“How many lines did the Red Wings use when they finally started winning Stanley Cups?” Dick Todd asks.
Four, is the answer.
“And how many lines are the winning teams now using?” he continues.
Four. The same number that the Peterborough Petes used when Todd coached them in the 1980s, when Steve Yzerman was his most spectacular graduate, but far from the only one, to the NHL.
Excerpt from Yzerman: The Making of a Champion. Doubleday Canada, Triumph Books (U.S.), 2004. Canadian paperback: Seal 2005. Copyright Douglas Hunter
“During the time I coached in Peterborough,” Todd states with unabashed pride, “we put more underage players in the NHL than any Junior franchise has ever put in. I’ve had the highest winning percentage of any coach in Junior hockey. I think that my system worked well and developed a broad base of players.”
Todd’s coaching record is indisputably impressive. In addition to his achievements in Peterborough, Todd was assistant coach of Canada’s World Junior team in 1990 and coach in 1991, when Canada won back-to-back gold medals. He had worked with Roger Neilson in the Petes organization in the 1970s before “Captain Video” moved up to the NHL in 1977, and he later joined Neilson as his assistant coach with the New York Rangers. The Petes organization had a long-standing reputation for training prospects to play in both directions; many forwards who did graduate to the NHL, like Craig Ramsay and Bob Gainey, were renowned for their defensive abilities and went on to excel in off-ice roles as well. It was not, however, an organization that turned out high-scoring forwards. Considering how Yzerman’s professional career initially unfolded, as an offensive star, having been a Pete was the most surprising aspect of his amateur career. But from the perspective of Yzerman’s maturation as a total player, having been a Pete was absolutely fundamental.
When people talk of Stevie Y’s Junior career, they repeat this theme: you’ve got to remember that four-line system in Peterborough. It taught him things about two-way play. It didn’t let him hog ice time, or run up huge personal scoring stats.
“I don’t know whether Steve would admit to this,” says Todd, “but we really stressed to him to learn the game at both ends of the rink. He was an excellent defensive player for us as well as contributing offensively.”
“We were never the top line in Juniors,” says Yzerman’s linemate on the Petes, Bob Errey. “We played four lines under Dick Todd,” he explains, as everyone who knows of those days feels obliged to point out. “We might play the second power play, and kill penalties. We had no more ice time than anyone else.”
“I didn’t know that much about Steve when I was in Junior,” says Gerard “Turk” Gallant, his future linemate in Detroit, who was playing in the Quebec Major Juniors for Verdun, waging shootouts with Mario Lemieux’s Laval Titans. “But you heard they played a four line system, that everybody did the same things, killed penalties, were on power plays. Steve didn’t get 25 minutes of ice time a game, but that was probably better for him in his career. It might have been hard to say when he was playing there, but he learned both ends of the rink, and about team chemistry, and about winning. And sure enough, in the last ten years of his career, when he was winning those Stanley Cups and he played his best hockey, it was about `team’ winning and not just carrying the team offensively. It was about playing defensively, and killing penalties.”
Yzerman never made the OHL’s top-ten scoring list, or its All Star team. He didn’t even lead his own team in total points. In his first season, 1981/82, he produced 21 goals and 43 assists, tied with Dave Morrison at 64 points and trailing Larry Floyd (69), Doug Evans (66) and Vinci Sebek (65). In 1982/83, Yzerman was bested by his left-winger, Errey, in goals (53 to 42) and points (100 to 91), and in total points they both finished behind their line’s right-winger, Scott McLellan, who led the team with 101.
And so much for statistics. For, as often is the case, they hardly tell the whole story or even the real story. “His numbers weren’t out of this world,” says Todd, “but for a seventeen-year-old, they were very, very good. And,” he proposes, laughing, “they would have been better had Bob Errey been able to convert the number of opportunities he was given by Steve. He could set Bob up once a period for a breakaway.
“Steve was the catalyst for Bob putting up the statistics he did,” adds Todd. “Bob was an exceptionally strong skater. He was so quick. This made them a real threat all the time, because Steve could put the puck on Bob’s stick at the right moment and have him break loose. And Bob you could tell was intelligent. He was quiet, and thankful to be playing with Steve. I don’t think he wanted to do or say anything to rock his position.”
