“I’m in it to win it like Yzerman…”
– Kid Rock, Detroit recording artist
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – The meeting was Friday, before an informal skate. Steve Yzerman stood before his team in a hotel conference room, and in classic Stevie Y style, he spoke to his coaches, scouts and players as he used to speak to his teammates. With a few words, he set the tone.
This was only a prospects tournament, not even training camp yet. But this was the first time anyone would wear the Tampa Bay Lightning logo in competition under Yzerman’s watch as general manager. He talked about expecting excellence in all areas, making a top-to-bottom commitment to hard work and professionalism.
“It’s a process, and we’re going to start it right here,” said Yzerman later. “You don’t just say, ‘Hey, we’re here to win’ and win. You’ve got to do things the right way.”
This was an appropriate place to start.
There is the homecoming angle, of course. Yzerman used to visit this resort area, dubbed Hockeytown North, for training camp when he was a player and front-office apprentice with the Detroit Red Wings. He has tried to keep a low profile, but it has been difficult. As he walked through the hallway between rinks – moving briskly, head down, trying to blend in – the autograph hounds spotted him easily.
Twenty-seven years. That’s how long Yzerman spent with the Red Wings, virtually his entire adult life. He grew up as a person and grew into a legend in Detroit, winning three Stanley Cups as the captain and another as an executive. He was immortalized on the side of a building and celebrated in a Kid Rock song. Not only does his No. 19 now hang in the rafters at Joe Louis Arena, but the street outside is named after him. So is the Wings’ 19-game season-ticket plan.
Yzerman didn’t go all misty-eyed on Sunday night when his new team beat his old team, 4-3, after an epic 16-round shootout. He sat on the opposite corner of the arena from the Wings’ brass, as physically far away from his former colleagues as possible, and said he focused on his own players. But he did watch the Wings practice on Saturday morning, and the scene couldn’t help but color his thoughts.
“I looked out and thought, ‘My god, that red and white is a beautiful jersey,’ ” Yzerman said. “I can really appreciate it, and I enjoyed watching. I know a lot of those kids over there. But I’ve got a lot of responsibility. It’s a responsibility I want, and I have to do a good job here.”
Which brings us to the hockey angle. When Jay Feaster became the Lightning’s general manager in 2002, one of his priorities was going to Traverse City. He said it was important for “the competition and the credibility,” rubbing elbows at a tournament run by the Wings, the NHL’s model franchise. After he resigned in ’08, the Bolts stopped coming. But now they have new ownership and new management, and when a team dropped out of the eight-team tournament this year, the Wings asked Yzerman if the Lightning wanted to return.
“I think it’s significant that now Jeff Vinik takes over the team, Steve Yzerman’s in there, and where are the Tampa Bay Lightning going for their rookie tournament? They’re going back to Traverse City,” said Feaster, now assistant GM of the Calgary Flames. “I think Steve is hitting on all the right cylinders. I do.”
Feaster thinks Yzerman has made so many good moves already in one short summer – from signing Martin St. Louis(notes) to an extension to parting with Andrej Meszaros(notes) and his $4 million cap hit – that the Lightning suddenly is a playoff contender again. A lot of people around the NHL agree. But Yzerman shrugs it off. As he walked into the Hockey Hall of Fame for the World Hockey Summit last month, someone congratulated him on his off-season. He responded dryly: “Yeah, we’re undefeated.”
That’s Yzerman. And if he’s going to succeed with the Lightning, it will be because he brings the same qualities to the GM job that he did so famously to his captaincy – leadership, first and foremost. Asked what “the right way” meant to him, Yzerman talked about having a passion for the sport, doing what it takes, “being part of an organization that everybody’s in it to…”
He paused for a split-second.
“… to, to, be successful and to win, and again, having that expectation and the drive to be good,” he continued. “We’re trying to set a standard and a level of expectation that everyone’s going to have to meet to stay in the organization.”
Wait. What was that?
Yzerman wasn’t about to say “in it to win it,” was he?
“No,” Yzerman said, smiling.
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This has been a long time coming. Jimmy Devellano, the Red Wings’ senior vice-president, remembers taking Yzerman and Lane Lambert to dinner one night. They went to Carl’s Chop House in Detroit. It was about a year after Devellano selected Yzerman in the first round (fourth overall) and Lambert in the second round of the 1983 NHL draft. Yzerman was 19.
“I said, ‘Well, in about 20 years, Steve, you can take my job. You can be the general manager. And Lane, you can be the head coach,’ ” Devellano said. “So it started a long, long time ago. It really, really did.”
Devellano was joking that night. But before long, the talk was serious. When Ken Holland became the Wings’ general manager in 1997, there already was a clause in Yzerman’s contract about a future front-office job. Toward the end of Yzerman’s playing career, he took a more active role in his contract negotiations, to the point where his agent was only an advisor. Yzerman and Holland often discussed the next step.
