the net," and "Of the three of them, I think Yzerman's got the best lateral movement."
Howe could add another point: Unlike Lemieux, whose production has been erratic for the past month and a half, Yzerman comes to play every night. "He's working all the time; he's not a floater," says Detroit coach Jacques Demers, implicitly comparing his star with Lemieux.
It is generous of Yzerman to lump himself in with Messier, Hawerchuk and the others. Too generous. He is out of their league. At week's end, Yzerman's 137 points were (what else?) third best in the NHL, behind (who else?) Gretzky, who had 153, and Lemieux, who had 179.
Yzerman is the only player on the Norris Division-leading Red Wings not to have missed a game this season. He has excelled for a club so beset with turmoil that its dressing room on some days could be confused with a precinct holding pen. Further, he has excelled despite severing one of the four major ligaments in his right knee last March.
Turbulent from the start, Detroit's season has included the legal misadventures of right wing Bob Probert, who two weeks ago was arrested for importing half an ounce of cocaine into the U.S. and then was summarily expelled from the NHL. Probert and left wing Petr Klima had begun the season with demotions: Probert for missing a team flight. Klima for missing a practice. In addition, Klima was jailed for two days last month for driving while impaired—while on probation for having driven while impaired. In separate incidents last August and November, left wing Joey Kocur was charged with assaulting a woman. He pleaded guilty to one count of disorderly conduct in the first case and is awaiting a hearing on the second.
Each new unhappy tiding brought a fusillade of tough questions for Yzerman, the team captain. "It got to be a bit much there for a while," says right wing Tim Higgins. "A lot of 23-year-old guys would have cracked. But Stevie just dealt with it."
The chaos burdened the Red Wings on the ice as well. Demers had expected Klima and Probert to score 80 goals between them. Probert had four when he was expelled, Klima 18 through Sunday. The line of Yzerman, left wing Gerard Gallant and right wing Paul MacLean, who played the previous seven seasons for the Winnipeg Jets, had to pick up the slack. Until this month, when the line of Klima, Adam Oates and Dave Barr came alive, the Yzerman trio had accounted for more than 50% of Detroit's goals.
Yzerman's scoring has tailed off over the past fortnight. He was held pointless in a 5-3 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs last Saturday night. The reason for his minislump is that the shadowing he has been subjected to all season is finally taking its toll. "It's ridiculous," says Gallant. "They're not paying any attention to the puck, just to Steve."
Let them shadow to their hearts' contents, says Demers. On March 4 in St. Louis, Blues center Rick Meagher had a hand on Yzerman's stick all night. But St. Louis forgot about Klima's line, which accounted for four goals in Detroit's 5-4 overtime win. On March 9 the New York Rangers' Lucien DeBlois was in Yzerman's face all evening and finally took a critical holding penalty early in the third period. With DeBlois in the penalty box, the Wings scored the tying goal in an eventual 3-2 victory.
Yzerman's status as an MVP contender—"Throughout all the turmoil he didn't quit and he wouldn't let other players quit," Demers says—has overshadowed his chances of becoming the comeback player of the year. Minutes after scoring his 50th goal of 1987-88, against the Buffalo Sabres on March 1 last year, Yzerman drove to the net, lost an edge on a skate and crashed, knee-first, into the goal post. The collision ruptured the posterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. Doctors said the injury would be season-ending and possibly career-ending. They were twice wrong.
Forgoing major reconstructive surgery, Yzerman worked two to three hours a day to strengthen the muscles around the destroyed ligament. "He attacked his therapy better than anyone I've ever had," says Red Wing physical therapist Jim Pengelly. "Not a whiff of self-pity. It was just, 'Let's get to work. Whatever it's going to take, let's do it.' "
Yzerman returned to action on May 7, for Game 3 of the Campbell Conference finals against the Edmonton Oilers. When Yzerman took the ice at the start of the game, the fans at Joe Louis Arena gave him a one-minute standing ovation. Detroit won 5-2 for its only victory of the series.
Had Yzerman undergone major surgery, he would be returning to the ice only this month. "With the operation," he says, "the doctors graft in a new ligament and attach it with screws to your tibia and your femur. Often it's difficult to get the right tension. It's not a very exact procedure, and there's no guarantee that it'll be better than if you never had the surgery."
During last year's playoffs, Yzerman wrote a column for the Detroit Free Press. Far from the ghost-written pap that is the norm for guest articles, Yzerman's pieces were provocative. He castigated the NHL for its failure to maintain order in the Boston-Montreal series. He criticized the playoff format as too long and, with 16 teams qualifying, too inclusive.
Like Gretzky, Yzerman is opinionated and well-spoken. With regard to fighting in the NHL, Yzerman has an unusual but meritorious idea. "The league could commission a study," says Yzerman, whose father, Ronald, is a high-ranking bureaucrat in the Canadian government. "They could eliminate fighting in one of the Canadian junior leagues for a season and study the effects of the ban on that league. That way the NHL could see if there is a detrimental effect on the game."
Last summer Yzerman took courses in financial analysis in hopes of learning to manage his money better. Yzerman may be a shade behind Gretzky and Lemieux in ability. In salary, however, the difference is measurable in millions of dollars. Yzerman is completing the fourth year of a seven-year, $2 million contract, which the Red Wings have said they will renegotiate at the end of this season.
This summer Yzerman will marry Lisa Brennan, his hometown sweetheart from Nepean, Ont. They will live in a tony home Yzerman is having built in Grosse Pointe, Mich., 100 feet from Lake St. Clair. Everything points to a long and happy career in Motown.
Last week a guy chatting with Yzerman sketched a mock solar system on a legal pad. Closest to the sun were two planets called number 99 and number 66. Farthest from the sun was a minor galaxy labeled "The Rest." Between them, closer to 99 and 66 than to The Rest, was a planet named number 19. "Obviously, every hockey player would like to be right there," said Yzerman, pointing to the uniform numbers of Gretzky and Lemieux. "Who knows, maybe if I keep improving, in a couple years...."
Expect Yzerman someday to improve his No. 3 position in the NHL cosmos. Just don't expect him to admit it once it happens.