May 1, 2004. Your heart sunk that day. You thought you had just seen the end of one of the greatest careers in NHL history. A player that defined your Red Wings for two decades and led them to three Stanley Cups.
It was a freak injury that could only have been prevented by a visor. Alas, The Captain did not wear one. He came from an era where visors were unheard of. He had played his entire career without one and had been relatively unscathed. Until May 1, 2004.
I was mowing the lawn that night. My dad had just gotten done yelling at me for waiting a week and a half to do it, and was threatening to not pay me that week. At 14 years old, that was my only source of income. Losing that $20 would be devastating. My dad waited until game time to order me to do it, too, to teach me a lesson. He knew I wanted to see the game, especially since it was Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals.
I was in the process of mowing around the camper stored in our backyard when my dad came out. I had headphones on, so he came over and screamed at me to come inside. Given the previous argument, being told to come back in was a bit of a shock.
I walked back inside and see that my dad is staring at the tv. As I move toward the tv, I know something is wrong. The crowd at the Joe is silent and Ken Daniels is saying things like "this is difficult to watch" and "hit with puck." As I got in front of the TV, I saw a horrific sight.
There was a Red Wing on the ice, obviously hurt. Blood was on the ice, and people were surrounding him. And then the replay came and my heart sunk. Yzerman skating behind the Calgary net, Mathieu Schneider winding up and shooting, and Yzerman suddenly hopping around like mad. Falling to the ice, getting back up, only to fall back down holding his face.
Yzerman was helped off the ice and I just stood there in disbelief. It wasn't supposed to happen like that. Yzerman, our fearless and selfless leader, was supposed to go out as a champion once more. Not to a hospital, but to a locker room where people were waiting to soak him in champagne and he could get drunk from the most mighty of Cups.
We found out the next day what was wrong: Yzerman had a scratched cornea and broken orbital bone. The analysts on ESPN openly debated whether Yzerman would ever see out of the eye again, much less play another game.
The day after, Stevie Y had surgery to repair the damage. He missed Game 6, the game in which Calgary closed out the series and would go on to lose to Yzerman's future team, Tampa Bay, in Game 7 of the Finals. If there had been a 2005 season, he likely would have missed some or all of it. That lockout may have been the best thing in the world for him; without it, he may have just hung up his skates.
Somehow, someway, The Captain returned to the ice for the 2005-2006 season. He wore a face mask now, but even with the mask, it was obvious he was not the same player he was before. He was still great, no doubt, but he had a bit of hesitancy in his game that was not there before he was hit. Regardless, he still managed to play 61 games and score 34 points that season.
After the season, I was naive. I figured for sure the Wings would return as they were last season and we would keep contending. Being just 16, what else would I expect? I didn't know any better.
I remember the day as if it had happened yesterday. It was summer break and I was inside on the computer working on something design related in Photoshop. I had SportsCenter on in the other room and was absently listening to the murmurings from the anchors. I heard the old breaking news jingle and then someone, maybe Barry Melrose, saying that Steve Yzerman had just announced his retirement.
I ran into the other room and stared at the screen as they showed clips of his career and showed his stats. I cried. I went back to my computer and wrote the first Red Wings related blog entry I ever penned, on my deviantART account. I sat there stunned as I wrote that entry. Afterward, I called my grandpa and I could tell that he too had been crying. It was a sad day for Wings fans everywhere.
Out of respect for Yzerman, no new captain was ever announced. I remember people saying that it was obviously going to be Nicklas Lidstrom, that there was no one else it possibly could be. But there were others who believed Ken Holland, in his almighty wisdom, would decide to go with Henrik Zetterberg as the captain in an effort to repeat the past and have a young captain lead the team again. There were others still that thought we may move on without a captain, perhaps forever retiring the "C".
I didn't find out who it would be until the very first game of the 2007 season, until after the teams had done their pregame workouts and were coming out of the tunnels for their introductions. That is when I saw the "C" slapped onto Lidstrom's left shoulder and realized how foolish it was to think that anyone else could have been named captain.
Later on in the season, the big day came. I made sure I would be seeing this game. There was no way I was missing it. Yzerman's jersey would be raised to the rafters to hang alongside Sawchuck, Howe, Delvecchio, Lindsay, and Abel. A spot so fitting for The Captain.
I remember Yzerman walking onto the ice and already I was in tears realizing that this was it. He truly was not coming back. Yzerman's long time friend, Darren Pang, hosted the ceremony that included Howe, Delvecchio, and Lindsay, the three living Red Wing retirees. After the speeches and congratulations, they unveiled the single greatest banner in all of Joe Louis Arena: Stevie Y's jersey, complete with a "C" on his chest, forever acknowledging who The Captain was and what he meant to Detroit and to the Red Wings.
Yzerman may not have been my all time favorite player, but he was certainly a big part of my childhood. He was always there. Eight months out of the year, I watched him play. I watched him bring Detroit great success. I watched players clamor to play around him. I marveled that he would change his game, annihilate the Gretzky-esque pace he was playing at, in order to further his team and teammates. There has been no better Red Wing in my lifetime, perhaps ever. Even the Perfect Human cannot hold a torch to what Yzerman did and was for the Red Wings.
The greatest Wing is, and always will be in my mind, The Captain. Even in the elation of today's wondrous announcement that our current captain, Nicklas Lidstrom, will return for another season, Yzerman remains irreplaceable, a hole in our roster that can never be filled.