Friday, November 13, 2009

The Captain

Earlier this week former Red Wing great, Steve Yzerman was inducted into the Hall of Fame. I’d love to say The Captain (he’s the longest serving team captain in NHL history) was the reason I became a hockey fan, but I’d be lying. I became a hockey fan watching the ‘94 New York Rangers Stanley Cup run. It was the first time I watched a Cup celebration and that alone made me a fan. What the Cup means to players and fans alike makes hockey special and it made me pay attention to the game for what was really the first time.

From that point I did what I do, which was to gravitate to the local team, the Red Wings. You could call me a fair weather fan for that, and given the stellar run on which the team was about to embark the timing was convenient, but the fact is the timing is merely serendipitous. I was a fan of the Tigers through the miserable 90s and 119 losses in ‘03, a fan of the Pistons during the era of teal, the Wolverines in the midst of a horrendous two year slump, and, of course the Lions. 0-16. Eight years of Millen. There is no greater test of one’s devotion to a sports team than to be a fan of the Detroit Lions. I am many things, some of them not so good, but a fair weather fan is not one of them.

For me, it’s always been about the guys who come to play in southeast Michigan and who become the beating heart of an adulate community that adopts them as their own. Trammell, Whitaker, Inge, and Granderson (god I hope he doesn’t get traded). Sanders, Moore, Spielman, and Porcher. Dumars, Laimbeer (you hated him, we loved him), Wallace (Ben), and Billups (still sucks that he’s gone). Shanahan, Larionov (The Professor!), Lidstrom, and –yes- even the underrated Osgood.

It’s about the history these franchises have, both the tragic (Utley, Brown, Fischer and Konstantinov) and glorious (Layne, Kaline, Horton, and Howe), as well as the wonderful people who surround and built these franchises, names like Illitch, Davidson (RIP), Holland, and the eternally optimistic Harwell (whom we will soon lose to terminal disease).

Not only were each of these people, to a man, amazing in their respective roles, they were and are amazing people. Cars aren’t the only thing Detroit spent the last 50+ years building. It’s also built legends. Some of them, perhaps, just local ones, but they are legends all the same.

Yzerman, though. Yzerman is perhaps the best of them. He is the champion. The Captain. The one name that no person can speak ill of in front of us and not get popped in the mouth. He was the guy you wanted in the faceoff circle at crunch time. He was mettle. He was a leader. He was class. As much as the Rangers Cup celebration initially made me a fan of hockey, it was watching Steve Yzerman lead a team of hockey gods year after year that made me remain one.

To sum up what it means for him to enter the Hall is difficult to do. I still have a hard time thinking of him as retired. When I turn on a game I still expect to see #19 out there on the ice and it still feels wrong when I don’t see him. But really, the best summation of what it means to those of us who watched him play and watched him hoist three Stanley Cups comes from the always excellent Abel to Yzerman blog: Detroit’s Gift to Hockey: 19 to the Masses.

Here’s a portion of the post that’s entirely too long to steal in this fashion, but one that is so simultaneously crass and eloquent that I cannot bear to snip it down:

It was Yzerman who willed us our first, then our second and our third [Stanley Cups]. Oh, I know. They were 8, 9 and 10. But it had been 42 years, man. All we knew were the whispers.

Remember the Free Press photshopped his tooth in? Whatever. He didn’t care. Bettman blathered about something, about Hockeytown and the drought. Whatever. Just give the Cup to Stevie. He did and my frigging God the place exploded. You were at the parade or you said you were and he held that shiny bitch aloft and held it there for hours, or so it seemed. The Cup in the middle of millions. And then next year he put in in Vladdie’s lap because he and 22 other guys said that’s where it belonged.

Four years later the legend was cemented with every shuddering rise from the ice. If you’re a Wing fan you look back at that playoff run and you hear stories of the kind of pain he was in and it brings tears to your eyes because you feel like he did it for you, individually. That’s the effect Yzerman had on Wing fans. You just felt like when he won, he willed it for you. And when the time came for credit and adulation, poof....gone.

But he’s ours no longer. Tonite he becomes hockey’s. And it’s a gift hockey had better be grateful for. Hockey had better stand on its feet tonite and understand that there can be only one. There has never been, and never will be, another Captain like Yzerman. No one has withstood the kind of pain he did, or led as well. Nobody. As Captain Norris said in a comment earlier today, the Hall had better be ready to be humbled.

He’s been ours for nearly three decades, hockey. Tonite we present him to you and the Hall becomes his keeper.

The legacy, though, stays with us.