Hockey Hall-of-Famer Steve Yzerman experienced a lot throughout his 22-year career with the Detroit Red Wings, and in just the past two years, has applied that knowledge to his role as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Although he still admits there is a lot to not only learn, but accomplish as well, Yzerman has transformed the Lightning organization from a hockey standpoint, laying a strong foundation for success both in the present and the future.
Recently, Yzerman sat down with TampaBayLightning.com in this week’s edition of Quick Strikes to discuss his transition into management, the progress that has been made thus far, and the ins and outs of his position.
How crucial was your time in the Red Wings front office in terms of laying down a foundation for yourself to be successful as general manager of the Lightning?
It was extremely important. For one, I was learning from very successful people with a lot of experience who had been in the game a long time and who had built an organization to be perennially successful. I got a chance to sit back and watch them throughout the course of four seasons, so it was really important for me. Going into retirement as a player, we have all these ideas about how an organization should be run, and in that four-year period, I came to realize it’s a difficult job and you learn a lot about running a team. Not only was it important, but it was a lot of fun doing it as well. I enjoyed it.
When you retired, what was it about the position of general manager that was more attractive to you rather than becoming a coach or a scout?
For whatever reason, I was always more inclined to go into the management side instead of coaching. I just like the concept of building something, and I think that’s more of what a manager does, whether it be a scouting staff, a roster, or a coaching staff. To me it was an even greater challenge. I was more attracted to that. Coaching is exciting, but I always wanted to steer more towards management.
Having both played and now managed in the NHL, how much do you empathize with some of the organization’s prospects who are trying to make it to the NHL themselves?
You know, in my role as a manager now, you realize how difficult it is for players to get there. All players want to get there [to the NHL] today. They get drafted, they want to play, and they feel they’re ready to play. The biggest thing we try to teach the young guys is to continue to be patient and to work through the process. If we’re doing that correctly, we want these kids to play when they’re ready to play and be a full-time NHLer. You only have 23 spots on your roster, usually 14 forwards, two goaltenders and seven defensemen, and sometimes you have to try and find a spot for some guys and it just takes time. I didn’t play in the minors as a player, but I went through the system and I went through a lot in the NHL, so I can relate to the players. I like to think I know what they’re thinking when I come down after a game, good or bad, and I like to think I know what’s going through their mind and I understand. So, I think I can offer some advice at times to the players to help them get through certain situations and better prepare them for the NHL.
Looking back on your two years as Lightning general manager, how has the position defied some of your expectations you had of the role when you first took the job?
I think I had a good understanding of what the job was and the responsibilities, but until you’re actually there, you learn that you have to make decisions at a certain time and use all the information you can gather, make your decision and move on. Some of them work out, some don’t, but you can’t go back on them. Again, I’ve tried to surround myself with a lot of good people, and let them do their job but at the same time give me a lot of good advice. I have to listen to everybody, but then make the decisions I’m responsible for and make good educated decisions.
In what ways has your philosophy as general manager been influenced by your playing career, which spanned over 20 years and beyond 1,000 NHL games?
My career was up and down. Over 22 years I experienced a lot, both positively and the disappointments as well, and I learned from both. I think as a manager I recognize how difficult it is to win and know that you’re going to be successful at times, but not to get too carried away with it. You’re also going to be let down and disappointed at times and things aren’t always going to work, but if you stay the course, and believe in what you’re doing and do things for the right reasons, then I believe eventually you’ll get there and hopefully sooner than later.
How difficult is it to balance your own competitive nature, while at the same time realizing that it takes time and patience to build a winning product on the ice?
I think I have a good understanding of that. We all want to win every night and win the Stanley Cup every year. We expect that – players, management, coaches, fans – we all want that, but it takes patience and it takes time. So for me, as a manager, I look at one game at a time and try to figure out how to win that. Then the next night we’ll figure out how to win that one. The players are trained to play hard every night and get ready for the next game. Obviously we want to win too as management, but we like to think there is a bigger overall picture for the season, for the next season and moving forward, so every decision you make is about what’s right for now and for your future as well.
You were in Detroit for your entire career. What did you find was the key to performing at a high level night in and night out?
You get better at it the longer you play in the league. You kind of understand the sleep you need, how to train, when to train and when not to and how to push yourself to stay fresh for games. Just experience teaches you how to play on nights when you just don’t have the energy to play and how to be perform on nights when you’re not at your best but you can still be effective. Going through that experience, you kind of figure it out on a daily basis.