Wings Yzerman makes his return to the ice (2024)

DETROIT -- What they did to Steve Yzerman last summer, you wouldn't wish on a prisoner. They cut his leg bone with a saw, then chiseled it until a path was opened. They wedged that path wider with a fork-like device, then inserted a steel plate, then tightened that plate with screws, then packed it with spare bone material, then let him wake up.

They call this medicine.

"Osteotomy" is its official name, and if you're lucky and you fully recover, you have less pain when you walk your grandchildren to school. You are not supposed to resume a pro sports career. You are definitely not supposed to play in the NHL.

"We didn't do it so Steve could return to playing hockey," his surgeon, Dr. Peter Fowler, told the Detroit Free Press. "We did it so he could return to walking without pain."

But what the good doctor may not understand -- and what Detroit fans know all too well -- is this: If Yzerman walks, he walks to the rink. If he stands, he stands to go over the boards. If he steps, he steps onto the ice.


And so Monday night, in the middle of a snowstorm, on a night that otherwise made you want to hide under a blanket, Yzerman took another of his famous steps ice-ward, he played his first game of the season with the season three-quarters done, and you could feel the ripple from the Detroit River to the Upper Peninsula. The Captain was back. He was taking a shift. "Stevie When?" was "Stevie Y" again.

And a career that began during Ronald Reagan's first term would have at least one more night.

"I'm just looking forward to calling out, 'Yzerman, your line is next,' " Dave Lewis, the Wings coach, had said before the game.

And why not? The last time Yzerman skated before a crowd was eight months ago, in this very building, doing small circles while hoisting the Stanley Cup. The crowd was on its feet. It was a moment to remember.

Then came the long off-season. The doctors rebuilt his knee, the rehabbers rebuilt his body, and the pages came off the calendar like leaves off an autumn tree: September, October, November, December, January. Most of February. Sixty-one games and no Yzerman. There was talk he was done. There was talk he was kidding himself.

But Monday night, a little after 7 p.m., he glided out with head down, his eyes forward, and the talk stopped and the cheering began. Once again, he was skating in small circles. Once again, the fans were on their feet.

How sublime was the moment? When Yzerman entered the game, with just under a minute gone, he lined up for a face-off, and linesman Ray Scapinello, a long-time official, actually stepped backward to allow the applause an few extra seconds.

"Stevie When?" was "Stevie Now."


And one big Detroit question had been answered.

How'd he do? He did pretty well. He scraped for the puck. He won some face-offs. He went down at least four times in the first period, and got back up quickly -- albeit gingerly -- each time. He made some cuts and he made some passes, and he found himself in a team scrum in the second period, and he slammed into Mikko Eloranta and held him up, doing his share, the way teammates do.

By the end of the night, he had played 13:17.

It was not remarkable hockey judged on its own merits.

But it was beyond remarkable when judged by the circ*mstances.

The purpose of an osteotomy is to redistribute the weight. And in many ways, that's what the Wings must now do, too. Yzerman can be their heart and soul, but he can't be their legs. He can't be their arms. He can't be the guy they expect to score the big one, and he can't be the guy they expect to make the spectacular play. Anything they get from him is gravy -- at least for a while.

Sergei Fedorov has to deliver on his desire to be the heavy lifter. Young Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have to grow into bigger roles. Old Igor Larionov and Luc Robataille can't shrink from theirs.

The defense has to tighten up -- or be shored up with a new face -- and the goaltending has to return to scaring people, and it's nowhere near that now.


Will Yzerman be able to do all that? Of course not. But his very presence makes it all seem realistic. And that, in the winter of his career, is the Captain's greatest contribution: without a word, he makes his teammates realize the lyrics of a famous old song:

The difficult, you do right now, the impossible, only takes a little while.

"Stevie When?" is "Stevie Y" again. The skeptics are shaken. The surgeons are baffled. The medical world says you don't have this operation to try to win a Stanley Cup. But when doctors chart an osteotomy, the first thing they do is draw a line from the ankles to the center of the hips.

That was their mistake. With Yzerman, they should have drawn it to his heart.

Wings Yzerman makes his return to the ice (2024)


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