Even when the Detroit Red Wings retired his No. 19 jersey Tuesday night, the native of Cranbrook, B.C., deflected credit during a ceremony at Joe Louis Arena. Yzerman praised his family, the franchise’s front office, former coach Scotty Bowman and former teammates. Then, the usually stoic Yzerman got emotional when he addressed his adoring 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, who was a captain for a league-record 20 seasons, is regarded as one of the best leaders in NHL history. But the player known as “The Captain” attempted to downplay that reputation.
“I feel like my image as a great leader is greatly overblown because I played with some of the greatest hockey players,” said Yzerman, a comment that was met by groans in the sold-out crowd. “I stand here humbly saying ‘Thank you.’ Any personal success I had was because of the great players I played with.”
Canadiens head coach Guy Carbonneau, speaking in Montreal prior to his club’s game versus Tampa Bay, said Yzerman was deserving of having his No. 19 retired.
“He’s always been a professional on and off the ice and I think he deserves everything he’s got now,” Carbonneau said. “It’s funny. I remember Steve earlier in his career when he was mainly an offensive guy, a little like Joe Sakic, where he didn’t really battle on faceoffs.
“And then I think he really became the player he is when he decided to play a little more defensively. I thought he got more respect playing hard, blocking shots and taking pride in winning faceoffs than maybe earlier in his career.”
Yzerman retired last summer at the age of 41 after 22 seasons – all in Detroit – and stayed with the organization as a vice president.
He led the Red Wings to Stanley Cup championships in 1997, 1998 and 2002. His career ended with 1,755 regular-season points, a total that led all active players last season and trails just five in NHL history.
Before the ceremony that lasted nearly 1½ hours and preceded a game against Anaheim, Yzerman acknowledged he was not real comfortable being the center of attention.
“I’ve thought about this day for a long time and I’ve kind looked forward to it and regretted it,” he said.
His jersey became the sixth retired by the storied franchise and was hoisted to the rafters alongside Gordie Howe’s No. 9, Ted Lindsay’s No. 7, Terry Sawchuck’s No. 1, Alex Delvecchio’s No. 10 and Sid Abel’s No. 12.
Yzerman made a franchise-record 1,063 assists and trails only Howe with 692 goals.
“That was not bad for a player who put offence on the back burner halfway through his career,” Red Wings senior vice president Jim Devellano said.
The year before Yzerman was drafted, the team dubbed the “Dead Wings” gave away a car at each home game to spur interest because the previous season there were just 2,100 season-ticket holders.
Detroit drafted the skinny, talented player that few non-hockey gurus knew – with a last name few could pronounce – with the fourth pick overall in the 1983 NHL draft. During his career, the team became wildly popular and regularly sold out Joe Louis Arena while being one of the elite teams in the NHL.
“I vowed to rebuild the franchise through the draft and that began on June the 8th, 1983, at the Montreal Forum,” Devellano said. “We knew he was good, but oh, what a cornerstone he turned out to be.”
Yzerman was a sensational scorer – lighting the lamp 228 times in a four-season stretch – during his early years before Bowman helped him become a two-way player that was respected for his backchecking almost as much as his shot.
Toward the end of his career, Yzerman’s banged-up body took him out of the lineup and often slowed him when he was on the ice.
He missed the first 66 games of the 2002-03 season following a knee surgery – usually reserved for retirees – that involved sawing into the bone below his knee and using a wedge to realign the joint.
Bones in his face were shattered and various other ailments hurt Yzerman but didn’t damage his competitive spirit.
“No player I ever coached could play with a pain threshold like Steve Yzerman,” Bowman said. “I treasure all of my Stanley Cup triumphs, but none like the one when Steve handed me the Cup (in 2002) following the game that would be my final game as coach.”
Boston Bruins coach Dave Lewis agreed.
“I’ll never forget the 2002 playoffs when Steve could barely walk up the steps to get onto the team plane,” said Lewis, who played with Yzerman and was later his assistant and head coach. “Then, when he got on the ice, you wouldn’t even know he was hurt because he was such an unbelievable competitor.”
On a puck-shaped podium at center ice in the middle of a red-carpeted “C,” Red Wings captain Nick Lidstrom presented Yzerman and his family with a trip to Austria to watch the 2008 Euro Cup finals. Owner Mike Ilitch gave him a 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe.
“You helped build Hockeytown,” Ilitch said. “When people hear your name, they think ‘Red Wings.”‘
During a pregame gathering, a proclamation from Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm was read and it designated Jan. 13, 2007 – the date of Detroit’s next home game – as “Steve Yzerman Day.”
Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick dubbed Tuesday “Steve Yzerman Day” and presented Yzerman with a key to the city. Kilpatrick also said the intersection of Third and Atwater Streets, which meet at Joe Louis Arena, will be changed to “Yzerman Drive.”
Perhaps fittingly, that honor also brought a self-deprecating reaction from Yzerman.
“I kind of wish my name was Smith or Jones,” he said. “In 20 years, nobody will remember how to pronounce it. It took me 20 years for everybody to know how to pronounce it.”