TAMPA — Steve Yzerman said his four years as Red Wings vice president were "an opportunity to go to school."
His teachers: general manager Ken Holland, assistant GM Jim Nill and executive vice president Jim Devellano, all of whom helped transform Detroit into one of the league's elite teams.
The experience is the foundation for Yzerman, hired Tuesday as Lightning general manager, the Hall of Fame center's first try at running an NHL team.
"It gave me an opportunity to watch how they made every decision, how they handled a free-agent signing, how they handled the draft, how they developed, how they went about hiring people," Yzerman said at the St. Pete Times Forum.
Yzerman also was general manager of the Canadian national teams that won gold at the 2007 world championship and silver in 2008, and he was executive director, and put together, Canada's gold-medal team at this year's Olympics.
In other words, don't confuse Yzerman with Brian Lawton, Yzerman's predecessor, who was an agent before taking over.
Still, picking an All-Star team for the Olympics isn't the same as the day-to-day grind of the NHL that includes signing players, managing a salary cap and organizational development.
But Yzerman, 45, who signed a five-year deal with the Lightning for what Canada's Globe and Mail said was $12.5 million, said that atmosphere also was invaluable.
"You learn how to make decisions," he said. "I also did a lot of scouting, so I gained knowledge of players. I gained knowledge about coaches all around the league, made a lot of contacts.
"Mostly what I've learned is patience — every decision takes time — and surround yourself with good people who have a passion for the game and who really want to work at that. That's what I intend to do."
"Steve has grown so much as an executive," said Bob Nicholson, president of Hockey Canada, which oversees his country's national teams. "He will have a clear direction, and he will be up front and honest. Players are looking to know where they stand. He will give them that."
He also will give them due diligence, Holland said: "He's got incredible passion for the sport and the job."
Holland said Yzerman sat in on every management meeting with the Red Wings, whether it concerned pro or amateur scouting or was held at the team's annual prospects camp.
"He was right there every step of the way on every decision we made the past four years," Holland said. "In my opinion, he's paid his dues. He's done everything he could to prepare to be a general manager."
Said Devellano: "I'm sure given the proper time and budget, he can make his executive career every bit as good as his playing career."
Even so, Holland said, it will be "surreal" seeing Yzerman across the table at next week's GM meetings in Philadelphia. But that is what happens when a player cuts ties with an organization he has been with for 27 years, including 23 as a player.
"Steve and I have had several conversations about how great it would be if 27 years from now he and I were still working here and working hard on the Lightning," Tampa Bay owner Jeff Vinik said. "I'm the owner, and he's the GM of a championship organization."
Yzerman's teachers would be proud.
Damian Cristodero can be reached at [email protected]