Steve Yzerman spent part of September in Traverse City, Mich., as he has for years.
This time, though, the experience was quite different because Yzerman wasn’t an employee of the Detroit Red Wings for the first time since 1983.
The revered Motor City icon was in Michigan evaluating prospects as the new general manager for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Turns out the Red Wings were there, too, and the kids wearing red, white and winged wheels made him pause.
“When I saw the Red Wings practice, it hit me a little bit,” Yzerman said in a telephone interview from Tampa, Fla. “But since that moment, I’ve been so busy and involved with the job I’ve got here that I haven’t had a lot of time to think about it.”
Even if he had, Yzerman still probably wouldn’t say much.
The Hall of Fame player and rookie GM is a man of few words as those who are around him on a daily basis for the first time are finding out.
Still, it was Yzerman who was able to lure Tod Leiweke away from his role as the CEO of Paul Allen’s Vulcan Sports and Entertainment, a group that oversees ownership of the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks, NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers and MLS’ Seattle Sounders.
The Lightning’s new owner, Jeff Vinik, fired GM Brian Lawton and coach Rick Tocchet in April after the struggling franchise missed the playoffs for the third straight season. Vinik hired Yzerman the next month and used him to seal a deal with Leiweke to leave his job for the challenge of being Tampa Bay’s CEO and an opportunity to be a minority owner for the NHL franchise.
“When a lifelong hockey fan gets a call from Steve Yzerman, you take it and you listen,” Leiweke said. “I was a huge admirer of his. He’s a thoughtful, measured and quiet guy, but there’s a passionate side of him that you know is the real deal.
“He told me he was excited on the phone and when I sat down with him here in Tampa, I got excited. When you look into this guy’s eyes, you see the same things the Red Wings saw when they named him captain at the age of 21 and why he won three Stanley Cups and an Olympic gold medal.”
Yzerman won gold again at the Vancouver Games as Hockey Canada’s executive director, delivering the medal the hockey-crazed country desperately wanted.
It was just his latest accomplishment.
The 45-year-old Yzerman was born in Cranbrook, B.C., and evolved into one of the best two-way players and respected leaders in league history after Detroit drafted him No. 4 overall.
After retiring in 2006 with 1,755 points, he gained front-office experience as a Red Wings vice-president, as GM for Canada’s 2007 and 2008 world championship teams and as the architect of its Olympic-gold winning team this year.
“After talking to many people throughout the league, I came to the conclusion that Steve was the person to bring a winning culture back to this team,” Vinik said in May. “Steve is in charge of all hockey-related decisions. He does answer to me, but I trust his judgment and his insight.”
Yzerman took on the challenge of fixing a franchise that has struggled since winning the Stanley Cup six years ago.
His roster includes two stars from Tampa Bay’s championship team—Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis—along with Victor Hedman and Stephen Stamkos, the top pick in the 2008 NHL draft who scored 51 goals last season to tie Sidney Crosby for the league lead.
Yzerman put his stamp on the team over the summer, acquiring Simon Gagne in a trade with Philadelphia, bringing Pavel Kubina back to play for the Lightning and by setting a tone with his calming and respected presence.
“A big impact,” Lecavalier said. “Just the way things are running, first-class organization.”
He learned from some of the best.
Yzerman was drafted by soon-to-be Hall of Famer Jimmy Devellano, developed into a complete player by Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman and had an executive apprenticeship of sorts under Devellano, general manager Ken Holland and assistant general manager Jim Nill.
Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch adores Yzerman, but not enough to push out Holland and Nill, both of whom signed five-year contracts last summer to replace their one-year deals.
“I understood the situation, it wasn’t like I was sitting around waiting for them to retire,” Yzerman said. “I knew if I wanted to be a general manager, I was going to have to leave to work for another organization.
“The time I spent there was invaluable and I’ve prepared as best I can for this role, but when you’re making decisions for the first time you’ve got some uncertainty and apprehension each day.”
Yzerman didn’t hesitate Tuesday, though, when he claimed centre Mattias Ritola off waivers from Detroit.
Ritola played in just seven games for the Red Wings last season, but Yzerman saw him play many more times for the Grand Rapids Griffins in the American Hockey League when he and Holland would drive across the state to watch the prospects.
“It was certainly different seeing Steve in Traverse City not a part of our organization and when he picked up one of our players the other day,” Holland said. “It is strange that he’s not around, but at the same time, we’re all happy for him because he’s running his own team and we know that’s something he’s dreamed about doing.”