When the Red Wings drafted Steve Yzerman in 1983, he was 18 years old, but he looked even younger – less a Boy Scout, than a Cub Scout.
But his baby face didn’t prevent him from notching a stellar 91 points his rookie season. Two years later, the coach named him team captain – the youngest in the Red Wings’ history – though he hadn’t really earned it yet.
Oh, he could score. In his twenties, Yzerman rattled off six seasons of 100 points or more – including 155 points in 1988-89. In the history of the game, only two players have ever surpassed that mark: Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky. Not bad company.
Scoring will get you individual honors – that year, Yzerman’s opponents named him the league’s most outstanding player – but it won’t get your name engraved on the Stanley Cup. For that, a team’s best players have to do all the grimy little chores that don’t show up on a score sheet, only the win column – like playing defense. But defense was not Yzerman’s thing, and that’s why the Red Wings usually had good teams, but never great ones.
That all changed in 1993, when Scotty Bowman became the Red Wings’ head coach. Bowman had a remarkable record for coaching winners: He’d taken teams in St. Louis, Montreal and Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup finals nine times, and won the Cup six times.
But Detroit hadn’t won the grail since Gordie Howe ruled the rink, almost four decades earlier. Bowman had his work cut out for him.
Bowman also arrived with a well-earned reputation for inscrutability. The legendary coach was so enigmatic, some reporters took to calling him, “Rainman.” But there was method to his madness: his headgames kept everybody on edge, which usually brought out their best.
No sooner had Bowman settled in Detroit than he started speculation that he was willing to trade the team’s star center. This shocking news sent ripples through the locker room, the city and even the state.
Bowman ultimately backed off, but Yzerman got the message. He started doing all those things that don’t win headlines, just games – like backchecking, grinding, and blocking shots. This shift in priorities cut his scoring in half – but doubled his value to the team.
He became a complete player – and a complete leader. He didn’t say much in the locker room, but when he did, everybody listened. And whenever new players wondered what it took to be a Red Wing, all they had to do was watch the 38-year old captain, one of the most skilled players in the league, take a knee to block a shot.
His younger teammate Kirk Maltby said, “When you see him blocking shots night after night, you can’t help but do the same yourself. Given all the things he’s gone through, you can’t ask for a better motivation to win the Cup.”
And those are just a few of the reasons why Yzerman’s name is engraved on the Stanley Cup, three times. That’s why his jersey is one of only six that hangs from the rafters at Joe Louis Arena. And that’s why he walked into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
You can call him an All-Star. A Stanley Cup champion. A Hall of Famer. But the most appropriate title is one he received early in his career, but grew into over two decades: Captain.
No one in league history has served longer – and no one did it better.
About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.