For Dylan Larkin, this is only the beginning. Or maybe the end of the beginning, and the start of what's next. The beginning takes him back to 2002, to Woodward Avenue, to skipping school to watch Detroit's third Stanley Cup parade in six years. Larkin was five years old. The Wings were at the peak of their powers.
"Being in school, my favorite time of the year was during the playoffs because we got to wear hockey jerseys. We got extra credit if we wore Red Wings gear to school," Larkin said Wednesday. "I remember 2002, I got to miss school to come see the parade on Woodward."
Steve Yzerman was the captain of that team, the one who got to lift the Cup to 20,000 fans at the Joe. He passed the Cup to his teammates and ultimately passed the 'C' to Nicklas Lidstrom, who later passed it on to Henrik Zetterberg. Now Yzerman's passing it on to Larkin, in hopes that one day Larkin might be passing off the Cup.
There was no ceremony to announce Larkin as captain on Wednesday, no grand introduction like there was for Zetterberg in 2012 or Lidstrom in 2006 or even Yzerman in 1986. There was just a conversation between Yzerman and Larkin on Tuesday, and a Tweet the day after that prompted a couple press conferences via Zoom. It was a suitably muted celebration for an organization that recently hasn't had much to celebrate.
"I didn’t need a big announcement or anything," Larkin said. "It was a meeting with Steve. He asked me if I was willing to take on the responsibility, and I said absolutely. He felt I was ready, I feel like I’m ready. It was just a great conversation and a great feeling when he asked. We both smiled, through the masks."
In the public glare, Larkin has tried to mask his emotions. But his frustration with losing has been increasingly evident on the ice, like when he slams his stick against the glass. Off the ice, it looks more like disappointment, embarrassment, even guilt. He shakes his head, stares beyond the cameras and searches for new answers to the same old questions. He almost seems to apologize.
The 24-year-old always dreamed of playing for the Red Wings, never dreamed that it would be like this. As his reputation has risen, the team has sunk. (He also never had the gall to fantasize himself as captain.) He's desperate to change that, to bring the Wings back where they belong. He talked about it frequently last season with Yzerman, who was once charged with the same challenge. Yzerman felt Larkin's fire.
"He has a burning desire to be successful here," Yzerman said Wednesday.
And now an even deeper duty to deliver. He takes the torch from a franchise legend after one of the worst seasons in franchise history.
"It was a hard year," Larkin said. "It was a year where you had to look in the mirror a lot and you had to find your passion and your love for the game in the toughest time. That helped me realize what I want to be, what kind of player and teammate I want to be. I'll tell you, I don’t want to be answering those questions much longer."
As Larkin and Yzerman spoke on Tuesday, Yzerman didn't have much to offer in the way of advice. He wants Larkin to follow his own instincts. After all, his instincts are what got him here. But Yzerman did tell Larkin this: Henrik was different than Nick and Nick was different than me and you're going to be different than all of us.
"Which is a good thing," Larkin said. "We all lead in different ways, so just be myself."
Larkin doesn't need to change to change the Wings' fortunes, because talent and leadership will change them in time. The team has leaned on Larkin for both, and Larkin continues to find more of both to give. He's been Detroit's best player for the past three seasons and its de facto captain for the past two. The 'C' on his jersey merely confirms what we already knew.
"In order to lead people, you have to have the respect of those that you’re leading," said Jeff Blashill. "There’s no doubt Dylan has the respect of every person in that room, players, coaches, staff, because of who he is. Because of his work ethic, because of his competitiveness, how much he wants to win, how much he wants this organization to get back to the top, because of his care for others, how he treats people, his selflessness. He just has the ultimate respect of every guy in that room."
It reads like a fairytale, the story of Larkin's life. That's probably what it was until his second season with the Wings, until his favorite team collapsed and Larkin was part of the rubble. It's been cold, hard reality ever since, a $30 million payday notwithstanding. His reality doesn't change with his captaincy, because his captaincy isn't the conclusion to a story that's just getting good.
"I never dreamt it to be like this," Larkin said. "I just tried to be myself every day and had a great support system and great teammates who allowed me to do that. It continues. It doesn’t stop here. It doesn’t change necessarily who I am, just makes me more responsible and allows me to voice my opinion to the guys. It’s hard to put into words. This means so much to me."