When it was announced this spring that Steve Yzerman would be leaving our fair city for the sunny skies of Tampa Bay, you likely said, or thought, one of two things:
1. There goes the greatest player in Red Wings history.
2. There goes the second greatest player in Red Wings history.
It’s an old story, literally, told in time and numbers. If you grew up as a local hockey fan in the time frame of the postwar years, Number Nine — Gordie Howe — would reign forever as the premier Red Wing, indeed the best player, of all time. Now, it’s a terrific tribute to Number Nineteen, Yzerman, that he managed a career that in time would come to rival the reputation of Howe’s among contemporary Red Wings enthusiasts. In fact, among Wings backers the very thought that a local skater could come to be considered alongside — much less ahead — of the reputation of Howe would have been thought of as sacrilege not too long ago.
But there’s the rub … “not too long ago.” No matter how great the memory of a performer, his fame and status are always subject to the ravages of time. The passage of years engenders debates that can never be settled or satisfied. Anything can be stated; nothing decided. Howe or Yzerman? Cobb vs. Kaline. How about Billy Sims and Barry Sanders? Joe Louis or Ali. Bobby Layne as opposed to … well, absolutely no one. Yet.
Such debates are useless endeavors. Sports supremacy, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder. I was shocked when I first — probably just within the past five years — began hearing Yzerman and Howe being talked about in similar, almost co-equal, terms. And that shock gave way to the inevitable — opinions being raised upon Yzerman’s departure that he may have been THE greatest Red Wing of all-time. Absolute humbuggery to us baby boomers (and those of us who experienced both Nine and Nineteen in their primes), but a result of the unavoidable erosion of reputation and change of status brought on by time.
Witness the sport of hockey alone. When Gordie Howe was a kid, the names of Howie Morenz and Eddie Shore were bandied about as the “greatest” players of all time. Then it was Gordie’s rival Maurice Richard. Then it was Howe himself, for a period that lasted more than 30 years. Then the title was ceded — by popular if ill-informed acclaim — to Wayne Gretzky. And even now, some are aleady looking to eventually hand the title to that little dink Sid Crosby.
When we were kids Ty Cobb was universally acclaimed the greatest ballplayer of all time. There was little if any debate. Now you rarely hear his name mentioned; I’m not sure he’d make a contemporarily-named All-Time Nine. In Chicago there is currently a public blowup between Hall of Fame Bears running back Gale Sayers and Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher. In reply to Sayer’s criticism of the current team, Urlacher has said “Does he (Sayers) know how to win football games? Does he? No.”
And that goes to the heart of the issue. I can tell from that quote that Urlacher never saw Sayers play. Because he was absolutely the greatest running back of all time. Better than Brown, Sanders, even Joe Don Looney. He knew how to win games merely by taking handoffs. So Urlacher is talking through his hat.
How do I know? Because I saw Sayers play. And play like the unmatched champion he was.
Back in MY time….
(And PS: Back to #19, the correct assumption upon his leaving town, at the top of this exercise, is statement 2. Since #9 remains the greatest player of all-time, his sovereignty over all includes his fellow wearers of the winged wheel. Sorry, kids.)