Sunday, July 24, 2005

His Numbers Not As Big As Howe's, But Yzerman Greatest Red Wing Ever

(the following column can also be viewed at, where a new column from yours truly appears each Sunday or Monday. They will also appear here for your reading pleasure. For archives of my columns there, go to and click on "Columnists")

It’s been a classic hockey question for years now: Who was the greatest NHL player, Wayne Gretzky or Gordie Howe? The comparison is tempting to make. Howe -- Mr. Hockey -- 26 seasons and 801 goals in the NHL, 32 years and over 1,000 goals combined in professional hockey. Gretzky -- The Great One -- over 20 years of pro hockey and the all-time leader in goals and points. Both were multiple Stanley Cup champions. Both, combined, are considered the face of hockey, past and present. It makes for a wonderful debate -- in a bar, at work, or in your living room.

But hey, forget Gretzky -- was Howe better than even Steve Yzerman?

Ahh, I just heard spirited discussions firing up all over metro Detroit.

Mr. Red Wing (left) and Mr. Hockey

It says here that Yzerman, despite not playing quite as long -- if he plays this season it will be his 22nd -- and not scoring as many goals and not breaking as many opponents’ noses and not playing in the NHL at age 52, is nonetheless the greatest player to ever pull on a Red Wings sweater.

Sorry, Abel, Delvecchio and Stewart -- you all move down a notch. My apologies, Sawchuck, Lindsay, and Goodfellow -- take a step backward. For if Steve Yzerman hasn’t surpassed Gordie Howe in terms of Red Wing greatness by now, he never will. But he has.

I never saw Howe play in his prime -- my first recollection of watching the Red Wings was during his last season in 1970-71. But I also never saw Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison or Michelangelo in their prime, either, and I feel safe to say that they were pretty good at their stuff. So it’s not about me not ever seeing Gordie during the heyday of the 50’s and thus not being to appreciate his skills or contribution to the game. It’s just that Yzerman’s career was....better. And here’s why.

What comes to mind first is the transition Yzerman made from 1983, his rookie year, to now. Playing for several different coaches and different systems and during times when he was the only Red Wing you’d care to see play to the times when he was surrounded by Hall of Famers, Yzerman persevered, changing his game from high scorer and finesse to some scoring and tenacious checking. He seamlessly, like a chameleon, reinvented himself and in the process became a better player.

Squawk all you want about how the NHL was a tougher, better game when the league only had six teams, as it did for the majority of Howe’s time. But not once did Howe, until the expansion of 1967, have to fly west of Chicago for a road trip. Nor did he have to endure four grueling rounds of playoffs to win a Stanley Cup. If you think all those cross country flights to Anaheim or San Jose or Phoenix or Los Angeles, many during playoff series, don’t take their toll over the years, then you’ve been sniffing the goalpost paint.

Yzerman has been the Red Wings captain since 1986, and he has filled the role with all the specs of a hand into a hockey glove. Howe wasn’t a leader per se; that wasn’t his way. But not only has Yzerman led the team with the "C" on the sweater, he has been the very personification of the franchise, from the times when his teammates were the likes of Kelly Kisio and Larry Trader to the salad days of Brendan Shanahan and Nicklas Lidstrom. He has been coached by Nick Polano and Harry Neale and Brad Park and Jacques Demers and Bryan Murray and Scotty Bowman and Dave Lewis, and through most of them he has maintained his captaincy and his class, all while suffering through playoff disappointments and bearing the weight of an entire franchise and a city on his shoulders. Howe, as wonderful as he was, was almost immediately surrounded by great players when his career launched in the late 40’s, early 50’s. Never did he, truly, have to carry the Red Wings to the promised land. And never was he asked to change his game and undergo the NHL version of an extreme makeover.

Yzerman certainly wasn’t as feared as Howe was on the ice, no question about that -- at least not physically. Stories of Howe-metered-out justice are legendary. Gordie was also known for taking his time to gain his vengeance, something that the tiny NHL allowed, because you played each team 14 times a season prior to expansion. One of my favorite tales involved the Hall of Famer Stan Mikita of the Blackhawks. Apparently early in his career, Mikita really decked Howe good. Skating to the bench, proud of his actions, Mikita was told by a teammate, "You shouldn’t have done that." Well, several Red Wings-Blackhawks games passed, and Howe appeared to pay no attention to Mikita, who thought he had gotten away with his deed. But then finally, after making a pass near center ice several games later, Mikita woke up on the trainer’s table. "Who was it?," he groggily asked. "Number nine," the trainer said. Mikita moaned and said, "That damn Howe."

No, Yzerman doesn’t have such a story in his legacy, but he was feared in other ways. Feared for his leadership. Feared for his heart. Feared for his drive. Feared for his persistence. And there was some fear of his hockey playing, too. But mostly I think of Yzerman’s effort, thru pain and duress and changing times, when his will would not allow the Red Wings to lose. And more often than not, they didn’t under his watch. When they did succumb, never could a finger be pointed #19’s way.

Howe was larger than life on the ice, and off it to a degree. He did so many things so well -- scoring, toughness, passing -- but in a cruel irony, I think it was Gordie Howe’s ridiculous consistency, performed with far more substance than style, that actually places him behind Yzerman. Why? Because Steve Yzerman had to navigate the Red Wings through so many murky waters with so many obstacles in front of him for so many years that substance-only consistency simply wouldn’t have cut the mustard. There is no question in my mind that Gordie Howe -- and oh, this is difficult to write -- would not have accomplished what Steve Yzerman did in Yzerman’s time, yet I believe Stevie would have been able to just about match Howe’s production on those great Red Wings teams of the 1950’s.

I’m sorry, I’m just of the belief that whenever you think of the Detroit Red Wings, you should think of Steve Yzerman first. What more could one player do for a franchise, for a city, no matter the sport? I know that if you disagree with me, you always will, because what else can Yzerman do to convince you at this point? But it should never be construed that a vote for Yzerman is a vote against Howe. It is almost impossible to measure Gordie’s value to the Red Wings, or hockey in general. He is, and always will be, Mr. Hockey. He’s just not Mr. Red Wing, not anymore.

That title is now taken by the shy boy from Peterborough, Ontario.

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