Steve Yzerman: Leaving Detroit Organization but Will Forever Be a Red Wing

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Steve Yzerman: Leaving Detroit Organization but Will Forever Be a Red Wing
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Damn.

This hit me harder than I thought it would.

Though he's now five years removed from the ice, knowing that Stevie Y was still in the Red Wings organization did provide some comfort that my hockey hero was still a Red Wing.

There are certain athletes that come to define their team, that truly serve as the nucleus around which all other pieces revolve.

They are not only the heart of the team, but the very blood pumping through the whole organization.

They are the team's DNA.

Steven Gregory Yzerman was exactly that for the Detroit Red Wings.

Now, his monumental hockey knowledge, superb leadership abilities, and newly acquired, yet expertly honed, management skills will be leaving Detroit and relocating to Tampa Bay.

Looking at the Tampa Bay Lightning, one could ask why the hell anyone would want the GM's job in the first place.

A recent change in ownership, bad contracts offered by worse management, and a roster laden with serious talent gaps isn't exactly a picnic for a new GM.

One would think that with Yzerman's stature and recent success with Team Canada, there'd be more comfortable options for him as a GM.

But Yzerman has never done what's comfortable—or easy.

Though his career is riddled with outstanding examples of leadership and perseverance, what will always define the will that is personified by Yzerman is his performance in the 2002 playoffs.

A terrible knee injury suffered several years prior had degenerated into a condition that would hobble most men.

Yzerman's right knee was devoid of cartilage, and every time he walked, let alone skated, he was grinding bone against bone.

Additionally, Yzerman was also suffering through a shoulder injury that had kept him out of several games during the regular season.

The Wings were loaded that year.

They had Dominik Hasek in goal, had signed Luc Robitaille and Brett Hull over the summer, still boasted snipers such as Brendan Shanahan and Sergei Fedorov, one of the smartest players in the game in Igor Larionov, and two of the best defensemen ever to put on skates in Chris Chelios and Nicklas Lidstrom.

Not to mention the winningest coach in NHL history, Scotty Bowman, behind the bench.

With that amount of talent and experience, the Wings had no shortage of leadership or scoring ability.

Months after the playoffs ended, doctors said that, had they seen any non-athlete in Yzerman's condition, they would have immediately scheduled surgery and advised they keep their knee completely immobile until then.

Walking would cause excruciating pain, running would be an impossibility, and skating on ice would be about as possible as jumping to the moon.

By all accounts, Yzerman was simply physically unable to keep playing.

Furthermore, with the amount of talent on the roster that year, the Red Wings would certainly miss their captain, but they'd likely do just fine without him.

Relieving his pain and repairing his knee was not only be the most comfortable and easy thing for Yzerman to do, it was certainly the smartest.

But what no one fully understood at the time is that medical advice and thresholds of pain only apply to mortals—Steve Yzerman is something slightly more than that.

I had the pleasure of meeting Yzerman at a Kings game in Los Angeles. It was mid-March and he wasn't playing, instead watching from a bar stool on the club level of the Staples Center.

I spotted him and knew that I might never have another chance to shake the hand of greatness, let alone my personal hero, so I wasted no time in getting over to him.

The game was in the middle of the third period and Yzerman was watching the action the way a cat tracks a bird before it pounces on it.

I waited for a whistle.

I excused myself and offered my hand to him.

He looked up and almost looked behind him as if to say, "Do you want to shake my hand?"

He takes my hand and winces when I shake it. The shoulder injury that was keeping him out of the game was apparently so bad that even a handshake aggravated the pain.

The action starts again on the ice and he lets go of my grip and motions to the ice. "Let's watch," he says.

This was the most amazing part of the experience for me.

For 20 seconds, I'm shoulder to shoulder with Steve Yzerman, watching a Detroit Red Wings game.

When another whistle comes, I tell him I won't bother him anymore, but if he could autograph my jersey, he'd "make my life."

He laughed at this and said, "Sure."

I gave him the Sharpie I had the presence of mind to swipe from a chef before I got to him and Steve Yzerman signed my jersey (which I'm looking at now, framed, hanging in my office).

I thanked him for his time and, like a junior high school girl meeting Justin Bieber, I blurted out, "You're my hero! You're the reason I play hockey; you're the best, Stevie."

He laughed again, smiled, and said "thank you," turning his attention back to the game.

I stood back and just stared at his back, watching him watch the game.

At the next whistle, he got up to leave.

I watched him stand up and begin to walk away, though he more hobbled than walked, dragging his right leg more than lifting it.

As he shuffled away to a private access corridor, I wondered how the hell he's ever going to be able to play with a knee so obviously damaged as his.

I figured he might make it to the bench during the playoffs, maybe take a few shifts if the Wings were leading.

I didn't, in my wildest dreams, imagine that this man, in such obvious and intense pain, would lead his team in scoring and to its third Stanley Cup. But that's exactly what he did.

I realized later that he did this not because it was easy and not because it was comfortable, but because it was hard and because it was, essentially, impossible.

That is Steve Yzerman.

It's what Red Wings hockey is all about: hard work, no excuses, and winning.

Being GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning is not going to be an easy, enviable, or  comfortable job.

Some would say building that team back into a contender in any short amount of time is an impossible job.

That's likely all Yzerman needed to hear to be convinced that he was just the man for it.

No matter where he goes or what he does, Steve Yzerman will always be a Red Wing, because he defined what it meant to be just that.

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