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By picking Tampa Bay, Yzerman revives hockey faith

TAMPA — In the weeks to come, you will want to know what Steve Yzerman values in a head coach.

You will want to know the type of players he desires, and you will want to know if he believes in Vinny Lecavalier's future. In the months to come, you will want to watch closely as Yzerman makes choice after choice in the reinvention of a hockey franchise.

But for now, there is only one choice that matters.

Yzerman chose you.

He chose Tampa Bay.

That is a distinction that should not be taken lightly. After all, it wasn't exactly earth-shaking news that Lightning owner Jeff Vinik was pursuing the highly regarded Yzerman as his new general manager. The shocking part was that the attraction was mutual.

And so, just like that, you have reason to believe in hockey again. After two ownership groups bailed. After three head coaches were fired. After two GMs were dumped. After all the vacant cash calls and all the empty promises, Yzerman has made faith a virtue again.

I mean, if the favorite son in a place known as Hockeytown USA has decided Tampa Bay is the best place for him, then shouldn't your heart beat just a little bit faster this morning?

Because essentially this means that the hottest commodity among available front-office types just decided there was enough to like about the franchise, the owner and the marketplace to cast his lot in Tampa Bay.

Seriously, how often has something like that happened with the Lightning?

Steven Stamkos and Vinny Lecavalier were drafted. They had no choice; they were stuck with the Lightning. Marty St. Louis? He was a nobody when he arrived. John Tortorella was the next available body when he took over as head coach. And the Lightning got Nikolai Khabibulin because he was a disgruntled employee in Phoenix.

When was the last time somebody of Yzerman's pedigree actually chose the Lightning?

Granted, there are no guarantees here. Yzerman has never before been a general manager, and the Lightning did not exactly hit paydirt when the franchise gave another former NHL player a shot at being a rookie GM a couple of years ago. But this one looks different. This one feels right.

Yzerman, 45, has spent more than half his life in the employ of the Detroit Red Wings, and few athletes have ever been more identified with a team or a city. He wore a captain's logo for 20 years. He won three Stanley Cups as a player and was a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

When he retired, his uniform number went with him. And when Yzerman stepped into the Red Wings' front office four years ago, he opted to learn the job of an executive from the ground up. The only reason he was even available was because Detroit has the best front office in the NHL and Yzerman might have waited years for the GM's job to open up.

"Steve Yzerman's name did not get this job. Steve Yzerman the hockey player did not get this job," Vinik said. "Steve Yzerman the person that I got to know over the last four to six weeks, that's who earned this job."

Vinik went to Detroit to meet Yzerman a month ago. Later, they talked on the phone. Then Yzerman went to Boston to meet with Vinik. And again they talked on the phone. Eventually Vinik offered him the job, and Yzerman spent a few days discussing it with family and friends.

When it became clear he was going to accept, Yzerman got in his car and drove to the home of Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch to tell him and his wife, Marian, in person that he was leaving after 27 years.

"In some ways, it's scary. I've been sheltered in Detroit for a long time. They've protected me," Yzerman said. "I'm stepping out for the first time since I was 18 years old."

Do you remember a few weeks back when Vinik was introduced as the new owner? He made a point of saying the organization would have a specific chain of command that would include the general manager reporting to the CEO, and the CEO reporting to Vinik.

That organizational structure has already been blown apart. The general manager will now report directly to the owner, and you can bet that was a part of Yzerman's negotiation process. Yzerman came to Tampa Bay because he felt he and Vinik shared a common philosophy, and he was not going to let that vision be obstructed by a middle man.

Modifying his plan for Yzerman was the right call by Vinik. The last time the Lightning had a CEO, the relationship between the business side and hockey operations grew contentious at times. There was a perception that Tortorella and GM Jay Feaster felt like they had to sneak past CEO Tom Wilson and go directly to owner Bill Davidson to spend any money. In this relationship, that should not be an issue.

For the first time in a long while, it feels like there is harmony in the front office. For the first time in a long while, it feels like this could be a hockey town.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

By picking Tampa Bay, Yzerman revives hockey faith 05/26/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 26, 2010 12:26am]

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