DETROIT – From the time the Red Wings made him the fourth overall pick in the 1983 draft, Detroit is the only NHL franchise that Steve Yzerman has ever known.
But on Tuesday, the club’s legendary captain turned front office executive, made Tampa Bay his second franchise, becoming the Lightning’s sixth general manager in franchise history.
Yzerman, 45, spent 27 years as a member of the Wings family, first as a baby-faced 18-year-old rookie, then as the organization’s youngest captain, and finally a three-time Stanley Cup champion. He added a fourth Cup to his resume as an executive in 2008.
“For sure, he’s going to be missed in Detroit,” Wings defenseman Andreas Lilja said. “We didn’t meet with him that often, but when we do, it’s just fun. He comes down and talks and jokes with us. He’s just special, but it’s a great move for Tampa.”
Lilja played on Yzerman’s final squad as a player during the 2005-06 season. Lilja remembered how physically exhausted Yzerman was when the team skated off the ice after being eliminated by Edmonton in the first-round of the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs.
“I’ll be honest, I never saw him complain once,” Lilja said. “Even if he was in pain and he was hurting. It was an unbelievable experience and I don’t think I’ll even player with another player like him again. … He was just an unbelievable leader.”
Since becoming a Red Wings’ vice president, Yzerman quickly assimilated to the daily duties of an NHL front office, learning everything that he could from the business and hockey operations side.
Yzerman had a very busy season. Besides his November induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame, he was given the task of building the Canadian men’s hockey team for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. The pressure was immense, especially with the Games on Canadian soil.
Canada won the Gold medal with a spectacular overtime victory against the United States. The win launched speculation that NHL clubs would soon be knocking at Yzerman’s door.
And it didn’t take long.
“That’s great news. You hate to see him leave Detroit, but it’s nice to see him get a good job,” said Reed Larson, who was a 27-year-old Wings defenseman when Yzerman was a rookie.
“Stevie proved it with Canada that you can’t have a team of superstars and you can’t have a team of speed demons,” Larson said.
Paul Woods, a former Yzerman teammate and the current Wings radio analyst, added that the hiring of Yzerman make the Lightning a much better organization.
“I think Tampa Bay they’re trying to fix the top two lines,” Woods said. “But what they really need to do is fix the third and fourth lines. That’s much what San Jose did last off-season, and then they became a better team.
“The Lightning have some good players there, including (Martin) St. Louis, (Vincent) Lecavalier, (Steven) Stamkos and defenseman (Victor) Hedman. With that offensive talent, and a little tinkering I think Tampa Bay has a real good chance to make a run.”
Making the adjustment from being a superstar player to a successful team architect, Woods said he believes Yzerman has all of the necessary attributes.
“He has the ability to know that both types of player are important,” Woods said. “It’s important to have (Pavel) Datsyuk and (Henrik) Zetterberg, but it’s also important to have (Kris) Draper and (Kirk) Maltby. And Draper and Maltby throughout the NHL are really, really respected, because in their roles as third- and fourth-line players they’re outstanding. And you have to have the combination of both of these (types). Some times with really, really good players, they don’t get it. Some of those great players don’t want to do that dirty work. You need a balance and he understands that balance.”
A standout player, Yzerman announced his retirement on July 3, 2006, after a remarkable 22-year career. He played scored 692 goals with 1,063 assists. His 1,755 career points is the second-best in Red Wings’ history, only behind legendary Gordie Howe (1,809).
Along with 10 NHL All-Star Game selections, Yzerman also won the Bill Masterson Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the game (2002), an Olympic Gold Medal with Canada (2002), the Selke Trophy as the best defensive forward (2000), the Pearson Trophy as NHLPA’s top player (1989), and was selected to the all-rookie team (1984).
The Lightning haven’t qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs since winning the Cup in 2004. But some think Yzerman’s arrival can make them contenders in the Eastern Conference.
“You can’t compare him to anybody. He’s just Stevie, and you’ll never hear a bad word about him,” Lilja said. “I think, and hope, for Tampa’s sake, that he’s going to bring a lot from Detroit, which is an unbelievable club.”