One way or another, the second half of Steve Yzerman’s career was going to be distinct from the first. The change was ultimately limited to how he played, but for a while it looked like there might be a shift in where he played.
To be clear, it’s not as though Act One of Yzerman’s run was a bust. By most measures, in fact, it was an overwhelming success. Drafted fourth overall in 1983, Yzerman’s arrival in Detroit marked a period of rebirth for a previously moribund franchise that missed the playoffs in 15 of the 17 seasons prior to his rookie year of 1983–84. When Red Wings coach Jacques Demers made him captain prior to the 1986–87 campaign, the 21-year-old Yzerman was, at the time, the youngest player in NHL history to wear the “C.” His 65-goal, 155-point season in 1988–89 earned him the Lester B. Pearson Award, perhaps the most coveted year-end trophy in the NHL because it’s given to the league’s best performer as voted by his fellow players.
But by the early 1990s, Yzerman’s gaudy stats became a symbol of misplaced priorities for a Wings club that racked up regular season points but perennially fell short in the playoffs. Though he was the face of the franchise, it appeared No. 19 was on the verge of a new view. “There were a couple times when he was on the block,” says Wings senior vice-president Jim Devellano, who was responsible for drafting Yzerman.
Bryan Murray, Detroit’s GM from 1990 to ’94, held serious talks with the Buffalo Sabres about a swap for Pat LaFontaine, but the deal never materialized. Another suitor, the Ottawa Senators, seemed to be a perfect match. The Sens joined the league as an expansion team in 1992–93 and, predictably, struggled to get wins. Ottawa needed to give fans a reason to trek out to the suburb of Kanata, where the franchise was opening a new 19,000-seat arena, and acquiring Yzerman—a bona fide star who grew up in the area—would have been a coup for the fledgling squad. But as a club largely constructed of castoffs from other teams, the Sens didn’t have the assets to entice Detroit into dealing its captain.
The Ottawa rumours coincided with another development in Detroit—the arrival of legendary coach Scotty Bowman for the 1993–94 season. Bowman was brought in to revamp the way the Wings did business, and several talented players, including Paul Coffey, Dino Ciccarelli and Ray Sheppard, were shipped out of town because their approach didn't fit the new bench boss's template. Yzerman, however, showed an ability to adapt and expand his game. Once his value began being measured in feet, not points, Yzerman's standing with the team changed. "What Scotty got Steve to do was become a 200-foot player," says Devellano, referencing the fact that Yzerman learned to excel in all three zones. "He transitioned his game from a player who was an offensive whiz—a player who could get 60 goals and 150 points—and he became a player who got 25 goals and 75 or 80 points, but was more valuable because he was good in his own end, he was good on draws."
Yzerman's metamorphosis—along with the acquisition of some key players like goalie Mike Vernon and power forward Brendan Shanahan—was a big factor in Detroit's ability to finally get over the playoff hump. The Wings won back-to-back championships in 1997 and '98, with Yzerman taking the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP during the second championship. That spring, Yzerman led the Wings with 24 points in 22 playoff games and his plus-10 mark was the best of any Detroit forward. His defensive game evolved to the point that, in 1999–2000, Yzerman was awarded the Selke Trophy as the league's best defensive forward. Yzerman's 1,755 career points rank sixth all-time; the only player with more points who has also won a Selke is Ron Francis, who sits fourth with 1,798.
Yzerman may have overhauled his on-ice approach at mid-career, but it's not as though his attitude ever required adjusting. There's a reason Demers made him captain shortly after the time he was legally allowed to drink in Michigan. Yzerman held the post for 20 years until retiring in 2006, the longest tenure for any captain amongst the four major North American pro sports."People forget, even when he was a scorer, he was a player who didn't put up with anything, he just played hard every day," says Luc Robitaille, who played against Yzerman for many years before joining the Red Wings late in his career.
Robitaille became Yzerman's teammate when he signed with Detroit in the summer of 2001, the same year the Wings added Brett Hull to a team already chock full of future Hall of Famers. In fact, part of the reason the Wings were able to add big-ticket free agents that summer was because Yzerman and a couple other veterans deferred part of their salary to make room for the new guys. Shortly after signing with the Wings, Robitaille got a call from Detroit GM Ken Holland asking him to attend a press conference in the city. Right after he was done talking to Holland, Robitaille's phone rang again; his new captain was on the line."He said, 'I know you're coming to town, if you have time, my wife and I would like to take you to dinner,'" Robitaille recalls. "It showed me the kind of captain he was. You just signed a guy and right away, within a day he made himself available."
Yzerman obviously understood the needs of a team full of veteran players. The '02 Wings were one of the most stacked outfits the NHL has ever seen, so the guy with the "C" on his chest was never going to need a heavy hand to help people get on board with the program. But Yzerman, who always operated with an even temper, still picked his spots. In Robitaille's very first game with Detroit, the club coughed up a 3–0 advantage to San Jose before recovering for an overtime win. Blown leads were a problem the previous year for the Wings, and Yzerman was quick to remind the entire room that letting teams off the mat wasn't on the agenda for a club with the singular goal of winning a championship. "I'll never forget thinking, 'I love the fact we're talking about winning the Stanley Cup in October,'" Robitaille says.
The following June, the Red Wings did just that, claiming their third championship in six seasons. There were a lot of stars on that squad, but Yzerman was the city's favourite son and the most prominent spoke in the wheel. "There was no doubt it was Steve's team," Robitaille says.