• • •
There is, persistently, the issue of age with Yzerman. A young man in a pragmatic, impressive hurry. He was only sixteen when he began his first season as a Pete, only eighteen when he made the Red Wings lineup, only 21 when the Red Wings made him their captain. Many other players have reached significant career thresholds at a tender age, but few have done so and left such a consistent impression of their character and ability. There would be a flip side to this rush of accomplishments for Yzerman: disappointments in not making Canada’s Cup squads, the fourteen-season wait to be a league champion. But rather than becoming a young talent that blossomed early and then faded through frustration or adversity, or who tasted success so soon that he lacked the motivation to keep on achieving, Yzerman became a persistent, versatile talent for whom people can point back to his Peterborough days and not only recalling him playing there, but being Steve Yzerman there, while still a youth.
The qualities that would make him a star in the NHL were already to be seen when Yzerman was playing his hometown tier II Junior club, the Nepean Raiders. The Petes were picking fourth overall in the draft, and Todd, who was then the team’s trainer and business manager, was involved in the picking. “I remember we were trying to decide between Brian Bradley and Steve Yzerman.” After Peterborough chose Yzerman (in part on the recommendation of Jacques Martin, the future Ottawa Senators coach who was then bird-dogging talent for the Petes), Bradley went to the London Knights. He stayed with them for the better part of four seasons and produced two 100-point efforts before breaking into the NHL with the Calgary Flames and its minor-league affiliates. When his NHL career ended in 1997/98, he had appeared in 651 NHL games with Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto and Tampa Bay, where he served as captain.
“From a Junior point of view, Bradley played four seasons and Steve played only two,” says Todd. “As a team, we might have been better with Bradley. But we always went with the guy who we felt was the best NHL prospect.”
“Brian Bradley was a great NHLer,” says John Ollson, who had grown up with Yzerman and played against both him and Bradley in Juniors. “Those guys are really similar. Right hand shots, the same size, skated the same way, handled the puck well. Steve is probably a more complete player, but he didn’t become a more complete player until about the last ten years, because for the first ten years he just scored. Steve had a great brain. Him, Mario Lemieux, Joe Sakic, Wayne Gretzky…there are only five or six guys that play with their eyes more than they play with their body. They really are true thinkers out there, and they don’t look like they’re working very hard. They let their minds do so much of it. It’s just a big chess game to them.”
Ollson slips into an almost poetic recitation of Yzerman’s abilities. “Slippery, sleek, agile, mobile, fast. Fedorov is like him. They create their own time and space.”
“He had tremendous insight into the game,” says Todd of Yzerman in Peterborough. “He was outstanding. We had another player who was nineteen and would play a few NHL games. He was extremely jealous of Steve and the amount of attention he started getting in Peterborough.” Todd inherited the unhappy fact of this streak of jealousy when he took over the Peterborough bench, his first coaching job, when former NHL and WHA goaltender Dave Dryden was canned in midseason. “When I took over, it was unfortunate that that was there, but Steve made the best of the situation.”
Yzerman was hardwired for stardom, not celebrity. He didn’t make a fuss about himself. Once he turned pro, he would have no time for players who turned on the charm for the endorsement biz, who became somebody that they weren’t in the dressing room. He has shown himself to be proud, but not vain, ambitious, but not deluded by notions of entitlement. What he has asked in return for his own effort on the ice is results, not accolades.
Jealousy dogged both Yzerman and Errey within their own team. Todd faced the challenge of keeping happy older team members who no longer enjoyed the privileges players only recently had when they were nineteen and twenty in Juniors. Players who had begun their Junior careers before the NHL draft age started dropping in 1980 (first to nineteen, then to eighteen in 1981) had come into a system in which certain perks, such as a prime position on the power play, lots of ice time, or a pairing with a star forward, were often reserved for the most senior players. The lowering of the draft age meant that the best players were now generally the youngest ones, as the players who stuck around right to the end of their Junior eligibility often had been passed over by the NHL. The pecking order of Junior club rosters had been turned upside down. Part of Todd’s motivation for a four-line system, for using two power play units with neither one getting more ice time than the other, was to promote team chemistry, to not marginalize his oldest charges, even if not all of them saw it that way.
And while neither Yzerman nor Errey served as captain, they were unquestioned team leaders. “They led by their example,” says Todd, “more than they did vocally. They were both never a problem. There was never an ego situation with them, no agendas. They were elite players, playing with older people. They were quiet and unassuming, and intent on doing what was right for the team.”
