The 2002 Stanley Cup playoffs saw many stories of courage and inspiration. The incredible comeback of Montreal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu from cancer and leading his club to an improbable first round upset of the Boston Bruins. The return to action of his teammate, Donald Audette, from a nearly career-ending, and potentially life-threatening, injury. Colorado's Peter Forsberg coming back from missing an entire season to injury to leading the playoffs in scoring.
There was another incredible story of courage over physical adversity this past spring, that of Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman. Plagued by a serious injury to his right knee that would require surgery and a lengthy rehab to recover from, Yzerman nevertheless played in every game during his club's playoff run, and was not only one of the main reasons they would ultimately win their third Stanley Cup in six seasons, but was unquestionably the prime source of inspiration for his teammates.
It is fitting, therefore, that the book I'm reviewing this month is about Yzerman. Written by first-time author Gary L. Morrison, "A Wing...and a Hero" examines not only Yzerman's long career with the Red Wings, but also his contributions to charity away from the arena.
Morrison's book offers a detailed, season-by-season examination of Yzerman's years with the Wings up to the 2000-01 season, from his early days with the club, when Detroit was one of the worst franchises in the league, on through the long building process of making the Wings first respectable, then contenders, and finally champions. A key note of interest is the staggering number of players that have come and gone during Yzerman's career with the organization, which Morrison dutifully notes. Some are mere footsoldiers, some long-forgotten Wings like Reed Larsen and Danny Gare and others, more notable stars such as Dino Ciccarelli, Paul Coffey, and Pat Verbeek.
Morrison details how, as the Wings grew and developed, so too did Yzerman. Known primarily early in his career as purely a scoring star, Yzerman developed other aspects of his game, learning to become a more well-rounded player. His true fruitition as one of the best two-way forwards in the game came under head coach Scotty Bowman, hired in the summer of 1993. Yzerman, by now sick of hearing critics panning his role with the team, buys into Bowman's game plan, and is instrumental in bringing his teammates on line with it. The results since then speak for themselves. Three Stanley Cups in six seasons, a Smythe Trophy as the 1998 playoff MVP and the Selke trophy in 2000 as the league's best defensive forward are the result of Yzerman's improvement during that time.
After a nearly 20 year career, Yzerman is now revered as one of the greatest leaders and captain in NHL history. However, as Morrison astutely points out, that wasn't always the case. For the man nicknamed "Stevie Y", the path to greatness has been a long, arduous one. The Wings originally didn't want to draft Yzerman, hoping instead to pick up local boy Pat Lafontaine. He was knocked as a "one-dimensional" player in his first seasons with Detroit, and was mentioned in trade rumours in the early 1990s. He had to overcome injuries and the grumblings of the Detroit fans.
Most of all, he had to overcome the putdowns of his leadership abilities. One of the youngest team captains in league history at 21, Yzerman would be dogged by criticism that he was too soft and ineffective as a leader for years. They would only subside when he finally hoisted the Stanley Cup in 1997 and 1998. As Morrison points out, Yzerman's ability to overcome obstacles that would've finished a lesser man is indicative of the Detroit captain's strength of charachter and depth of courage.
The most interesting part of Morrison's book for me is how much Yzerman has touched the lives of those less fortunate than himself through charity work, most notably with sick and dying children. One of those children was Mr. Morrison's young daughter, Breanna, for whom Yzerman met with and signed a #19 Red Wings jersey for. It shows how much the modest Yzerman's contributions have meant for fans like Morrison and his daughter, and how much of an inspiration he is for those battling serious injury and illness.
While "A Wing...and a Hero" covers Yzerman's NHL career thoroughly, it is somewhat lacking regarding it's subject's rise from childhood hockey to junior to making the National Hockey League. Here the analysis is short-lived, compared to the depth of research devoted to Yzerman's professional career. There is also a lack of personal information from Yzerman himself, or of those who know him, like family, friends and teammates, but this isn't the fault of the author, who made attempts to meet the Wings captain to conduct interviews. Unfortunately, interviews are hard to come by when you're an unknown author writing a book about a famous subject, hence the more lengthy, in-depth analysis of Yzerman's NHL career.
There are also a few errors I picked up regarding the names of a couple of coaches of other teams, as well as how many Smythe trophies goalie Mike Vernon had won, and the owner of the Wings prior to Mike Illitch purchasing the club in the early 1980s. However, they're relatively minor and are balanced out by Morrison's research of the Wings since Yzerman joined the club.
Fans of Steve Yzerman and the Detroit Red Wings should enjoy "A Wing...and a Hero". Morrison is obviously a big fan of Yzerman, for more personal reasons than most of us are, and these shine through in his book. More cynical readers might consider Morrison's biography a tad fawning, but I feel it's a genuine, heartfelt salute from a hockey fan to his favourite player. A salute that, given Yzerman's courageous stand in the 2002 playoffs, is all the more justified.
Steve Yzerman is, indeed, "a Wing...and a Hero".