There are stories for every scar on Steve Yzerman's otherwise handsome mug, and they are not for the faint of heart. They tell of a man who, though comparatively slight by modern National Hockey League standards (five-11, 185 lb.), isn't afraid of the rough going. Take, for example, the reddish crescent-moon dent where the bridge of his nose meets the centre of his forehead. That came from stopping a Paul Coffey slapshot just before last year's All-Star Game in Tampa. The force of the blast broke his nose and some other small bones, but as he was being wheeled to an ambulance headed for hospital, he called over to the Red Wings' equipment manager and said: "I think I'll need a visor on my helmet if I'm going to play in Tampa."
He did not go to Florida - doctors made sure of that. And although the story, like the scars, testifies to his remarkable focus and competitive spirit, it masks another truth about the man known as Stevie Y. He's not that tough. If you want to watch him squirm, offer him a compliment. Tell him his career achievements put him among the greatest players ever to lace up skates. Or insist that his sticking with the Detroit Red Wings for his entire career, through bad times and good, sets a shining example of loyalty in an era of money-driven transience. Then watch: he'll turtle. He'll tell you he's just been lucky to play so long, for stable owners and with good linemates.
Hockey fans aren't fooled. In league-wide voting, they elected the 34-year-old Yzerman as the starting centre on the North American squad that will play a similarly elected team of European NHLers at this week's All-Star Game in Toronto. After all, the shifty sniper from Cranbrook, B.C., by way of Nepean, Ont., is having a better season than other candidates, including Philadelphia's Eric Lindros. Along with being among the top 10 scorers going into last weekend's games, Yzerman recently overtook Bobby Hull and Mario Lemieux in career goals and now sits seventh all-time. Over lunch in the players' lounge at Joe Louis Arena last week, Yzerman deflected the accolades. "I can relate to Mario, because I played with him," he says, sitting at a table beside a huge black-and-white of former Wings Gordie Howe and Alex Delvecchio. "But Bobby Hull? Guys like him are kind of like gods. Their 600 goals are different from the 600 goals I have. They played fewer games, and it was more defensive then."
The distinction is well made, but it does not detract from what he has achieved. When he was named Detroit's first pick in the 1983 draft of junior players, Yzerman was saddled with the pressure of leading a then-dreadful team back to glory. He was initially a scoring sensation - he had 65 goals and 90 assists in 1988-1989. But in the mid-1990s, after general manager Jim Devellano and later Ken Holland began to improve Detroit's supporting cast, and when Scotty Bowman joined as coach, Yzerman, the team's captain since he was 21, transformed himself into a player known as much for defence as for scoring. The combination worked: the Wings won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1997 and 1998, and they appear ready to contend again this year. "I get more attention for being a 20-goal scorer than when I scored 50," he says, chuckling at the irony.
Inside the game, Yzerman is regarded as a great leader. "Stevie is the role model for young players," says Calgary coach Brian Sutter. "He plays hard every night, at both ends of the rink." While Yzerman's work ethic has always been strong, it is his commitment to defence that gets his teammates' attention. "He leads," Bowman says, "by the way he plays."
Yzerman still has a temper. In last week's game, Toronto winger Garry Valk made the mistake of slashing Yzerman on the knee between where one pad ends and another begins. In a rage, Yzerman spun and chopped down on Valk's stick - breaking his own in the process. He immediately skated to the bench for a new stick, then picked up a loose puck in the corner and flipped a perfect pass to Sergei Fedorov, who scored. "To be honest, I was so mad I lost my composure," he says sheepishly. "It wasn't a proud moment on my part - I came totally unglued."
That happens less often than it once did. "I used to live and breathe hockey all the time," Yzerman says. "My game preparation would start the night before at dinnertime - I'd be on a strict schedule of sleeping and eating." He claims he has mellowed with age, a family of his own and, particularly, the car accident that crippled teammate Vladimir Konstantinov only days after the 1997 Cup victory. "I don't take the game as seriously as I used to," he says. "I know that winning, one way or another, isn't going to change my life."
His supporters are legion. In the stands at last week's Detroit-Toronto game at Joe Louis Arena, thousands of fans turned up wearing his No. 19 jersey. One of them, Mark Marcaccio, 30, of suburban Grosse Pointe, praised Yzerman as much for his character as for his hockey talents. "He epitomizes the gritty blue-collar guy," Marcaccio says. "As superstars go, he's definitely unique." The greatest compliment comes from crusty Detroit legend Ted Lindsay, now 74, who stopped by the Wings' locker room last week. "If you wanted to program the ideal child, hockey player, citizen, he's the guy you'd copy," says Lindsay.
Yzerman got comparatively little attention outside Detroit until the Wings won their two recent Cups. Bad timing - his most prolific seasons were overshadowed by the exploits of Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky. But it suited him. Yzerman's style, on and off the ice, is discreet. He is not one to celebrate goals with showy fist-pumps or war dances, or to attract endorsements by calling attention to himself. "If you want that stuff, it's there," he says. "But I have no interest, and no time, really."
Brendan Shanahan, Yzerman's rugged left-winger and close friend, says the centreman prefers private life to the limelight. "I wouldn't characterize him as shy, at least not to the people who know him," Shanahan says. "He just likes to go about his business and be left alone." Yzerman spends most off-hours with his wife, Lisa, and three young daughters in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills, and summers at a cottage in central Ontario's Muskoka region. His eldest daughter, Isabella, is 5 and excelling in soccer and ballet. In the off-season he plays golf, and since a 1998 cycling trip to France, he and Lisa have begun a wine collection - one of the few outward indications of his $12-million-per-season salary. "What I like to do isn't very exciting to anyone else," he says. "But it's exciting to me."
Yzerman figures he will stay involved even after he leaves the ice. "I have always wanted to be a general manager," he says. "I follow what teams do, the trades they make, and I try to work out the good ones from the bad ones. It'd be a real challenge to put a team together yourself." But that's for another day. Right now, while still one of the elite players in the league, he plans to play at least three more years and has his eyes on another Cup. "I'm in a really good situation here," he says, "with really good guys." And a good captain, too.
Maclean's February 7, 2000