DETROIT – He arrived in town with a surname that’s difficult to pronounce. But it wasn’t long after Paul Ysebaert was traded to Detroit, 20 years ago, that he became a household name.
Red Wings’ fans quickly fell in love with the hard-working, swift skating Ysebaert (pronounced EYE-za-bart), who brought an uncanny knack for scoring one-timer goals for a team that was already an offensive juggernaut before he arrived from the New Jersey Devils.
But life couldn’t get much better back then for Ysebaert, who grew-up about 90-minutes northeast of Detroit on the Canadian side of the St. Clair River, and now he was adored by legions of Wings’ fans.
The sharpshooting left wing quickly earned the affection of Mickey Redmond, a former 50-goal scorer and the Wings’ color analyst on local TV broadcasts for the last 25-plus seasons.
“It was on a West Coast trip and I was on a bit of a roll, scoring some one-timer goals, and Mickey Redmond said it just came out of his mouth,” said Ysebaert, of his nickname. “He said, ‘Yeah, that’s another rocket from the Rocket Man,’ And it ended up sticking.”
It stuck alright.
For two seasons, whenever Ysebaert scored a goal at home, Elton John’s smash hit, “Rocket Man” blared over the PA system at Joe Louis Arena.
“At first, it was like ‘Holy crow’, but every time after that it was, ‘Let’s hear that song again!’ ” Ysebaert said. “The guys in the locker room wouldn’t let me forget it, either, so it kind of gave me incentive to score more.”
Twenty years later, Ysebaert hopes that he can get Wings’ fans to sing along this New Year’s Eve when he suits up for the Red Wings-Maple Leafs Alumni Showdown doubleheader during the SiriusXM Hockeytown Winter Festival at Comerica Park.
“It certainly is an honor,” Ysebaert said. “With both franchises you could fill these games with all Hall-of-Famers if you wanted to, if they were all winning to and could skate.”
The Wings announced Thursday that Ysebaert, center Garry Unger and forwards Petr Klima and Dallas Drake have been added to the Dec. 31 games, boasting the Wings’ alumni roster to 30 players. Meanwhile, the Leafs announced this week that four hall-of-famers – Frank Mahovlich, Joe Nieuwendyk, Börje Salming and Mats Sundin – will join their lineup for the New Year’s Eve games.
Besides being an offensive weapon during his tenure with the Wings, the former AHL scoring leader and MVP was a responsible defensive asset playing mainly on a line with Shawn Burr and Sergei Fedorov.
Yzebaert became the first player in Wings’ history to lead the NHL in plus/minus rating, registering a plus-44 in 79 games during the 1991-92 campaign.
“The games back then you would be back-and-forth against some high-powered teams,” he said. “It seemed like you wouldn’t have a whistle for five-minutes and the games would be 6-5 and 7-6, that kind of deal. It was good flowing hockey back then.”
The fans liked it as well, and they reciprocated by filling The Joe with capacity crowds.
“The three years that I was there we had a team that everyone believed we were contenders,” Ysebaert said. “That place was buzzing every, every game. I don’t care who you were playing. You couldn’t get tickets and I had to beg, borrow and steal to get tickets for anybody that wanted them. It was even hard to get scalper tickets back then.
“Just super memories of the team, and super memories of the guys that I played with.”
However, the memory that Ysebaert would most like to forget is the one that many of friends continue to remind him of.
It was May 1, 1993. Nikolai Borschevsky’s heartbreaking overtime goal for the Maple Leafs bounced the Wings out of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Ysebaert didn’t know it then, but it was his final game in a Wings’ sweater.
“It was unbelievable and we still talk about it still today,” he said. “They even play it on NHL Classics and as soon as that comes on I’ll get a dozen texts saying, ‘Your game is on’ and they don’t even have to name the game, I know what game is it.
“That little tap in. … We had over 300 goals sitting on the bench when they scored that damn goal. That was the year everybody thought we had a really good shot at making a big run.”
Ysebaert finished his tenure in Detroit by scoring 84 goals and 170 points in 120 games. He registered 30-goal seasons twice, including his last with the Wings in 1992-93 – the last time a Detroit team produced five 30-plus goal scorers in a single season.
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