TAMPA — The way Steve Yzerman sees it, what a general manager does during a game is pretty much irrelevant.
In fact, Yzerman said, "For the most part, you don't even know whether a general manager is in the building. I'd just as soon remain that way."
Sorry, Steve, there's no way you can keep a low profile tonight, when the Lightning faces the Red Wings at the St. Pete Times Forum and Tampa Bay's freshman general manager for the first time opposes the team with which he spent 27 years as a player and executive, and became an icon.
"When you think of the Detroit Red Wings, you think of Gordie Howe, Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom," Red Wings GM Kenny Holland said. "Those are the three greatest players. Steve is one. He's one of Detroit's sons."
One who left the organization he loves for a chance to build his own team.
That Tampa Bay should make the playoffs for the first time in four years and might win the Southeast Division has solidified Yzerman as one of the NHL's most powerful people.
Tonight he sees how his team measures up against the franchise with a league-best 721 wins since 1997-98 and four Stanley Cups since 1996-97. He also, for the first time, is an opponent of the management team that taught him the business.
But Yzerman said, "It's not about me. It's not a big deal. This isn't Steve Yzerman against the Red Wings, by any means. … I want to watch the game, analyze it, take all the emotions out of it and think how our team matches up against some of the best players in the game."
Yzerman, 45, said he always was fascinated by managing, so much so, Holland said, that Yzerman had a clause in his contract that stipulated he would get, upon retirement, a "yet to be determined" front-office job.
"My passion and where I'm comfortable and what I enjoy the most is being involved in hockey," Yzerman said. "I wanted to put together my own team."
So, after retiring in 2006 as one of the game's greatest two-way players, Yzerman spent four years working with Holland, senior vice president Jim Devellano and assistant GM Jim Nill.
Yzerman and Holland remain great friends and summer golf buddies. They talk frequently and send text messages after one or the other has a big win.
Holland said he roots for the Lightning, except when it faces the Wings, of course, and Yzerman said he watches Detroit as much as he can. Holland said he also has given Yzerman advice.
"I don't necessarily think about 'what would Kenny do in this situation,' " Yzerman said. "Learning from Kenny, he put a lot of thought into every decision. He never made a rash decision or jumped on something quickly. He thought it out. That's all I really try to do."
"He's a special mix of calmness and drive," Lightning coach Guy Boucher said of Yzerman. "When you look at him play, people talked about the intensity in his eyes. It's still there. He's a guy who doesn't accept defeat."
Boucher said not once has Yzerman shaped discussions about tonight's game around his connection to the Red Wings. Team tendencies, X's and O's, have been much hotter topics.
"We need to make this about what the players need to do against their players," Boucher said.
Still, there is no avoiding what Yzerman, drafted by Detroit in 1983 and its longtime captain, called "the obvious."
Even Boucher kind of agreed with Holland, who said of Yzerman: "For me, he's a Red Wing."
Said Boucher, "I don't know when he's going to cut the cord, if he has already, but I don't think you really can. It has to be like that. He was part of the ascension of that team."
"Deep down in his heart, I'm sure he's a Red Wing," said Pat Verbeek, the Lightning's director of pro scouting, who played and worked with Yzerman in Detroit. "But when you have a job to do, you have a job to do. I've been traded a few times. You learn, you put those colors on, you go to work."
As for the game, Holland said it's worth some "bragging rights over the winter."
Yzerman just wants it over.
"Hopefully, we win in overtime or a shootout," he said. "We get two (points), they get one, and we all leave relatively happy."
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]