After a Hall of Fame career as captain of the Red Wings, Thursday night marked the first time Steve Yzerman would face Detroit in any capacity. While most players or GMs with 27 years working in the same organization might dismiss any misty-eyed notions, Yzerman admitted Thursday that he didn't quite know what to expect as far as his own emotions were concerned when new team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, hosted the team he'd called his own since turning pro in 1983.
"We'll see when the game gets under way," Yzerman said on "The NHL Hour With Gary Bettman" prior to Thursday night's game at the St. Pete Times Forum. "I thought long and hard for weeks leading up to ultimately meeting with [Lightning owner Jeff Vinik] and talking about the position, and it was a difficult decision to eventually leave. But I felt like this is something I know I wanted to do. I want to pursue this and whether it's now or at some point I'm going to have to leave the organization to do that."
Despite his obvious connection to the Red Wings, Yzerman tried to downplay the personal significance for himself, instead focusing on the critical eye he'll need to put on the action as his Lightning faced a significant test in playing Central Division-leading Detroit. The Red Wings and Lightning sit second overall in their respective conferences, and the Bolts' GM expected the showdown to serve as a valuable litmus test for how his young team performed against several of the NHL's established superstars.
"I don't know that it's that emotional," Yzerman said. "For me, I think, and everybody would agree, Detroit's one of the top teams in the League. I want to see how our team plays against (Pavel) Datsyuk, who's one of the best all-around forwards in the League, (Nicklas) Lidstrom one of the best all-around defensemen. It's a good game for me to assess my team and our players, so I'm very curious to see how the game goes. I'm a bit more involved in thinking about the game itself."
Despite the subtle and humility with which Yzerman approached the game Thursday, however, Phil Esposito, who guest-hosted the show with Bettman as it was broadcast from the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, was quick to credit Yzerman, as well as Vinik, with making the wholesale changes necessary to turn the Lightning into a model franchise.
In the first full season for both Vinik and Yzerman with the organization, the Lightning have experienced a striking turnaround. After missing the postseason for three consecutive seasons, Tampa Bay appears a lock to end the drought and is challenging Philadelphia for the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
"I learned something very valuable from this whole experience with Jeff Vinik coming in here. It starts at the top," Esposito said. "Stevie Yzerman has done such a fabulous job in such a short time with this team.
Yzerman's job has been made somewhat easier by some of Tampa Bay's recent draft picks, namely franchise defenseman Victor Hedman and NHL scoring leader Steven Stamkos. But a number of the four-time Stanley Cup champion's decisions have had a dramatic influence on the team's performance this season, most prominently the hiring of coach Guy Boucher, who may be the frontrunner for this season's Jack Adams award as the League's top coach.
It's a profound change of direction for the franchise -- one that Esposito, who Bettman called "The father of hockey in Tampa Bay" when he came on the show Thursday, couldn't be happier with.
"I'm just absolutely thrilled by what I've seen down here," Esposito said. "When you've got really good ownership and leadership, even the Zamboni driver does a better job."