They retired Steve Yzerman’s number last night at Joe Louis Arena.

There is a reason hockey rinks play “O Fortuna” from Orf’s Carmina Burana in the third period of a critical hockey game. Hockey is an Arthurian game, with helmeted knights, suffering heroes and villainous enforcers, desperate contests of skill and grit between personalities as varied as Arthur’s knights. They even compete for a Grail: the same $50 trophy cup they’ve been fighting for since 1893 (new bands are added at the base to accommodate more names), a cup that is conceded to be the most difficult prize in professional sports.

... And Yzerman was our Arthur, the model of the fair and gentle knight whose prowess, generosity, courtesy, justice, honor, humility and honesty were the model for the men around him. He was made the youngest NHL captain in history at 21, and carried it with a solemn gentlemanliness that quietly won over even the most cynical players on opposing teams. He seemed to carry his virtue without priggishness and his skill as matter-of-factly as a master of kung-fu in a wuxia film. He made 692 goals... and 1,063 assists. Most of his farewell speech was taken up with praising others and disdaining honors for himself. He played 22 years for the same team (old-fashioned loyalty to a town that needed all the loyalty it could get) and a team that had been called “the Dead Things” made the playoffs 20 times out of those 22 years. The scars on his face (and the replacement crowns on his teeth) made him not disfigured but nobler somehow; one would rather be so scarred than wear an uneventful face,

I have no action shots here. It was fun to watch him play—the adjective heard most often was “what a pretty goal”—and my favorites were the goals he made while falling down, with one, two, three more tries at the puck before he finally spilled, indifferent to his own peril and the mayhem around him. But I most enjoyed watching Yzerman watch the game. He had a wolf’s pale stare, a picture of concentration that never seemed to waver. Even on the bench, talking to his teammates, he was watching the ice. They say the trait that marks genius isn’t necessarily IQ, but the ability to concentrate, to focus on a task without wavering more than ordinary people.

The ceremony showed the kind of affection that Mark Twain called for when he hoped to live in such a way that “even the undertaker is sorry we’re dead.” The five other players whose numbers are also retired were there in person or in spirit, two of them represented by a grandson and a son. There were many pleasures for the cognoscenti: Terrible Ted Lindsey was there, 81 years old and he could STILL kick your ass. One of my favorites, Joey Kocur was there— grinning like Jimmy Cagney and sitting next to Bob Probert behind the penalty box. The Little Professor, Larionov was there; you could hear the sighs from all the female English majors in the crowd. The most human moment came from Vladimir Konstantinov, whose body and brain were broken in a cruel, freakish accident, walked onto the ice with braces and canes instead of being pushed in a wheelchair, his teammates escorting him as if the honor was theirs. Or maybe it was the emotion on Scotty Bowman and Mike Illich's faces; you could see them thinking about the passage of time.

So much of our time on earth is spent having to struggle with the wounds made by cruel or thoughtless men, it is well and proper that we spend at least one night of the new year thinking about the traits we revere and honor and hope to achieve, sometimes.

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