Friday, June 14
Updated: June 17, 2:36 PM ET
On his last leg, Yzerman still leads
By Eric Adelson
ESPN The Magazine
DETROIT -- Three months ago, his trainer wondered if he was fit to skate. Two months ago, he was instructed not to jump. And by this month, the man had trouble walking.
Yet there was Steve Yzerman on Thursday night, assisting on the goal that cemented his third Stanley Cup, and then leaping into the arms of Brendan Shanahan like a catcher tackling a pitcher after a no-hitter.
Twenty-three games. Twenty-three shots of painkillers. Twenty-three points. The pinnacle of Steve Yzerman's performance has come with the peak of his pain.
Somehow, the 19-year veteran has played through agony most people cannot even imagine. And now, after he celebrates, he must prepare for three knee surgeries and rehabilitation that is expected to keep him out of the lineup until at least January.
"Most people wouldn't be able to walk," said teammate Darren McCarty, "but he's out there playing 25 minutes a night. His tolerance, and what he could play through, most people would be out for the season."
The Red Wings had no reason to believe back in February that the 36-year-old Yzerman was risking his health -- and perhaps his career -- by playing in the Olympics for Team Canada. But after he returned to Detroit, his chronically aggravated right knee had swollen to the size of a football.
A little swelling is actually good for Yzerman -- he severely injured his posterior cruciate ligament in an injury back in 1988, and needs some inflammation to cushion the impact of skating -- but MRIs taken after the Olympics showed the captain had almost no cartilage left.
Trainer John Wharton considered telling Yzerman not to play.
"There were multiple points when I didn't think he could even get to the first round," Wharton said. "But Stevie never felt the same way."
Of course not. This is a man with an almost supernatural ability to withstand pain. When he injured that right knee the first time 14 years ago, upper management questioned whether he would ever fully recover. Yzerman played all 80 games the next season. When he suffered a herniated disc in 1993, Yzerman missed 26 games and then went on an 11-game point-scoring streak -- even though he had nearly no use of his shoulders. He was "basically paralyzed" in his upper body, according to Wharton, yet he refused any painkillers. That summer he showed up at Tiger Stadium with a halo. That winter, after the lockout, he played 47 games.
And last season, Yzerman broke his leg with six games left in the regular season. Again, he refused painkillers. Again he played through it. During Game 1 of the first round against Los Angeles, he could feel bone scraping against bone with every stride.
"His pain tolerance -- I cannot fathom it," Wharton said. "I wonder if his nervous system is different than the rest of us."
After missing the next four games, and with the Wings facing elimination, Yzerman wanted to play in Game 6. In the hours before faceoff, he summoned close friend and ESPN commentator Darren Pang down to the Detroit bench and asked his advice.
"That was the only time I ever saw fear in his eyes," Pang said.
Yzerman wasn't afraid of the pain; he was worried about hurting the team. Yzerman, at the last minute, decided not to play. The Wings lost.
This season, the same right knee that has bothered Yzerman for so many years got progressively worse. In March, he reluctantly decided not to practice. Instead, he underwent three rehab sessions per day. But by the time the playoffs started, Yzerman had no choice but to take an injection in his hip before every game. After Game 2 of the first round, Yzerman confessed to Bowman that he wasn't sure he could continue.
But Yzerman didn't miss a game. He finished second to Colorado's Peter Forsberg in playoff points. All while knowing that this summer he will need to have three separate surgeries to replace ligaments and cartilage.
So it is no wonder teammates and opponents are awestruck by league's longest tenured captain. No wonder they consistently swallow their own gripes after watching Yzerman hobble through every shift. No wonder his quiet but forceful pep talk after two losses to Vancouver in the opening round turned the team around in an instant.
"He is," said defenseman Jiri Fischer, "the best leader that ever was in hockey."
Over the last few weeks, he has joked to teammates that "I'm going on the Peter Forsberg schedule." That is, he likely will take the regular season off and join the team in the playoffs as the Avalanche forward did this season.
Has Yzerman considered calling it quits? No way. A source in management says he will honor the last year of his contract and probably play one more season after that.
So the captain will be back.
But the last any Red Wings fans will see of him this year came Friday morning. Just after 2 a.m. ET, Yzerman emerged from the locker room in a suit and tie, carrying the Stanley Cup. He strode slowly down the hallway and out into the parking lot, where his wife Lisa and his Range Rover were waiting.
Yzerman was not limping.
Eric Adelson is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.