A Sad Departure Day In Detroit

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - July 12, 2006
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July 3, 2006 is a day Detroit sports fans will remember with a combination of shock and sadness. On one day, the city lost its two most visible and inspirational sports figures. One was expected for some time. The other came as a surprise. History will judge how these two events will be remembered.

Ben Wallace was the face, in fact, the heart and soul of the Detroit Pistons. He was the leader of a team that gained fame and championship with players who, like himself, were shortly before unknown or thought to be underachievers. But that was then. Now, Wallace is a Chicago Bull - in effect, the enemy. How he will be treated upon his return is anyone’s guess, but if Internet message boards are any indication, it won’t be a happy reunion.

Although the Pistons have been billed as a team without stars, the fact is that Detroit is a team with too many stars and it had become costly. The need to keep the starting five intact has caused the departure of Mehmet Okur, Carlos Arroyo, Corliss Williamson and even Darko Milicic, who, granted, was an underachieving teenager angry with his situation, but he also was traded in a salary dump to maintain the payroll.

Even with all the changes, the Pistons were still able to rack up impressive victory totals in the regular season, until shortness along the bench became costly in the playoffs. The Pistons could not keep doling out the money to its stars at the expense of the role players. Something eventually had to give. Yes, it was a bit of a surprise that it was Wallace to be the first to go, but that was due as much to timing as it was looking at future expectations for the four-time defensive player of the year.

The Pistons tried to keep Wallace and put a solid offer on the table: Four years and $52 million for a 32-year-old center with no offensive game and whose rebounds and blocks have been in a steady decline over the past four years. Chicago overspent a bit for Wallace, but the Bulls have more to gain. It got a hard-working role model for a young, talented team that needs leadership and a low-post defensive threat to clean up the mistakes made along the perimeter. As painful as it may seem, both teams may have benefitted.

Steve Yzerman was not just the mayor of Hockeytown, he was the most popular athlete in the state and will probably remain so for years to come.

Although his retirement came as no surprise, hearing him utter the words, “I have decided to retire and to hang up my skates” - as his voice briefly broke under the strain of his emotions - was still startling and sad to hear.

For 22 years,Yzerman had been the face of a city and the leader of a championship squad that rescued from oblivion one of the most storied franchises in the history of the game. Respectfully called The Captain for his 19 years of wearing the “C” on his sweater - longer than anyone in NHL history - he played the game with a competitive fire that made him one of the best ever, while maintaining the humility that made him shy away from the spotlight and look upon his image on the Cadillac Tower building in downtown Detroit with embarrassment. He had little choice. It was the Yzerman family way. His father, Ron, a social worker in Ottawa, told his brood over and over again that they are no better than anyone else - no matter what they may achieve. A lesson Stevie Y never forgot.

Had Yzerman not had the misfortune of playing in the same era as Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, he would have been the biggest name in the sport. As it was, he did pretty good for himself.

From the time he hit the NHL and led all rookies with 87 points and 48 assists while becoming the youngest person ever to be named to the all-star team,Yzerman could light the lamp. And had it not been for his willingness to sacrifice individual achievement for the sake of victories - which directly led to three Stanley Cups and Yzerman taking home the Selke Trophy for best defensive forward - he no doubt would have finished much higher than sixth on the all-time scoring list. Most likely second to that Gretzky guy, seeing he trails second place Mark Messier by only 132 points or a mere 11 per season following the transformation.

So on that fateful day with Mr. Hockey himself, Gordie Howe, in the front row, Steve Yzerman said goodbye to the sport he helped to blossom. He will be celebrated for what he did on the ice, for his charitable work off it and for being one of the toughest SOBs ever to play the game. If you’ve forgotten how tough, check out the photos after a puck shattered his orbital socket and left his eye an eerie pocket of blood, or the knee realignment surgery where his leg bone had to be cut in half then reattached to allow for proper function of the joint.

That’s tough, even for a hockey player.

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