Yzerman was noticeably down-to-earth for a prospect with such obvious talent. He boarded in Peterborough with the Garvey family, who lived near the Memorial Centre, where the Petes played. “They were very middle class, barely middle class people,” says Todd. “I think Vince [Garvey] was a truck driver at one point. Steve took to them, and they took to him. Steve’s parents would come down and spend the week at their camp at a trailer park in the summer. I can remember being invited out for a barbecue one night at the camp, which was unusual to have happen with a Junior player. Later, Vince would wear a `Steve Yzerman’ Detroit Red Wings jacket around town. Vince adopted the boy. He would make sure that they had a euchre game on Monday nights. Two tables of guys would come to Steve’s boarding house. It was a really closeknit atmosphere. The support was terrific.”
Bob Errey made his own contributions to team cohesion. As a local boy, it became Errey’s duty to squire other players around town. “I showed them the good things and the bad things of Peterborough,” he says, laughing, and leaves it at that.
It’s to the credit of Yzerman’s parents that they were able support their son’s ambitions without warping his ego or annoying the hell out of everyone with whom they came into contact on his way up. Todd pays special tribute to them. “Many times, you’d have a kid with the talent that Steve had, and you’d have difficulties with parents because they’d be looking for more recognition for him, or were behaving like they were a step above everybody else. But Steve’s people were so down to earth and so supportive of our team, our city and his career here. Steve was very conscientious and hardworking. Just an honest kid that gave you what he had.”
Yzerman’s father, Ron, was an Ottawa civil servant, and Ron and Jean Yzerman had tried to raise their five children (four boys and girl) to pursue post-secondary academics, which they all did…except for Steve, who had become totally focussed on a career in professional hockey before he even reached high school. Though born in Cranbrook, B.C., Steve had been raised in Nepean, which in the 1970s was a small Ottawa suburb just emerging from its dairy farming past. A telecommunications revolution was helping change the capital’s landscape. The burbs began to boom as greater Ottawa turned into a center of high technology through the burgeoning success of outfits like Mitel, Bell Northern Research (where Yzerman’s sister became a computer programmer) and Northern Telecom (later Nortel). Amidst this next-big-thing economic growth, Yzerman was pursuing the old-economy dream of playing pro hockey.
“We played ball hockey together, hockey with and against each other,” John Ollson recalls of growing up in Nepean with Yzerman and others in their circle of friends, who included Darren Pang, a goaltender who had a cup of coffee with the Chicago Blackhawks and went on to work for ESPN. Ollson was about eighteen months older than Yzerman, but Yzerman’s skills have always, it seemed, made him excel beyond his age bracket. “We were all pretty good athletes in terms of playing other sports.” There was baseball in the summer, and Ollson would become a golf pro in addition to running his hockey school. “Hit a ball, catch a ball, shoot a puck, anything like that, we could all do it reasonably well with little effort. You started with hand-eye coordination and talent, and then you had to be mentored in the right way.”
Hockey was their unquestioned priority, and they were all good at it. One of the biggest headaches in amateur hockey today is the effect that multimillion-dollar salaries earned by players like Yzerman has had on parents who think their tykes can grow up to make that kind of coin, too. Studies have been pressed upon these glassy-eyed dreamers, showing that a boy playing in the Canadian minor hockey system has only a slightly better chance of having an NHL career than he does of discovering intelligent life elsewhere in this universe. The career-ambition problem when Yzerman was young still generally rested with the kids, not the parents. In the 1970s, the WHA had helped force up player salaries in the professional game overall, but not so much that it was necessarily wise to become totally focussed on hockey as a career option.
But the WHA also radically changed the path to a professional career for players like Yzerman who would come of age in the early 1980s, back when Yzerman was twelve years old and dominating play at the Pee Wee level in Nepean. The instigator of that change was Ken (later nicknamed “The Rat,” for his bent-over skating style) Linseman, an impatient teen with the Kingston Canadiens.
Linseman was a top prospect in Ontario Major Junior hockey, a forward who had racked up more than 100 points in his last two seasons with his hometown Kingston Canadians, when Birmingham chose him way down in the tenth round, eighty-third overall of the 1977 WHA draft. He was a smart young man (today he’s a commercial real estate broker in Connecticut) from a big Kingston family, gifted on the ice, who had lost his mother at a young age and was ready to make his own way in the world. He would turn nineteen in August, before the start of the new season, and after three years of Major Junior competition, he was eager to turn pro. And why not: the WHA, struggling with nine teams, was still causing the NHL to have kittens over player salaries. Every year a young man’s playing career was delayed in getting started carried a penalty of six figures.
