It was early in the rookie teenager’s first NHL season.
He was all of 18 years old, the age where high school graduation is either on the agenda or still a fresh memory.
Veteran Red Wings players dressed around him inside the Joe Louis Arena locker room, talking to reporters following a win, which was a lot more rare in those days than it is today.
Left wing sniper John Ogrodnick leaned back in front of his stall, his hands clasped around a knee, engaging the microphones and cameras after helping lead the team to victory on that October evening in 1983.
Thirty-five year-old defenseman Brad Park ambled up to a table and drew some water from a large cooler, a towel wrapped around his waist.
Other players milled about, laughing and teasing each other. Goalie Ed Mio, who got the win that night, rubbed mousse into his hair as he bantered with reporters and some joking teammates.
The mood was light. Players were tired, as they are after very game, but it was a good kind of tired. Victories will do that.
Covering the game as a cub reporter for the Michigan Daily, I wedged myself between the cameramen and scribes. There was a moment when I tried to get out of someone’s way and took a couple of steps backward.
I stepped on someone’s foot.
I immediately turned around to apologize.
“It’s OK,” the voice of my victim said, barely above a whisper.
I recognized the youthful face, free of the stubble, scars and lines that pocked the mugs of his more veteran teammates.
It was that kid rookie with the funny last name.
WHY-zerman? EE-zer-man? Something like that.
I was done listening to Ogrodnick so I flipped the page of my notepad and decided to talk to the kid, mainly because nobody else was.
I asked a couple of questions, long since forgotten from the banks of my 52 year-old memory.
What I do remember, however, is that I had to strain to hear his answers. I also recall that he seemed almost embarrassed that I wanted to talk to him to begin with.
He was 18 and in his second week in the NHL.
Three years later I was directing Steve Yzerman in a TV commercial. I told him about our first encounter in 1983.
He smiled sheepishly.
“My dad always told me that the less you talk, the less people will realize that you have nothing to say,” he said, chuckling. Yzerman’s father had been a respected politician in Ottawa.
Yzerman, at that time, was the 21 year-old boy captain of the Red Wings, the youngest player to wear the “C” in franchise history. Coach Jacques Demers named Yzerman his captain not long after agreeing to coach the Red Wings in the summer of 1986.
For Demers, the move was a no-brainer, even though the roster was dotted with players much more steeped in NHL experience.
Cynics wondered when Demers would come to his senses and name a more veteran captain.
Yzerman remained captain until he hung up his skates in 2006.
No teenager has made the Red Wings roster out of training camp since Yzerman did it in 1983 as the fourth overall pick in that summer’s NHL draft.
That streak might come to an end.
Dylan Larkin is 19 years old, can skate like the wind, has immense hockey sense and to hear observers tell it, the kid has ice vision so impressive that he must have eyes in the back of his head.
New Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill is giving Larkin, the team’s first round pick (15th overall) in 2014, every chance to show off his mad hockey skills.
Blashill has been putting Larkin, a center, on a line with wingers Gustav Nyquist and Justin Abdelkader in recent exhibition games.
That’s not what you do if you’re thinking of sending Larkin to the minors to start the season.
And with fellow centers Pavel Datsyk and Darren Helm on the mend and not ready to be in the lineup for Opening Night next Friday, this just may be Larkin’s time. Already.
The thing about the NHL is that pretty much every front line forward in the league was, at some point in his hockey life, a dominating player, somewhere.
But not every player dominated his competition like Larkin has.
In 2013, the Waterford-born Larkin played 26 games for the United States National U-18 team. In those 26 games, he registered 17 goals and 9 assists. In 2014, his freshman year at the University of Michigan, he tallied 15 goals and 32 assists in 35 games. He also got his first taste of professional hockey, being sent to play with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins during their playoff last spring. In his six game sample, he scored three goals and two assists.
This exhibition season with the Red Wings, Larkin scored three goals in his first four games. One of them, in Pittsburgh, was a beauty.
Larkin used his blazing speed to beat the Penguins defenseman around the outside, then he swooped in on the goaltender and scored on the blocker side.
There’s also some great irony when it comes to Dylan Larkin—a direct connection to Yzerman, no less.
Larkin hails from Waterford, and when the Red Wings traipsed to the NHL draft in Montreal in 1983, they had their eye on another Waterford kid, Pat LaFontaine.
The fans wanted the local hero LaFontaine, also a center. Red Wings GM Jimmy Devellano wanted LaFontaine. Badly.
But three teams picked ahead of Detroit.
The first, the Minnesota North Stars, selected Brian Lawton. The second, the Hartford Whalers, picked Sylvain Turgeon. The New York Islanders, despite being the four-time defending Stanley Cup champions, held the third overall pick thanks to a trade.
The Islanders, Devellano’s old team, slugged their former executive in the gut by picking Pat LaFontaine.
So Jimmy D “settled” for Steve Yzerman, center for the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League.
So here’s Dylan Larkin, from Waterford, threatening to make the Red Wings roster out of training camp as a teenager, the first player to do so since Steve Yzerman, who the Red Wings settled for after the Waterford kid, Pat LaFontaine, was taken ahead of them in the 1983 draft.
Funny how things work out sometimes, eh?
Larkin, not as shy as Yzerman was (and still is), has made no bones about it. His intention is to make the Red Wings. Right now. He’s trying to avoid a bus ticket to Grand Rapids at all costs.
“It is what I have been waiting for and I’m ready for it,” Larkin said about playing in the NHL, sooner rather than later.
“I think I’ll be a dominant player all over the ice,” Larkin continued. “I’ll be a player than can play against the other team’s top line and can still produce offense. It might take a while, but it does for everyone to become a dominant player.”
You never heard Steve Yzerman talk about himself in that manner at age 19—and Yzerman never really did, not even after he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, for goodness sakes.
Coach Blashill is helping by letting the teenager show off his wares against other top-line NHL players in the pre-season matches, and Larkin has been responding.
GM Kenny Holland has said that there’s no rush in getting Larkin to the NHL.
But that was before training camp and the exhibition schedule began.
Sometimes if a kid has it, he has it. Sometimes there really is no need for him to play in the minors, where even at age 19 he would be a man among boys.
They talk a lot around Hockeytown about the Red Wings’ streak of 24 straight playoff appearances.
Here’s one streak that might come to an end: the 32 years between teenagers making the Red Wings out of training camp.