Monday, November 9, 2009

Stevie Y goes into the Hall of Fame tonight

By Rick Morris

My all-time favorite athlete and the reason I started following hockey in the first place, Steve Yzerman, took his rightful place in the Hockey Hall of Fame tonight. Beneath this highlight video of ten of his greatest NHL goals, I will reprint my tribute to him that I wrote for the blog when he retired in 2006.

"Steve Yzerman retired yesterday. He is my favorite athlete of all time in any sport and I feel it necessary to add to the tributes coming his way at this time.

Before I add my personal perspectives, I would like to mention why he is my favorite. He had outstanding God-given talent, but also radiated class and became, in my opinion, the greatest leader in team sports. His two decades with the captain's "C" set a record by quite a wide margin, one that I believe will never be approached, much less surpassed. Hockey players as a whole tend to be the humblest and classiest in team sports and Steve Yzerman exemplified that better than most. I do not believe that we will see anyone quite like him ever again.

I was not a fan of hockey until my freshman year of college in 1987. Growing up in the Cleveland area, where the media coverage of the NHL has always been woeful, I was simply not exposed to the greatness of the game. But working at public radio station WOUB in Athens, Ohio, I began to read about and see footage in the newsroom of the guy in Detroit with the odd-spelled name and the incredible scoring moves. I quickly began to wonder why he was so obscured by Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, because his numbers and his play didn't deserve to be hidden in the shadows. Singlehandedly, he made me a fan of the Winged Wheel and the game of hockey.

As he grew as a player, embracing the role of captain and the greater emphasis on two-way play mandated by Scotty Bowman in the '90s, I suffered through the team's playoff setbacks. On a shuttle ride at the airport back in those days, an AHL player who struck up a conversation with me upon spotting my Wings jacket told me that the hot rumor was that Yzerman was soon to be traded to Ottawa. It seemed that the man and the team would never get what they deserved.

And then, in 1997, 10 years into my awareness and appreciation of this man and this franchise, they ended the 42-year drought and captured the Stanley Cup. To this day, my favorite video to pop into the VCR remains the postgame footage after Game 4 when Stevie Y accepted the Cup from Gary Bettman and performed his victory lap around Joe Louis Arena. I do not lightly lump in sports events with the greatest moments of my life, but I make an exception for that night, June 7, 1997. That was one of the greatest moments of my life.

Within a week the victory would be overshadowed dramatically by the car crash that would leave team trainer Sergei Mnatsakanov and defensive franchise player Vladimir Konstantinov fighting for their lives. With their friends permanently out of the game, the team went on one of the greatest inspirational runs in the history of sports in the spring of 1998 and successfully defended their title. The on-ice celebration was even more stirring this time, as Stevie cut short his victory skate with the Cup to place it in the lap of Vladdie as the players wheeled him around the ice. They validated their slogan of "Believe," which conveyed their desire to win for their fallen friends.

More playoff disappointments would come before the final Stanley Cup win of the Yzerman era in 2002. The 7-0 pounding of Colorado in Game Seven of the Western Conference Finals provided a fitting coda to the playoff rivalry with the Avs -- a feud that was arguably the most heated in sports at the time. All throughout the playoffs, Steve Yzerman skated on a knee so shattered that he needed to be shot up like a racehorse and taped tightly before every game. The surgical path he chose had ended the career of every player who had suffered through it. But Steve Yzerman became the first man to come back from it. I think I can speak for all of his fans when I say that we never really had a doubt that he would be that pioneer. It just fit who he is.

Throughout his career, he battled injuries, including various knee problems. He not only never complained, he sought to downplay the severity of them and the extent of the sacrifices he made for his team. To the end, his main concern was what was best for the team. He concluded, sadly, that the uncertainty about how his body would hold up next season would outweigh the solid production that he could still provide when healthy.

Having come to my appreciation of #19 in my own way, imagine my surprise when I read an account that eerily mimicked my circumstances. It's from John Buccigross of ESPN:

'When I was senior at Heidelberg College, I cut a 2-inch by 1-inch picture of Steve Yzerman out of the newspaper and hung it on my dormitory door. I wasn't a Wings fan and had never seen Yzerman play. This was the mid-80's, I lived in Eastern Ohio, and the NHL was on SportsChannel. I wasn't one of the 47 people who had that network as part of their cable package. But his eyes mesmerized me. I thought, this is a person who has big dreams. Big visions. He has a plan and a focus to see it through and stick it out. I knew nothing about him, had never seen or heard him speak, but something moved me to hang that picture on my door as inspiration that life's biggest joys and awards come from dealing with and overcoming pain and discomfort. Those eyes said, 'Nothing good comes easy.' Have a vision and stick it out.'

That anecodote is part of a larger story on The Captain here, behind the ESPN Insider wall. It's great writing from a powerful wordsmith and fan of professional hockey.

The best way to sum up what he means to his fans is this: the best word that comes to mind when we think of his is "respect." The Canadian Olympic team chose to vacate the #19 during the Turin Games when Yzerman withdrew from the team for health reasons -- and that's saying quite a bit, because so many players of this generation wear that number out of respect for him. Respect, there's that word again. And as the Red Wings have become over the last decade hockey's version of the New York Yankees, the single most polarizing force in the sport, rarely if ever will you hear opposing fans speaking ill of Stevie Franchise. They will bash the ownership, or other Wings players, or Wings coaches, but not The Man. They know in their heart of hearts that they would kill to have him wearing their colors -- and we who love him know how fortunate we were that he wore ours.

Doubtless Steve Yzerman is befuddled by the response his departure from the ice is evoking. That's part of his charm. In a day and age of entitlement, he not only acted devoid of ego, but was embarrassed when he received the acclaim he deserved. But it's important that his fans have this chance to relive the great moments he provided to us, because it helps take the sting out of the moment we all knew we would face someday but dreaded nonetheless."

Congratulations on your well-deserved reward, Number 19.

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