There seemed to be a reasonable prospect of getting started, since in 1975/76 the Toronto Toros (which is what the team was called, before it became the Birmingham Bulls in 1976/77) had iced an eighteen-year-old named Mark Napier after he played just two seasons with the Toronto Marlies. It was a rogue move by owner John Bassett, as the WHA as a league had agreed, as the NHL had, not to sign to contracts the players in the Canadian amateur system before their twentieth year, so as not to rob Junior hockey of its star attractions. The NHL had held an “underage” draft for 18-year-olds in 1974, but that was a one-year experiment. Bassett broke ranks with other NHL and WHA owners in signing Napier and putting him on the ice two full seasons before the Montreal Canadiens drafted him in the first round. There were other underage signings in the WHA, but then the practice stopped because of vehement objections from the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association. So, while Linseman had been drafted, he wouldn’t be allowed to play.
Linseman wouldn’t sit for that. He had no intention of being forced to play a fourth season of Junior hockey. Back in the Original Six days, players routinely began their professional careers when they were eighteen, or even younger. Most players before the universal draft came along had their rights formally secured at sixteen, usually with what was called a `C’ form, a promise of professional services that gave the NHL club the right to call upon the player to sign a pro contract within one year’s time. It was the CAHA’s determination to preserve the rosters of Major Junior hockey until the last year of player eligibility that had prevented players turning pro before turning twenty. As the primary development system for new talent, the CAHA could wrest agreements with the NHL and WHA which prevented them from signing “underage” Canadian players to contracts.
Through his agent, Max Kaminsky, Linseman arranged to have a young lawyer named John Hughes file an antitrust suit against the WHA in the state of Connecticut. Hughes had a good feel for the issues, having been a Toronto Marlie once and a property of the Maple Leafs. A Scarborough lad, he had gone to Cornell University on a hockey scholarship, playing there with the imminently famous goaltender, Ken Dryden, and serving as captain of Cornell’s Big Red. While Hughes’ destiny was to practice tax and real estate law from his New York City law office, it was in sports that he became truly famous: first, for his hockey exploits at Cornell; second, for filing the Linseman suit: and third, for fathering a figure-skater named Sarah who at age sixteen scored a major upset at the 2002 Olympics by winning the women’s singles gold medal.
The Linseman case was not a long, drawn-out affair. “John got an injunction within two weeks,” Linseman recalls. Linseman had every right to make a living. The WHA fielded a “coercion” defense, which asserted that it was forced not to employ young men like Linseman because of pressure exerted by the CAHA. That defense failed, but it got the Linseman suit into case law. “I have friends who are lawyers, and the first case they studied in sports was me,” he says.
It also got Linseman into a WHA uniform and a handsome pay schedule that fall. As he recalls, he was paid a signing bonus of $100,000 on a $1 million contract payable over six years. “The next year, I think my signing bonus was $150,000.” The money Linseman made in the dying days of the WHA would put to shame the salary Steve Yzerman would draw as a Red Wing when he turned pro at eighteen, just a few years later.
• • •
People who excel not just in sport, but in things like software design and playing the violin, tend to be a wee bit fixated in their youth. It’s how they get good at what they do. Obsession as a developmental process produces a lot of waste, as most obsessed youth aren’t going to make it big in whatever has them in its seductive grip, but those who do make it, make it because of that obsession, which might be more benignly described as dedication. Unlike software code and classical instruments, the professional hockey development stream, especially since the draft age was rolled back beginning in 1980, hasn’t required a post-secondary education. Reducing the draft age to eighteen in 1981 changed the career planning stream, by accelerating the start of a pro career. Yzerman did pay attention to his schooling while in Peterborough, enough to be singled out among players for his academic effort. But there was no longer any time for university for a top prospect. Players were now entering the profession straight out of high school. And that meant getting serious about the profession while still in high school, so that the young man could be properly prepped in Juniors. A parent confronting a child’s determination to play pro hockey, and agreeing that the boy might be onto something, had to buy into the dream pretty quickly.
