As Steve Yzerman makes his return to the Detroit Red Wings as their new general manager, fans across the state are jubilant that No. 19 is back.
Yzerman is a hero to Wings’ fans for leading them to three Stanley Cups. He’s a hero to me for the way he treated a sick young girl from Fowlerville more than 20 years ago.
Here’s the story of Steve Yzerman and Emily Paquette that I wrote 13 years ago, just after Yzerman retired from the Red Wings as a player.
From the Livingston County Daily Press & Argus – July 9, 2006
As I listened to Steve Yzerman’s retirement press conference on Monday, I thought about the one time in my life when I got to meet him.
Back in 1997, our family’s babysitter was a wonderful girl from Fowlerville named Emily Paquette. Emily had been battling cancer for a number of years, and in early 1997, the cancer started to take a turn for the worse.
In addition to being just about the most cheerful person you’d ever want to meet, Emily was also the world’s biggest Detroit Red Wings fan. And her favorite player was Steve Yzerman. She wore his No. 19 jersey everywhere, she watched every single game on TV and she could tell you everything you ever wanted to know about the Red Wings’ captain.
I loved teasing her about this, too. I’d see her and say, “Emily! Can you believe what the Red Wings just did? They traded Yzerman for Patrick Roy!” She’d slug me on the arm and tell me it wasn’t the least bit funny to joke about such a thing.
Well, the Red Wings, I came to discover, are wonderful when it comes to helping sick kids. When the Wings found out about Emily’s struggle with cancer, and they heard that Stevie Y was her favorite player, they arranged for Yzerman to get in touch with her. And I’m not just talking about writing her a postcard and sending her an autographed picture. He actually called her up and said, “Hi, Emily. This is Steve Yzerman. How are you doing?”
From that point on, they became friends. Genuine friends. He would call Emily from time to time to see how she was doing, especially when she had to go into the hospital for an extended period of time, and he invited her down to see some games.
Steve Yzerman, one of the best hockey players in the world, was taking time out of his schedule to make life a little brighter for a sick girl from Fowlerville.
Which brings me to the time I had the chance to meet Yzerman in person. In May of 1997, the Red Wings were deep into the playoffs, and Emily wasn’t doing very well. Her cancer was getting worse, and she was having a very rough time of it.
When Yzerman heard about it, he invited Emily down to see one of the Wings’ playoff games against the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. He gave her two of his personal tickets, just a few rows behind one of the goals.
She needed someone to go to the game with her. She invited me.
That afternoon was one of the most special, memorable times of my life. Emily and I cheered for the Wings, we held up signs, and we had a great time watching Detroit win, 3-2, in triple overtime. Mostly, though, I had a great time watching Emily smile.
After the game, the people from the Wings invited us down to the locker room. We waited outside, and after a few minutes, Yzerman came out. He gave Emily a big hug and introduced himself to me. He also introduced us to his wife and daughter, who were there with him.
Then he pulled Emily aside and spent about five minutes talking to her alone. He told her to hang in there, to fight with everything she has, and to always keep a positive outlook. He gave her another hug and said, “I’ll talk to you soon!”
Emily didn’t stop grinning the rest of the day. Her body was incredibly weak because of the cancer, but she mustered enough energy to put on the biggest smile I’ve ever seen on a girl.
A couple of weeks later, Emily passed away. Steve Yzerman was one of the last people to call her in the hospital, and in her casket, she wore a No. 19 jersey. Soon after that, with Emily cheering them on from above, the Wings won the Stanley Cup.
I was always a pretty big Yzerman fan before that day, but from that point on, he grew tremendously in my eyes.
They say that the real mark of a man is how he treats other people. Steve Yzerman didn’t have to be nice to a sick girl from Fowlerville named Emily Paquette, but he was. He made her feel special and loved, and he gave her a reason to smile during her most painful times.
Like most Red Wings fans, I was sad to see Yzerman officially call it quits last week. It’s the end of an era for one of the greatest sports icons this state will ever see. Yzerman will take his place as one of the most beloved sports stars in Detroit history. We’ll always remember the championships, the goals, the flashy moves and the way in which he did everything with class.
I’ll remember that he made my friend Emily smile, at a time when she most needed a smile. For that, he’ll always be a hero.