From the moment Steve Yzerman sat in the bowels of Joe Louis Arena that day in early July, 2006, you knew this time would come.
As Yzerman reflected on his 22-year playing career—every second of which was spent with the Red Wings—as he spoke of what it would be like to not have to lace up skates and put himself through physical Hell to get through another season, you knew this time would come.
The Red Wings eased Yzerman into the front office, a move that was as academic as moving yourself from the table after dinner.
They gave him a vice president’s title, but it was no joke. It wasn’t a ceremonial nod. This wasn’t Gordie Howe, circa 1971, when the Red Wings of the Bruce Norris ownership gave what Gordie called the “mushroom treatment.”
“They put me in a dark office, opened the door occasionally and dumped blank on me,” Gordie famously said.
Mike Ilitch is no Bruce Norris—thank God. When he promoted Yzerman, it was with a purpose. He was seamlessly moved from the rank and file to management. Then he started learning the ins and outs of running an NHL team from up high.
You could do a whole lot worse than to learn from the likes of Kenny Holland, Jim Nill, and Jimmy Devellano—the front office Goliaths who’ve been running the Red Wings for about 15 years now.
It was like interning in government and being surrounded by Washington, Lincoln, and Roosevelt.
Yzerman watched. He learned. He kept his mouth shut—which for him is as natural as breathing—and his eyes and ears open.
You knew this time would come.
You just knew, when Yzerman switched from hockey sweater to Armani suit, that someone would, one day, try to poach him from the Red Wings.
You knew it especially when he was named the director of hockey for Team Canada for the 2010 Winter Olympics. You knew it when he started to display, unsurprisingly, the adroit skills of putting together a hockey team from scratch.
You really knew it when Team Canada skated away with Olympic Gold, despite a rocky road to glory.
It was just a matter of time, when others would notice.
That time has come.
The Tampa Bay Lightning, an unremarkable franchise that, for all its unremarkableness, nonetheless stumbled onto a Stanley Cup six years ago, is courting Yzerman, reports say.
The Lightning wants Stevie Y to be their new GM, the scuttlebutt is.
This isn’t the brass ring of GM jobs. It’s beneath Yzerman, frankly, to go to work for a team that didn’t exist until 1992—when he was starting his 10th season as a player.
Going from the Red Wings—as solidly run of a franchise as any in pro sports—to the Lightning is like stopping midway through a lobster dinner and switching to Spam.
It’s beneath Yzerman to work for such a Mickey Mouse franchise, which needs three home dates to fill its arena, in a city that is as much of a hockey hotbed as Hades.
Someone of Yzerman’s stature deserves much more than being the GM of the Tampa Bay Freaking Lightning.
Yet, as much as this pains me to say it, he ought to take the job.
If Yzerman truly wants to run his own team—and he’s been on record more than once saying that he does—then he’s going to have to go somewhere else. There’s no opportunity for that in Detroit.
Holland ’s not going anywhere. Nill is the GM-in-waiting, anyway.
Yzerman ought to go to Tampa Bay precisely because it’s an insignificant franchise.
If the Lightning dropped off the face of the NHL Earth tomorrow, no one would notice, or miss them.
It’s a can’t-lose situation for Yzerman.
If he succeeds, great. If he fails, then what the hey—it’s the Lightning.
He’ll get another chance, no matter what happens in Tampa .
I suspect Yzerman is considering the Lightning job—possibly quite seriously.
He hasn’t dismissed the notion out of hand.
His latest remark was hardly a denial, when asked about the prospects of leaving an organization that’s been his hockey life for 27 years.
“My response is the same, and that is no comment,” Yzerman coyly said the other day.
If he wasn’t mulling it over, he’d have given an unequivocal “no.”
Yzerman’s mulling it over. It’s not a small decision.
His wife, Lisa, and their three daughters have only known Detroit as home, as a family. The oldest girl, Isabella, is 16. As the father of a high school sophomore, I know how popular it would be to announce a move from friends at that tender age of a girl’s social development.
Yzerman will forever have the Winged Wheel emblazoned on his chest. No matter how many jobs, no matter how many years go by, Yzerman will be a Red Wing. It’s what he is. Any GM job he takes will be what he does.
But it’s not easy to leave an organization that drafted you, nurtured you, and provided you with a lifetime’s worth of thrills and chills and spills—for 27 years.
Yzerman could do the polite thing, and continue to work for the Red Wings. There’s plenty more he can learn and do wearing a suit.
But he’ll never be the GM here.
If that’s what he wants, then he ought to leave. He ought to take the Tampa job.
But why not wait, you might ask. Why not see if something better, frankly, comes along?
It might. And it might not.
You think just because he’s Steve Yzerman, that he can write his own ticket?
It doesn’t always work that way.
How privileged we’ve been in Detroit . We’ve gotten to see Yzerman grow up twice.
We saw him as an 18-year-old rookie and laughed and cried with him for 14 years before that first Stanley Cup—the best one—in 1997. We saw him as a grizzled 37-year-old as he lifted Cup number three in 2002. We gasped as he went down like he’d been shot when a puck struck him square in the eye in 2004.
Now we are seeing him cutting his teeth as an executive.
The Lightning job isn’t much. But it’s there, apparently, if he wants it. By all accounts, Yzerman is the Lightning’s frontrunner. He might be the only runner.
It’s not much of a GM’s job. But he ought to take it.
You just knew this time would come.