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Yzerman's Bolts will be Wings' foe in Traverse City

by Mike G. Morreale /
Detroit Red Wings Assistant General Manager Jim Nill already can sense the buzz building throughout the resort community of Traverse City, Mich.

Traverse City is the site of the 13th annual NHL Prospects Tournament, which will take center stage on two ice surfaces beginning Sept. 11. But it's the final game during Day 2 of the tournament that has fans scurrying for any leftover tickets. That's when the host prospects for the Detroit Red Wings face off against the Tampa Bay Lightning -- a team now managed by Wings legend Steve Yzerman.

"It's going to be strange to see (Yzerman) working with another team, but he's done a great job; I've been watching his moves very closely and he's done a great job creating his own team," Nill said. "We recently talked over the phone about the buzz going on. It's going to be fun."

Yzerman, named Tampa Bay's vice president and general manager on May 25, spent 27 seasons with the Red Wings, including the previous five as a vice president. He worked closely with Nill, General Manager Ken Holland and Senior Vice President Jim Devellano on evaluating players at the professional and amateur levels. Most fans remember the 2009 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee as a tenacious worker on the ice -- winning three Stanley Cups as a player (1997, '98 and '02) before earning another as a member of Detroit's management team in '08.

Yzerman retired after the 2005-06 season following a remarkable 22-year NHL career with the Red Wings -- he played in 1,514 career games, scoring 692 goals and 1,063 assists. His 1,755 career points rank sixth all-time in NHL history. Now he'll use that experience gained as a player and executive in his new role with the Lightning, a team that has failed to qualify for the playoffs three straight seasons.

And it all begins in Traverse City.

The five-day Prospects Tournament expanded to eight teams in 2006 and has become an annual opportunity for coaches and general managers to evaluate their prospects against their peers.

"When we first started out, Ken (Holland) and I were talking about how we could evaluate our players better," Nill said. "We used to always bring players to training camp and you'd throw them on the ice with Yzerman and (Brendan) Shanahan and (Nicklas) Lidstrom and it was sink or swim. We felt that wasn't a fair evaluation -- these kids aren't strong enough, mentally or physically.

"So this Prospects Tournament came about," Nill said. "Here, we get to evaluate our kids against their own age group. The thing we didn't realize was how high a level of play it would become and, looking at the alumni of players who have come out of this tournament … (Ilya) Kovalchuk, (Henrik) Zetterberg, (Dany) Heatley, (Pavel) Datsyuk … the level of play at this tourney is so high for this time of year. When you think about putting a bunch of kids together, who never played together on the ice, you think, 'Oh boy, this isn't going to be that crisp of hockey,' but the hockey is unbelievable."

In addition to the Red Wings and Lightning, who will compete in the Howe Division with the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars, the Gretzky Division will feature prospects from the Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, Minnesota Wild and the New York Rangers.

Once the eight teams have finished round-robin play in the two groups, each will play a final game on Sept. 14 to determine final tournament ranking with the championship game taking place Sept. 15 at 6 p.m. All games will take place at David's Rink and Huntington Rink at the Centre Ice Arena, the training camp home of the Wings.

"The level of play coming through this tournament has been so high," Nill said. "You get to watch other teams, so you're not only evaluating your players, but other teams. Most of these kids are 4-to-5 years down the road, but at least you kind of see where teams will be at in 4-to-5 years."

The Hurricanes scored a 4-1 victory over the Wild in last year's prospects championship game behind a team that included three former first-round draft choices -- Zach Boychuk (2008), Brandon Sutter (2007) and Philippe Paradis (2009).

"It's going to be strange to see (Yzerman) working with another team, but he's done a great job; I've been watching his moves very closely and he's done a great job creating his own team. We recently talked over the phone about the buzz going on. It's going to be fun."
-- Detroit Assistant GM Jim Nill

"The tournament has grown because we have better attendance and because it's great hockey," tournament organizer Peter Correia told "These kids are fighting for those jobs and I think it's great. During those first few years, I couldn't give a ticket away to go to these things and now we have great attendance."

Correia realizes the benefits of hosting the tournament in Traverse, which is located about 270 miles north of Detroit.

"I think the tournament is great for our little community, which is really a small tourist town," he said. "We have people waiting a few days for tickets to go on sale, so you'd think it was the Stanley Cup or something. This gives fans a chance to not only see their team up close and personal, but watch seven other clubs."

That, according to Holland, is the great benefit of bringing the Prospects Tournament and Red Wings' training camp to Traverse City each year.

"I'm a fan of all sports and appreciate what baseball does with the development and evaluation of their players," Holland said. "They keep their kids moving around the clock, throughout the year. I feel the best way to evaluate young players was to watch them against players their age rather than having them out on the ice with players much older and wiser."

Follow Mike Morreale at the Traverse City Tournament on Twitter at: @mike_morreale

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