Sunday, May 25, 2008

Memorial Day Weekend Hockey Once Yzerman’s Time

They sat all in a row, in one of the cramped cubbies adjacent to Joe Louis Arena’s ancient and too-small press box. Five suits – the stuffed shirts of Red Wings hockey. Hall of Famers and icons.

Scotty Bowman, nine-time Stanley Cup winner and one of the all-time greatest coaches in any game, from hockey to tiddly-winks. Jimmy Devellano, as Red Wing as you can get without ever having slipped a hockey sweater on. Kenny Holland, one of the deans of league GMs. Mark Howe, three-time Cup finalist and a fine defenseman who toiled in pro hockey for 22 years, yet is still only the second-best player in his own family.

And SteveYzerman, the youngest and newest of the stuffed shirts.

Bowman is still employed by the Red Wings, in that purposely ambiguous role of consultant. Devellano is an executive vice president. Holland is in his 11th year as GM. And Howe was back in town – a rarity, as he is usually elsewhere, scoping out other teams in his duties as an advanced scout.

I looked over at the stuffed shirts often during breaks in play of Saturday’s Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Finals, and four of them looked relaxed and seemed to be enjoying the action as easily as if they were watching the game from their sofas. Only one of them tended to lean forward, hand on chin, at times looking like he wanted to jump from his seat. Not until late in the third period, the game well in hand for Detroit, did the fifth and youngest stuffed shirt tend to relax.

Playing hockey on Memorial Day weekend is a privilege – earned and not assumed, as if a right. And it was the youngest of the Red Wings’ management core who knows that better than anyone.

Steve Yzerman was that fidgety stuffed shirt last night. And I can only imagine what must be going through his mind right about now. Down below, the next captain, Nicklas Lidstrom, played his usual robotically brilliant game on the blueline – a predictably major reason why the Red Wings smothered and shutout the star-struck Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-0, to move in front at the end of the first turn in these 2008 Finals. But I doubt that seeing how Lidstrom had things under control somehow lessened the angst Yzerman experienced last night.

This used to be Yzerman’s time – when hockey was a diversion from the holiday grilling and was sharing the headlines with the Indianapolis 500. Not always did Stevie Y’s teams make it to Memorial Day, but when they did, it all started with the one wearing the “C”.

There was the occasional locker room pep talk – given when Yzerman felt things slipping away from his hockey club. They were few, but because of their rarity, they became legendary. Some words in St. Louis, one year. A gathering in the friendly skies, jetting out to Vancouver in an 0-2 series hole in 2002. And some others. But words were never Yzerman’s deal. He was about pushing himself, physically and emotionally, and leading by example.

Lidstrom is that way; he’s eloquent in his speech but he’s no Knute Rockne. He, too, prefers to just play hockey to the very best of his ability and be a pied piper that way.

Yzerman says he doesn’t miss the game on the ice. Hasn’t really even put his skates on, to hear him tell it. He’s content to be a stuffed shirt and learn about front officing. And there are dumber folks to learn from than Holland, Bowman, and Devellano.

But what must Yzerman be thinking now, his team on the verge, perhaps, of another Stanley Cup? Can he truly say this morning, without crossing his fingers behind him, that he doesn’t miss playing? He might not miss the physical pain he put himself through in order to be in the lineup, but is he really impervious to the allure of playoff hockey competition, some of the toughest, most draining in all of sports?

I would have asked him these things but he was huddled up, away from the media, along with the other stuffed shirts. There are no more post-game comments from Yzerman, no more patient, hang-on-every-word answers coming from him under the brightness of the TV lights and the pushiness of the hand-held microphones shoved into his face. Post-game for Steve Yzerman now is an office and a few of his management types, hashing over what just happened; what else is there to do? All the work by the shirts is done. All that’s left now is for the coach to coach and the players to play. And for the sophomore vice president to perhaps gaze longingly at the other side of the hall, where the Red Wings’ dressing room is located.

If the Wings capture this Cup, which they should, it will be the first one since 1955 that didn’t have Steve Yzerman on its roster. There was a time when no one thought the Red Wings could win a Cup WITH Yzerman, and now we are wading through a period where some have wondered if they could win one WITHOUT Yzerman. No disrespect to Lidstrom, of course. But look how long it took the team to win one after Gordie Howe retired.

Memorial Day weekend hockey. Some of the best – for players, coaches, media, and fans. Oh, it’s fun for the stuffed shirts, too, but maybe not as much for the one who only two years ago was on the other side of that hallway.

Steve Yzerman had his time. I just wonder how tough it is for him to let go of it.

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