"You know, like . . ."
"I don't think we should make any bigger deal than necessary about the game," he continued. "I'm not the coach standing behind the bench, and obviously I'm not a player playing in the game."
No, Steve Yzerman is not going to wax poetic about Thursday night. He wouldn't be Steve Yzerman if he did. He's the general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning now, and as he faces his former team for the first time, he's going to look at the Detroit Red Wings as a good test for his club, not as a reminder of his 27 years with the team, his Stanley Cups, his Hall of Fame career. He said he wants to "take the emotion out of it" and not "spend a lot of time thinking about the obvious."
But the obvious is, well, obvious. Yzerman remains an icon in Detroit, arguably the most beloved sports figure in the history of a passionate sports town. His No. 19 hangs in the rafters at Joe Louis Arena. The road outside is named for him. And this is not like the little exhibition at the Wings' prospects tournament in September in Traverse City, Mich., where Yzerman sat on the opposite side of the rink from his former colleagues and watched his kids beat their kids 4-3 after a 16-round shootout. This is the real thing, a real game between two first-place teams, each with 74 points in the standings.
"I want to beat him," laughed Wings general manager Ken Holland, "and I think he wants to beat us. I think that's why we accomplish what we accomplish. But obviously it's going to be a bit of a surreal night."
As a player, Yzerman played down just about everything – from milestones and records, to wins and losses in the regular season and the playoffs. Rarely was anything a big deal. Rarely was he ready to judge anything until all was said and done. He's doing the same thing now as a general manager. He even plays down his accomplishments, saying what he achieved as a player has no bearing either way on whether he will be a successful executive.
He's right. It doesn't. Holland appeared in only four NHL games and is now perhaps the best GM in the league. Another of Yzerman's mentors, Wings senior vice-president Jimmy Devellano, never really played the game but rose from volunteer scout to Hall of Fame builder. Great players have had mixed results in coaching and front-office roles.
But while what Yzerman accomplished as a player might not matter in his new job, how he accomplished it does. The qualities that, combined with his talent, helped make him a great player are the same qualities he possesses now as a GM – high standards, hard work, hockey sense, even keel, focus, leadership – and he is applying the lessons he learned in his 23 years as a player and four as vice-president with the Wings.
"I've very proud of him. They've done a terrific job," said Devellano, who has a home south of Tampa and often scouts Lightning games. "If you ask Stevie – I don't know whether he would tell you this – I think they've exceeded expectations."
Yzerman wouldn't tell you that, of course. He said entering the season the Bolts' goal was to make the playoffs, and he said this week they're still worried only about making the playoffs, even though they are leading the Southeast Division and sit second in the Eastern Conference. Yeah, he's happy through 57 games, but he'll see after the season.
And that's the short term.
The long term?
"I'm just barely halfway through my first year," said Yzerman, who signed a five-year contract in May. "It'd take a couple years here to figure out if I really know what I'm doing or not."
True. Still, typical Steve.
The Wings aren't worried. Devellano, who drafted Yzerman fourth overall in 1983 and has watched over him since he was 18, still counsels him over occasional cups of coffee. Holland, who gave Yzerman his front-office apprenticeship after his playing career ended in 2006, still talks and texts with him often. Jim Nill, who played with Yzerman and worked with him as the Wings' assistant GM, ran into him at a Michigan-Michigan State college game at the Joe during the all-star break. They talked as they always had, just not about specific plans like they used to.
Yzerman isn't trying to turn Tampa into Detroit. "I don't necessarily sit there and think, 'OK, what would Kenny do in this situation?' " he said. But he learned from Holland and still asks him for advice. He is the same type of patient, methodical thinker Holland is, and he values the same type of skilled, competitive player Holland does.
And after inheriting talented players such as Steven Stamkos(notes), Martin St. Louis(notes), Vincent Lecavalier(notes) and Victor Hedman(notes), Yzerman has made several smart moves – from unloading money in the offseason, to hiring up-and-coming coach Guy Boucher, to acquiring veteran goaltender Dwayne Roloson(notes) on Jan. 1.
"I think he's done a great job," Nill said. "I think the biggest thing is just the credibility for the players. They had a tough two or three years there with ownership and coaching stability and that, and all of a sudden now, Steve Yzerman's the leader, the general manager of the team. It brings some credibility. Players know that their goal is to win games."
A game against the Wings is no different. "I don't look at it as working for the enemy by any means," Yzerman said. "But obviously we're competing for the same players and on Thursday night competing for two points."
It's a good thing it's only one game and that it's in Tampa, not Detroit, where Yzerman's family still lives and his fans still wear his sweater proudly. Devellano pointed out that fact as soon as Yzerman left the Wings, and again the other day.
"We only meet them once out of 82 games, as you know, because of the way the schedule is, so we're kind of pleased about that," Devellano laughed. "We're all friends. We like one another. It's hard to pull against friends. I've been pulling for Tampa all year, obviously. I'm a season-ticket holder actually up there. I bought season tickets. So I pull for them. But this will be one night I won't be able to. I hope we win 1-0."
Holland started to echo Devellano, saying: "When the game is over, we don't have anything to do with him unless we meet him in the finals." Then he thought about that and smiled.
"I hope we play him again," Holland said.
- Steve Yzerman