By all accounts, once the Yzerman’s accepted their son’s fixation (and it was hard not to notice how good he was), they supported him unequivocally. There were about 2,400 kids in the mid-1970s in the Nepean minor system, where Yzerman began playing at the Atom A level, and the emphasis was more on house league than tournament-calibre play. Yzerman’s parents sent him to hockey camp in the summer to help him refine his skills, and at fifteen he was able to join the Nepean Raiders, a tier II Junior A team that had been in the Central Junior league since 1972. The Raiders at least had a terrific facility to call home, the NHL-sized rink at Nepean Sportsplex which was built in 1973. (After Yzerman led the Red Wings to the 1997/98 Stanley Cup win and earned the Conn Smythe as playoff MVP, the Nepean Sportsplex rink was renamed Steve Yzerman Arena.) At 200 feet by 85 feet, it was a lot of ice for a teenager to cover. Most small-town rinks are 10 to 15 feet shorter than a modern NHL one, and at the time, some vintage NHL rinks weren’t even NHL size. Boston Garden was 191 by 83; Buffalo’s “Aud,” 193 by 84; Chicago Stadium, 185 by 85. Yzerman was exposed to the full sheet, and the consequences of not playing all of it, at a very young age.
Like many future NHL stars in a hurry on their way up through the development system, Yzerman didn’t stick with the Raiders long enough to rewrite the team record book. He stayed only one season, but did produce his first Junior hat trick with the Raiders by scoring shorthanded, at even strength, and on the power play in one game. Pursuing his hockey dream meant lighting out for Peterborough at age 16 to play for the Petes of Major Junior. And moving up from the Raiders to the Petes put him on home ice that was ten feet shorter than in Nepean.
“He was more mature than most people his age,” Errey says of Yzerman as a Junior. “He was a real professional. He knew the game was about more than scoring goals. Steve was as happy to win 2-1 as he was 7-5. That’s not typical of a Junior player, who usually likes to score a lot of goals. He was ahead of his time. And he always had a work ethic, constantly training, working on his deficiencies instead of his strengths. I remember how, after his first season, he went home and did a lot of skating. He came back, and was way faster at training camp. He went from being an above-average skater to being a great skater.
“You couldn’t tell him he couldn’t do something. It would make him strive that much more. I don’t think I was much different. Some of it was because you were told you were too small.”
• • •
In Yzerman’s and Errey’s second season together in Peterborough, the NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau came calling. The bureau had been created by the league in the 1970s to provide a communal pool of prospect wisdom that would be available to all teams. It was a measure to help the expansion clubs, which tended not to have the established scouting programs that the “have” teams did, make more intelligent drafting decisions. This was important, because bad teams drafted high, and if they didn’t do their homework properly, they would draft as badly as they played. Or they wouldn’t bother drafting at all, choosing instead to deal away future draft picks to talent-laden teams in exchange for proven, if aging, players. League parity depended in part then, on better prospect intelligence for all. And so the bureau called on the Petes, to have a look at what they had coming down the pipeline, in preparation for the next entry draft in June 1983. Part of that process involved standing the prospects still and measuring them.
Errey and Yzerman were both up for the 1983 draft. Errey had turned eighteen in September, at the start of the 1982/83 season, while Yzerman wouldn’t be eighteen until May 9, just a month before the draft. They were taking no chances with Central Scouting’s sizing-up ceremony. They stuck foam into their socks to increase their height, and Errey remembers wrapping some foam around his torso, under his shirt, to bulk up his appearance, and thinks his linemate may have done the same.
The NHL record book says Bob Errey is five feet, ten inches tall. “I’ve never been five-ten in my life,” he says. The best he could hope for in a legitimate measurement was five-nine and a half. “But you wanted to get that `five and double digit.’” At the same time, Yzerman somehow got himself to 178 pounds in Central Scouting’s stats, which had to be an exaggeration of a good twenty pounds. The NHL record book today says Errey was five-ten, and that Yzerman is five-eleven, give or take some foam.
Yzerman had grown up with kids who really were going to have a hard time proving they belonged in the major league. John Ollson reached five-nine, and while he finished eighth in OHL scoring with the Ottawa 67s in 1982/83, well ahead of Yzerman with 122 points, no NHL team even drafted him. Their buddy Darren Pang, the 67s’ goaltender who had also played on the Nepean Raiders, was only five-five, and would be signed by the Blackhawks as a free agent. Yzerman’s size was hardly prohibitive, but it was setting off alarms among scouts.
