Once the retirement ceremony concluded, the lights came on, the props came undone, the legends and players went away, and there was Steve Yzerman, the last to leave the ice surface.
How fitting. For so many years, he was the last player to leave practices – extra preparation for postseason battles. And now here was The Captain, who stood underneath the fresh #19 banner hanging in the rafters. He gave one final wave to the fans as he walked off the Joe Louis Arena red carpet, into the zamboni entrance and out of everyone’s sight.
And that’s when the feeling struck: An era was over.
After all the comebacks – through personal injuries, games, series deficits and more injuries– there really wouldn’t be another for Stevie Y. That was it. A career that will be discussed for generations was finished for good. A once-in-a-lifetime legend said goodbye, forever.
You wish life had a rewind button. Yzerman’s 22-year run that featured 1,755 career points, 70 playoff goals, a Conn Smythe Trophy, and three Stanley Cups deserves a dip into the Fountain of Youth.
The shaggy-haired kid who extended a handshake to Mike Ilitch on draft day in 1983 raised that hand for a final salute on January 2, 2007, the night of his banner-raising ceremony. Blank stares filled Joe Louis Arena. Great memories of Yzerman’s past fluttered through their minds as they gazed at the empty ice surface.
The electrifying breakaways. The top-shelf snipes. Sixty-five goals in 1988-89. That special blue-line blast in the spring of ’96.
Remember the standing ovation each season opener? None was longer and louder than October of 1995. Rumors swirled that Scotty Bowman wanted to trade Yzerman to Ottawa. Wings fans booed Bowman mercifully, letting him know it wasn’t gonna happen. Not a chance.
“They would have lost the heart of the club,” Wings legend Gordie Howe told ESPN.com
And the heart of the city. Yzerman was like Detroit’s adopted son. He was humble and quiet, never seeking the spotlight. It was uncomfortable for him, and for that, and many other reasons, his character was adored.
“I almost feel like a little boy trying to please his parents, every time I step on the ice, with the way the fans here support our team,” Yzerman said.
When he felt the agonizing playoff exits, we felt them with him.
You felt the shock of ’93, a Game 7 loss against arch-rival Toronto, a first-round defeat in which Yzerman was on the ice for Nikolai Borschevsky’s overtime winner. The disbelief of ’94, another opening-round exit when the third-year San Jose Sharks upset the top-seeded Wings, a team under the helm of first-year coach Scotty Bowman. Oh, the agony of ’95, a sweep in the Cup Finals to New Jersey. Then ’96: When the record-breaking, 62-victory Red Wings fell short to Colorado in the conference finals, a defeat that was just numbing.
“I thought, ‘Have I missed my window here?’” Yzerman recalled to Mlive.com “ I wondered how many more opportunities I would get.”
We felt the pain through his injuries: The crash into the goal post in ’88 – the same night he notched his 50th goal. A herniated disc. A broken collarbone. The 2004 broken eye socket against Calgary. More knee injuries.
People often whispered “it’s over,” yet he always came back.
Redemption? Perseverance? It’s stamped upon his legacy.
And who will ever forget the 2002 postseason? Wanna talk about sacrifice? Try to skate with bone-on-bone grinding. Yzerman, who would eventually need an osteotomy, a procedure never previously performed on a professional athlete, had to use his stick as a supporting crutch to rise off the ice. He often left the arena dragging his leg.
Yet he still finished with 23 playoff points in 23 games and his third Cup in six years.
“What Stevie’s done in these playoffs … you could write a book about it. It’s amazing,” Luc Robitaille said.
A player like Yzerman will not come around again. It was a combination of Hall of Fame skill, toughness and character wrapped into the same jersey. He carried an entire city on his back, that No. 19 resonating with everyone.
You wish life had a rewind button.
Or maybe a pause button, just for this image: Yzerman, with the gap-toothed grin, finally lifting the Cup in ’97, then taking a victory lap around the ice, as Joe Louis Arena drowned all the past failures with a deafening roar.
“I wish it never would have ended,” Yzerman said. “It’s almost like I wanted to sit back and watch the whole thing and not miss a minute of it and not forget a minute of it.”