Alumni games usually pack all the drama of a poorly acted elementary school play about cooties, but the main event Tuesday at Comerica Park between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs was setting up for an ending worthy of Broadway.
The Leafs tied the score at five with two seconds left in regulation in the second of two games at the baseball stadium, leaving the 33,425 fans braving the 20-degree temperatures exasperated and angry.
Once the crowd realized a shootout would decide the game, they only wanted to see one player.
The fans that passed through the turnstiles wanted to relive the glory years of the Red Wings, and there would’ve been no more nostalgic ending than seeing Steve Yzerman win the game in a shootout.
The frozen masses bellowed again, but they would not be satisfied. Tomas Holmstrom scored the winner for the Red Wings, as Yzerman would not be part of the shootout. The only person in the building who wasn't shouting Yzerman's name was coach Scotty Bowman.
Not that Yzerman was broken up about it.
“Scotty was calling out the names,” Yzerman said. “I had mixed emotions. I’m not really sure I wanted to go."
Forgive Yzerman if he wasn’t champing at the bit to have his skates touch the ice one more time. A 21-year Hall of Fame career made him a legend in Detroit, but it also stripped him of the cartilage in his right knee. Skating is something he just can’t do anymore because of the extreme pain of bones rubbing together.
It was one of the many factors in why he waited so long to commit to the game on the eve of the Winter Classic.
“I fell down once and felt it,” Yzerman said. “But all in all, it’s OK. I don’t move fast enough to put any stress on my knee anymore.”
As the general manager of Team Canada, Yzerman’s knee is not the only thing being subject to excessive pressure of late. The weight of a country is on his shoulders to bring home gold at the Sochi Olympics and the final decisions on his roster must be made with the announcement set for Jan. 7. Couple that with his responsibilities as GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, and he’s spread about as thin as the hair of many of the retired Red Wings gracing the Detroit Tigers locker room Tuesday.
The pain in the knee and the pain in the…other parts of his body kept him from deciding on playing in the alumni game until three weeks ago.
At the end of the day, as he stood in front of his locker fielding questions, he felt he made the right decision.
“I enjoyed it. I’m really happy,” Yzerman said. “In the last month, as we were ironing out my schedule, it looked like I was going to be able to get there and play. I didn’t have any time to skate before today. All in all, I’m pleased with my performance.”
When told there were several fans that only braved the elements because he was playing, he practically apologized.
“Well, they get no refunds,” Yzerman said with a laugh. “I did my best. I’ll put it that way.”
Like any 48-year-old former hockey player with a bum knee, Yzerman clearly had a hard time moving around the ice. He kept his shifts short and even took an unforced tumble to the ice during the first 25 minutes of the game. One thing that hasn’t changed for Yzerman, who fittingly served as captain in the game, is his no-nonsense demeanor.
After Chris Chelios scored, he celebrated by skating to the other end of the ice and taking a head-first slide before flipping onto his back so he could glide with just his skates and the back of his helmet touching the ice.
The crowd ate it up. Yzerman, albeit in a playful manner, wasn’t having any of it.
“I’m not sure I’d describe Cheli’s celebration as a cool moment,” Yzerman said. “Anyway, it will make the highlights.”
Chelios confirmed he received an icy glare when he came to the bench.
“He just gave me a bad look,” Chelios said. “He doesn’t like that stuff.”
Chelios said it was great to have Yzerman there, and the loud roar he received when he was announced before the game and the chants later showed how much he means to fans in the city.
“We had to have him in the game,” Chelios said. “He’s like Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay and Alex Delvecchio and those guys. He’s an icon. Working for Tampa, he kind of had second thoughts about it. But he does the right thing. You hear the fans. I think he enjoyed it a lot more than he was going to.”
Chelios may have misread Yzerman on that particular subject.
“This is my one and only alumni game,” Yzerman said. “That’s it. “
Really? This is the last time you’re lacing up the skates?
“If they do one in Detroit, maybe,” Yzerman conceded. “This circus doesn’t go on the road.”