“There definitely was a concern about size,” says Dick Todd of the mindset of scouts, and agrees that the five-and-double-digit threshold got everyone in knots. He remembers a scam Keith Acton tried to pull while he was with the Petes in the mid-Seventies. “Keith had wooden heel inserts in his socks. He got to five-ten or something with a guy from Central Scouting.” Problem was, a teammate, Mark Kirton, came along to the measuring ceremony after him. “Mark was taller than Keith and hadn’t done anything like Keith had, and he measured five nine and a half. He started to scream right in front of the scout. `I’m taller than him and I always have been! What’s going on here? How come I’m not measuring up?’” In the NHL record books, Keith Acton has been busted down to five-eight, while Kirton is listed at five-ten.
“Scouts were under a great deal of pressure to do their job and get the right numbers,” says Todd. “Because, once the NHL club had the player under contract and did their own measurements, they’d go crazy if the numbers were different. Sometimes, Central Scouting would say to a scout, `That guy is not five-ten. You go back and measure him.’ They might also send in an independent scout, a western scout or somebody else to measure the guy. That happened several times, not necessarily on my team, but it was happening.”
You wanted the “five and double-digit” by your name: five-ten, five-eleven. At five-nine, the scouts started looking at you differently. While weight was an important factor as well, it was an unwritten understanding that five-ten was the tripwire that detonated an arsenal of scouting concerns. Below five-ten, scouts (and general managers) began to view you as an exceptional prospect, which meant having to demonstrate exceptional abilities. After all, the five-and-double-digit is barely above the fiftieth percentile of the U.S. National Centre for Health Statistics’ growth chart for boys age 2-20 years. By age 20, the typical midsize male is five feet, nine inches (about five feet, eight-and-a-half inches at age eighteen) and 155 pounds. As a rule, professional contact sports are not populated by adult males of average size.
Every rise in the hierarchy of the game thinned the herd. Many players once deemed exceptional became merely average in their later teens, and those who were merely average became unemployable. Measure in below or even around the five and double-digit, and the scouts were going to ask: what makes this kid so special that he can be so small and still compete?
Desire was hardly ever the big question. Smaller men, including players on the bubble of acceptable size like Yzerman, were accustomed to training and playing hard, in order to hold their own, to prove they belonged. The desire to have a larger presence in the game than their physical stats otherwise suggested sometimes made them excel beyond reasonable expectations. You could rarely question their desire or their intensity, and those qualities led to hard work that in turn usually paid off in better than average skating, passing and shooting skills, which ultimately were the keys to their survival. And which were what the scouts started looking for when a player touched that trip wire. At five-eleven, average skating speed might be okay. But at five-ten or less, the scouts began looking for speed that could give the smaller player an edge. In fact, they were looking for every element of a small player’s game, short of bodychecking and fighting, to be a cut above the rest. And as the size of players fell ever further shy of the five and double digit, there was often nothing they could do, short of levitation, to convince a scout that they belonged in the NHL.
There was no great science behind this concern of the scouts and the fixation on the five-and-double-digit, just the experience of seasons past, training camps, and so many young prospects who sparkled on the way up and then hit a physical wall when they reached the big league. And it was a physical wall whose own dimensions had been changing through time. Until the 1970s, size never seemed to be a major issue in the National League. Many players, great players, would scarcely draw a second glance in street clothes. There were large, powerful men, like Gordie Howe, Frank Mahovlich and Jean Beliveau, but nobody ever said that a player had to be large in order to excel. Ted Lindsay, the ferocious captain of the Red Wings in the 1950s and Howe’s linemate on the famous Production Line, was only five-eight. Tim Horton, the stalwart blueliner of the Leafs of the 1950s and 1960s, was also only five-eight, although at the same time incredibly well muscled. Meet a group of Original Six players today, and even allowing for a bit of natural height loss that comes with aging, it’s striking how perfectly ordinary they seem in stature. Indeed, many have thickened up around the middle, and you have to remind yourself that many of these men played at weights twenty, thirty or more pounds lighter than what is standing in front of you.
