And though it’s been more than five years since he last skated in a Wings’ uniform, just the simplest mention of Yzerman’s name often conjures thoughts of two decades worth of incredible hockey memories for Detroiters. Memories like the time he helped bring the Stanley Cup back to Detroit for the first time in 42-years, or how he single-handedly won a playoff game in double-overtime, or his gutsy playoff performances on the strength of one leg.
“Growing up in Michigan I think that every hockey fan, who followed the Red Wings knew who Steve Yzerman was,” said Wings forward Justin Abdelkader
, of Muskegon, Mich. “Obviously he had a tremendous career here in Detroit and he was an outstanding captain and leader, and I think he was a big time reason that they went as far as they did and won as many Cups as they did.”
Similar feelings of admiration for Yzerman have given rise to a new hockey fan base in Tampa, Florida. He means as much to the Lightning’s organization now as he once did when he first arrived in Detroit as a boyish-faced Canadian kid in 1983.
“He’s the head of our team,” Tampa Bay center Martin St. Louis said. “He’s brought a lot of credibility to a franchise at a time when there wasn’t any, so for us he was a warm welcome and we’re glad that he’s here over-seeing everything. We feel that we’re in good hands, just like All-State.”
On Wednesday, for the first time as Tampa Bay’s vice president and general manager, Yzerman will bring the Lightning into the building that served as the backdrop to two of three Cup championships during his 22-season Hall of Fame career.
However, Wednesday’s game isn’t a time for reflection or catching up with old friends around Joe Louis Arena. For Yzerman, this is strictly a business trip.
“I’m just looking for points, preferably two,” Yzerman told reporters following the Lightning’s Tuesday afternoon practice at the Troy Sports Center. “It’s an opportunity to assess our team against one of the better teams in the league and some of the best players in the league.”
While many Wings’ fans circled this date on their calendars, it wasn’t necessarily on the top of Yzerman’s favorites list for one very important reason – distractions. He really didn’t want to discuss his return to The Joe on Tuesday, and when asked whether Wednesday will be an emotional night, he laughed and said, “Depends on what the score is. It could be very emotional.”
Yzerman’s return is much different than the first time that legends Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay returned to Detroit wearing enemy sweaters. Those stars were still playing, yet Detroit fans never lost the appreciation for their grit and determination as hockey heroes in this town. The same is true for Yzerman, however, as a GM he won’t be nearly as visible to Wings’ fans as his legendary predecessors were.
“I think it’s great for fans, who maybe able to get to see Steve on the big screen,” Wings forward Danny Cleary
said. “I think he’s pretty excited too, bringing his team into his old home, and it will be fun tonight. It’s his first time back and they have a good team, and he’s pretty proud of that team.”
And by the sounds of it, the Lightning players are just as thrilled to be playing for a Hall of Famer who was the architect to Canada’s Olympic gold medal team in 2010.
“I feel really fortunate, when you have a gentleman like Steve with class all around, each individual here is just so lucky to be around him,” Tampa goalie Dwayne Roloson said. “It’s just the way he handles himself at the rink and away from the rink. There are only a few guys left who have played against him and seen him play and know what he was like on the ice. It’s only something that you wish your kids or yourself can grow-up to be.”
When Yzerman took the club’s reins prior to last season, the Lightning had become a hockey wasteland, missing the playoffs three straight times. But his arrival brought instant credence to the Florida region.
“We were pretty low, pretty low,” St. Louis said. “That’s why when Steve came, right away there was no more negative articles written about us. He just brought the credibility and the sunshiny weather, because it was cloudy and rainy for a couple of years.”
Last season the Lightning was one-goal short of reaching the Stanley Cup finals, and for their incredible turn-around, Yzerman was named a finalist for the NHL’s General Manager of the Year award.
His success as a team executive doesn’t surprise his former teammates, who point to Yzerman’s track record and believe it won’t be long before he celebrates a Cup championship in the Sunshine State.
“It’s hard to say that he can’t win there, he’s won everything that he’s been a part of,” Cleary said. “Everything he’s touched as been gold. He has a great hockey mind and I think he’s done very well in Tampa. He’s got the respect of the players, who play hard for him and he has a lot of accountability and I think he’s going to be a very good executive.”Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @RooseBill