After Yzerman retired as a player in 2006, the Wings named him a vice-president. They told him he could be as involved as he wanted to be. His role was undefined, allowing him to sit back and observe how the Wings went about their business. He spent four years sitting in on meetings, asking questions, giving his input. Dave Lewis, the former Wings player and coach, used to call Detroit “the Harvard of hockey.” This was like going to college.
The final exam was the Olympics. After leading Team Canada to gold and silver medals at the 2007 and ’08 world championships, respectively, Yzerman was executive director as his country won gold this year in Vancouver.
Leaving the Wings was difficult. But Yzerman wasn’t going to replace Holland, and when the Lightning approached him – with a motivated owner giving him a five-year contract, allowing him to build the team his way – Yzerman said “that opportunity was one I didn’t want to pass on.”
“He was probably ready a year or two earlier, but the longer you wait, the more information you gather, the more prepared you’re going to be,” Holland said. “He’s more than prepared.”
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It already is apparent how Yzerman’s personality and the lessons he has learned apply to the Lightning. The dynamic isn’t much different than it was in Detroit when Yzerman was a player. He has a presence that commands respect.
“Brett Hull would be the jokester in our room,” said longtime NHLer Steve Thomas, who finished his career with the Wings in 2003-04 and has joined the Lightning in player development. “He’d be cracking jokes off. But then as soon as Stevie walked in the room, he changed.”
“When the guy’s talking,” said Connolly, the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft, “you be quiet and listen and do what he says.”
Holland is a methodical decision-maker. So is Yzerman. When Team Canada finalized its Olympic roster, the brass spent six hours discussing the final two or three players. It was in Saskatoon, Sask., at the world junior championships, with the Canadian media outside the door. At midnight, with an announcement to come on live television the next morning, everyone was antsy for Yzerman to make the final call. He still wanted to sleep on it.
“He said, ‘I can’t do it. I just want to make sure I’m 100 percent,’ ” said Bob Nicholson, president of Hockey Canada. “He’s not going to just make a decision to make it.”
After he joined the Lightning, Yzerman went to Norfolk, Va., to see his American Hockey League affiliate first-hand. He toured the arena, as you would expect. But he also toured the buses. The Admirals drive everywhere, and their closest trips are to Hershey, Pa., and Charlotte, N.C., each about six hours away. Yzerman wanted to see how his minor-leaguers would fare on the road.
“If he was going to buy his wife a gift, he would go through the pros and cons of it,” Thomas said. “If it was a diamond, he would figure out where that diamond was harvested. He’s very thorough.”
One of Holland’s strengths is that he recognizes his weaknesses. He can’t be everywhere and know everything. He is surrounded by talented people, like assistant GM Jim Nill and the scouting staff, and trusts them to do their jobs and provide him with the information to make smart decisions. Yzerman knows he needs to do the same.
“There’s too much to do,” Yzerman said. “You need help. My thought is to bring in the best possible people, people I want to work with, and people who will do a very good job in the role they’re given.”
Yzerman reached into his network to hire Pat Verbeek from the Wings to be his pro scouting director and Al Murray from Hockey Canada to be his amateur scouting director. He poached two up-and-comers from the Montreal Canadiens organization: coach Guy Boucher and assistant GM Julien BriseBois.
“I think he understands what his strengths are, and he understands some of his weaknesses,” Verbeek said. “He doesn’t have many, in my opinion. And he’s filled those positions that he thought might not be his best strength, and some of the things he’s really good at, he’s taken them head-on.”
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None of this should suggest that Yzerman is a sure thing. Just because a Hall of Famer wins gold as Team Canada’s executive director doesn’t mean he will be golden as a coach or executive in the NHL. Wayne Gretzky can tell you that.
As a player, Yzerman could hop over the boards when things weren’t going well. He could effect immediate change. He could will his team to win. Now he will be up in the box, far removed from the action. Nicholson said at crunch time in the Olympics, Yzerman, quiet by nature, would become even quieter.
It is one thing to agonize over the bottom of an Olympic roster, when you’re picking from a talent pool of Canada’s best players and there is no salary cap to consider. It is quite another task to build an NHL organization.
It took many years for the Wings to create the support structure that surrounds Holland. As well-regarded as Yzerman’s hires might be, many of them are unproven in their roles – just as he is.
And it has been many years since Yzerman has known much but sellouts and success. How is he going to react if Tampa’s building isn’t full and the team is struggling? Is it going to drive him nuts when his BlackBerry is buzzing 24 hours a day, seven days a week?
“It takes a year or two to start to find the people that you want and to start to build the program that you want,” Holland said. “It takes time. He’s going to be a way better manager next year than he is this year, and he’s going to be a way better manager in two years…It’s the same as a player. You need that experience.”
Yzerman insists he knows what he’s getting into. He learned from the best, and he relishes the challenge.
“The general manager’s role, I believe, is to look at the big picture and make sure I stick with what I want to do and run this thing the way I want to run it,” Yzerman said. “I believe we’re going to get to where I want to go, but it’s not going to be easy and I don’t have a quicker approach than anybody else…You’ve got to develop it, so I understand that. You have to be patient.”
Yzerman is in it for the long run.
And, yes, you better believe he’s in it to win it.