There was a hint of uncertainty, caused by either the careful thought of how he was going to phrase his answer or understandably by a sincere conflict of emotions, regarding what to expect when his former club, the Detroit Red Wings, come to town Thursday to take on his new team in the first and only matchup of the regular season.
“Well, I’m looking forward to it,” Yzerman said. “It’s going to be a great challenge for our team against one that I think is one of the best in the league.”
That he couldn’t find the words perhaps as quickly as usual was odd considering he has a quick finger that has been responsible, not to mention dead-on, with each and every calculated decision.
He plucked Guy Boucher from the American Hockey League to serve as head coach behind the bench. He locked up the heart and soul of the team in Martin St. Louis for the rest of his career with a four-year contract extension, and most recently, solidified the team’s situation in net with a mid-season trade for a bona-fide goaltender to kick off the New Year.
A natural hat trick.
As of Wednesday, Yzerman’s Lightning – again, Yzerman’s Lightning – sat in second place in the Eastern Conference with a franchise-best 74 points through 57 games. The Red Wings were second in the West with 74 points.
And yet, on a night as highly anticipated such as this, its brightest star prefers to shed light on others who are down on the ice rather than above it.
“I don’t think that we should make it any bigger of a deal than necessary about the game,” Yzerman said. “I’m not the coach behind the bench and I’m obviously not a player playing the game. For us I look at it as, for one, we are trying to win every game that we can and it’s a good test to see how we hold up.”
Make no mistake. Yzerman is a competitor. His playing days are long over, but he admits he still watches games between teams he deems to be a good matchup whenever he can. Thursday is no exception, and that is why for him, a hard-fought hockey game between two of the league’s top teams overshadows any reunion between old friends.
“I’m looking forward to it from that perspective, how we match up against one of the best teams in the league,” Yzerman added. “Honestly I am just trying to look at it as a game that I am just going to watch, analyze and take all the emotion out of.”
Yzerman stated he is more interested in a one-on-one matchup between the league’s leading scorer in Steven Stamkos and Detroit’s Pavel Datsyuk, one of the NHL’s top defensive forwards, more so than he is matching wits with former mentor and current Red Wings general manager Ken Holland.
Much of that interest can be attributed to the fact that he turned in the “C” on his sweater in favor of a business suit when he retired as a player in 2006, thus relieving him of his duties as an every-day player and allowing him to focus on building a team, rather than starring for one.
Only five years later, and not nearly as much as a full year under his belt, Yzerman is now looking forward to seeing how his Lightning perform against the Red Wings, who are coming off back-to-back games against a very good Boston Bruins team. To him, the fact that Yzerman has a history with Detroit is secondary.
“Once you take a job, or take on a challenge, I think the natural instinct is to want to do well,” Yzerman said. “We have lofty goals for the organization. I pay very close attention to the Red Wings team and watch them as often as I can, but really I've got a great responsibility and I’ve got goals and things I want to accomplish as a manager of the Lightning.”
He has already done so much.