The giants started showing up in force in the 1970s, with accelerated league expansion, and with the brawling made famous by the Broad Street Bullies of Philadelphia. At the same time, conditioning was instilled in the NHL game by the example of the great Soviet and other European teams. Players overall became faster, better skaters, with better endurance. They hit harder, and the ice surface wasn’t getting any bigger. Big centres came into fashion because they could outmuscle an opponent in a faceoff. A big man parked in the slot in front of the goaltender required another big man to move him out of the way. Soon it was an exception to the rule to have a defenseman less than six feet tall and two hundred pounds. Forwards were allowed a little more leeway in size, but the threshold climbed. In fact, it could be said that suddenly there was a threshold, because back in the Original Six, there had been all those light, nimble forwards getting the job done who couldn’t deliver on “five and double digit.”
The lowering of the NHL entry draft age to eighteen, which was completed just two years before Steve Yzerman became draft-eligible, meant that scouts were having to learn how to assess players like him not only before they had possibly mastered all useful skills, but before they had finished growing, both emotionally and physically. The emotional component is impossible to quantify, but on the physical side there’s plenty of pediatric data to draw on. By age sixteen, boys have pretty well finished growing, height-wise; they’ll typically gain, at most, another inch by age twenty as their torso catches up with the initial growth spurt of arms and legs. Scouts talk of a draft prospect “filling out” as he grows older. That’s because, even at eighteen, a typical young man hasn’t finished with skeletal growth. The final stage involves the broadening of the chest and shoulders, and this doesn’t usually finish until age twenty. Upper body strength, then, is one of the last thing a prospect adds to his playing package, and it’s often not completely in evidence at draft age. The average young man naturally will pack on another ten pounds after turning eighteen as the upper body finishes growing; an athlete who’s finished growing will bulk up even more when he hits the weight room. Scouts are accustomed to sizing up the sometimes gangly proportions of young prospects and struggling to predict how big a particular player might end up.
Assessing prospects during their growing years has another considerable hazard: players are growing at different rates at the same time that they’re developing their skills. Kids who go through their growth spurt early can skate all over their opponents when they’re still in midget competition. A prospect can look brilliant in Juniors because he’s a more physically mature package than his opponents, but once everyone is through growing by age 20, the gaps have closed and a player who looked positively electric at age seventeen or eighteen can turn out to be utterly ordinary in his early twenties.
“It’s all just a big guess,” Dale Derkatch, a scout with the Washington Capitals, says of his job. “You do your best.” He speaks with heartfelt experience about how difficult it is to judge the professional potential of a Junior player. “I’m in lots of meetings where a guy will say, `Look at that player and all the points he has.’ And I’ll say, “I’ll show you guys with tons of points in Juniors who didn’t make it in the NHL.”
As was the case during Yzerman’s—and his own—Junior years in the early 1980s, Derkatch and his fellow scouts today “are watching guys seventeen, eighteen years old. This season he’ll be great and have a ton of points, but we ask: is he still growing, not just physically, but in his skills, and emotionally? You’re looking years down the road with them. I’m hoping for the best for every kid. I really am. But sooner or later, you have to make your decisions.”
He agrees that size continues to be a prime concern in the prospect hunt. And the days of five-and-double-digit are gone. “Six feet and 200 are now the magic numbers.” But Derkatch notes how many of the gifted forwards today, Paul Kariya, Peter Forsberg, and yes, Steve Yzerman, don’t deliver on those magic numbers. There are a lot of great forwards around five-eleven, maybe six feet, and 180 pounds. “It’s true in some ways that you want a player to be bigger because he has to be able to handle the rigor of the NHL season, and handle the Derian Hatchers. But usually, the smaller guys have determination and heart. They play hard.”
Derkatch should know. He was one of the brightest talents ever to come out of Junior hockey in western Canada, and became draft-eligible the same year as Yzerman. He presented the NHL’s scouts with a profound dilemma. On the one hand, he was a dazzling playmaker and scorer, exceptionally gifted, who produced goals not by shoveling in rebounds, but by virtuoso rushing and passing displays. On March 26, 1982, he set a WHL post-season assist record by setting up seven goals in a 13-6 shootout with the Brandon Wheat Kings. He scored 84 goals that season, along with 95 assists, and was on another tear in 1982/83. But he was shy of that five-and-double-digit tripwire by four full inches, and weighed only 140 pounds. He was such an enigmatic talent that there were people who believed he would be chosen either in the first round, or not at all. Of all the players in the draft-eligible talent pool in 1983, Derkatch was the wildcard, the one who made predicting where Yzerman, Errey, and everyone else might end up so unusually difficult as the season unfolded.…