By: Will Burchfield
By title, Steve Yzerman is the general manager of the Tampa Bay Lighting. To Red Wings fans, he is simply ‘The Captain.’
With the Lightning in town to take on the Wings on Friday night, Yzerman could pay his final visit to Joe Louis Arena, the building where he laid his legacy. So let’s rank Yzerman’s top five moments at The Joe.
5. Standing Ovation, 1995-96 Home Opener
Despite being named captain as a 21-year-old in 1986, Yzerman was hardly an untouchable asset through the first decade of his career. Trade rumors followed him in the early 1990s, peaking in the ’95 offseason when then-GM/coach Scotty Bowman was in talks with Yzerman’s hometown Senators. Ultimately, no deal came to pass, and Wings fans made their stance on the matter clear during introductions before the 1995-96 home opener.
When Bowman’s name was called, the 20,000 in attendance booed lustily. When Yzerman was introduced, they came to their feet and roared. Accounts vary as to the length of the ovation, but most everyone agrees it was at least three minutes long. That marked the end of Yzerman’s time on the trade block.
“I’m happy as hell they didn’t trade him,” Gordie Howe would say later. “They would have lost the heart of the club.”
4. Jersey Retirement, 1/2/2007
Yzerman’s Red Wings resume is beyond reproach. He played 22 seasons in Detroit and was captain for (a very fitting) 19 of them. He won three Stanley Cups, capturing the Conn Smythe in 1998, and played in nine All-Star Games. He is first in franchise history in assists (1,063), second in goals (692) and second in points (1,755). Only Mr. Hockey had a more decorated Red Wings career than The Captain.
So it was no surprise that the organization retired Yzerman’s No. 19 the year after he hung up his skates.
During his speech, Yzerman refused to talk about himself. He praised his family and the front office, and extolled Bowman for making him a better player and a better person. As The Captain gushed about his former coach, Bowman swallowed a lump in his throat again and again.
But it was Yzerman who was fighting back tears when he turned his attention to the fans.
“My jersey is going to go up there and I hope as you watch it go up, and when you come back and see it, you give yourself a pat on the back because you’re a big reason why that jersey is up there,” he said. “It doesn’t represent what I did, but what we did as an organization.”
Yzerman’s most profound expression of gratitude was reserved for his former teammates.
“I feel like my image as a great leader is greatly overblown,” he began, prompting groans from the crowd. “And I realize that because I played with some of the best hockey players ever.”
He then reeled off nine names, before saying, “I could go on and on about these guys.”
He added later, “I stand here very humbly saying, ‘Thank You.’ Any personal success I had was because of the wonderful players I played with.”
Yzerman was the sixth Red Wing to have his jersey retired, and the first from the team’s most recent dynasty. Nicklas Lidstrom would join him later.
3. 500th Goal, 1/17/1996
43 players in NHL history have reached the 500-goal plateau, but fewer than half that number had done so when Yzerman was approaching the milestone in the 1995-96 season. His career total stood at 499 when the Wings returned to Detroit in mid January for a two-game homestand.
“Obviously, being on 499, we had a (pair) of home games there, so I was hopeful I would get the score before too long,” he would say later.
He didn’t waste any time.
In Detroit’s first game, which just so happened to come against the rival Avalanche, Yzerman picked up a loose puck on top of the crease and lifted a backhand past a sprawling Patrick Roy. (Roy doing his best Dominik Hasek, by the way.)
“We had a great rivalry at the time — Patrick was one of the top goaltenders in the League at the time — it was nice to get the goal against a Hall of Fame goaltender,” Yzerman said. “I guess I would just say it was a special goal and a significant milestone.
“It was something that accumulates over the course of time, and you don’t put a ton of thought into it until you get close to it.”
With the goal, Yzerman became the 22nd player in NHL history to reach the 500 plateau, and the third to do so in a Red Wings uniform, joining Howe and Dino Ciccarelli.
2. Double OT Goal Versus Blues, 5/16/96
The most memorable goal of Yzerman’s career would come later that season in the playoffs.
It was Game 7 of the Western Conference semifinals between the Red Wings and the Blues. It was tied at zero. It was double overtime.
“I was really tired,” Yzerman would say later, “so whenever I got the puck, instead of trying to beat the defense — they would just haul you down, no one was going to call a penalty at that point — I was thinking anytime I get over the blue line I’m going to shoot.”
He found the puck in the neutral zone after a turnover by – of all people – Wayne Gretzky. Then he zipped into the Blues zone and let one fly.
“I just tried to put it by (defenseman) Murray Baron’s shin pad,” he said. “I was surprised it went in the corner.”
But that’s exactly where it went — past Jon Casey’s blocker, into the corner and into Red Wings lore.
1. First Stanley Cup, 6/7/1997
After Yzerman’s iconic goal versus the Blues, the Wings were ousted in the Conference Finals by the Avalanche.
“Losing to Colorado in ’96, after getting to the finals the year before (where they were swept by New Jersey), it was almost like taking a step backward,” said Yzerman, prior to his Hall of Fame induction in 2009. “I thought, ‘Have I missed my window here?’ I wondered how many more opportunities I would get.”
His next would come a year later. This time, Yzerman and the Wings made it count.
After exacting revenge on the Avs in the Conference Finals, they swept the Flyers to claim Detroit’s first Stanley Cup in 42 years. Yzerman scored a goal in each of the first three games versus Philly and added an assist in the clincher.
“To win the Cup in ’97 kind of made my career,” Yzerman would say. “We had good teams, but you want to be part of winning the Cup. It puts you in a different light in the hockey world. It was a tremendous relief.”