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Jones: Revered in Detroit, Steve Yzerman settles in with Lightning


Here, inside Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, you can't take even a few steps without running into some sort of reminder of Steve Yzerman.

His face is plastered on the wall just outside the Red Wings locker room. His name is painted on the corridors throughout the building, recognizing his Stanley Cups and various NHL awards.

Look left, look right and you're sure to see a photo of him. Look up and there is his name and retired number hanging from the rafters above the ice where he starred for so many years as, with apologies to Gordie Howe, the most popular — and arguably the greatest — player in Red Wings history. Just outside the arena, there's a street named after him.

He is everywhere.

And on Monday afternoon, if you looked in the Joe Louis stands, near the top of Section 121, there was Steve Yzerman. The actual living, breathing Steve Yzerman.

From there, he was watching his team. Not the Red Wings. The Tampa Bay Lightning, as it prepared for tonight's Game 4 of the opening-round playoff series between his new team, where he's the general manager, and his old team.

Weird, right?

"Yeah," Yzerman said. "I spent my entire career here. Most of my friends are here, guys I played with, people I worked for. This organization always will mean a lot to me. I always want the Red Wings to do well."

With one exception.

"I want to win this series," Yzerman said. "I want to win this series as badly as they do."

Even Yzerman's family, which still calls Detroit home, has its Red Wings favorites.

"But they want the Lightning to win," Yzerman said.

Let's be clear. Yzerman has traded in his red-and-white allegiances for blue-and-white with a Lightning bolt. The change occurred the moment he took the job with the Lightning. Hard to believe, that was six years ago.

Not that it was easy leaving Detroit after playing here for 23 years (including the lockout season) and working in the front office for another four. In fact, that apprenticeship under Red Wings general manager Ken Holland and senior vice president Jim Devellano prepared him for a general manager's job.

The only question was where Yzerman would land. He turned down a chance to become GM of the Minnesota Wild and eventually settled on Tampa Bay.

Devellano said, "I always said to Steve, 'Steve, you're a pretty big guy in the game, one of the greatest to ever play. You're going to get lots of opportunities. I'm only going to say one thing to you: Make sure the ownership is right.' "

With Jeff Vinik, the ownership was right in Tampa Bay. And Yzerman has never thought twice about leaving the only organization he ever knew.

"I don't have any regrets," Yzerman said. "None. I wanted to be a general manager. I felt I was ready to do that. The Red Wings organization was very supportive of me in coming and interviewing for the job. I enjoy it. I don't enjoy it, but I enjoy it. These are hard jobs. There's a lot of stress and anxiety, but that's how it was as a player, too. It's a challenge."

And what a challenge the Lightning has offered. He took over a lousy franchise and has had it in the playoffs four times in six seasons. Under Yzerman, the Lightning has reached a Stanley Cup final and an Eastern Conference final.

He has made the tough calls. He hired and fired coach Guy Boucher then hit a homer with his hire of Jon Cooper.

He cut ties with Vinny Lecavalier, perhaps the most popular player in franchise history. He got into a public squabble with all-time leading scorer Marty St. Louis and ended up trading him. He showed tough love when former first-round pick Jonathan Drouin quit the team, and now Drouin is back. And he's currently going through the difficult ordeal of figuring out if and how to sign star Steven Stamkos, whose contract is up after the season.

He has done it all with class and confidence, humility and success.

"He had done a job beyond expectations," Devellano said.

So, what's next?

The assumption is Yzerman is eventually going to go back to the place where he is king: Detroit.

"I want to win a Stanley Cup as a general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning," Yzerman said. "We started something. We're trying to win a Cup. That's my goal. I take pride in what I do. I want to be successful and I hope I can be successful with the Lightning."

Yzerman thinks back to Game 2 last week at Amalie Arena. The building was full with Lightning fans. The game was exciting. Tampa Bay won. This was what he envisioned when he took the job. Detroit is special, yes. Always will be. But maybe going back to Detroit wouldn't be such a great idea. Why risk ruining the pristine legacy he has in Motown?

Anyway, Tampa Bay is his home. For now. Maybe for a long time.

"I hope so," Yzerman said. "That means I'm doing a good job and I'd be very happy with that. I'm worried about right now, the next few years. And if I'm the GM of the Lightning in 20 years that means I've done a good job."

He is happy in Tampa Bay and Tampa Bay is happy with him. Maybe he will never be as popular there as he is in Detroit, but there might not be any athlete anywhere as popular in a city as Yzerman is in Detroit.

"People treat me nice all over the building, all over the city," Yzerman said of Detroit. "It is just great."

That will never change. He will always be celebrated in Detroit. Even as he succeeds in his new home: Tampa Bay.

Jones: Revered in Detroit, Steve Yzerman settles in with Lightning 04/18/16 [Last modified: Monday, April 18, 2016 10:32pm]
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