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Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman gambles confidently with coach pick

Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, left, believes Guy Boucher will be a prominent coach in the league for a long time.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman, left, believes Guy Boucher will be a prominent coach in the league for a long time.

TAMPA — They ate in the middle of the restaurant. No back room. No hidden booth.

On a crowded Sunday night in late May, they talked hockey at a place called the Keg, an upscale steak house in the Toronto suburb of Burlington. Sitting right there in front of God and everyone. Waving to customers. Signing autographs. Shaking hands.

Just Steve Yzerman. And some other guy.

Oh, what an interesting pair they make. Yzerman played 22 years in the NHL and was voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last June 24. Guy Boucher played one season overseas and got his first coaching job in professional hockey last June 28.

Before that May night, they seemed to have little in common. But as fans, waiters and minutes rolled by, Boucher and Yzerman continued to talk. And four hours later, they walked out the doors and into a shared future.

"I feel," Yzerman said Thursday, "he's going to be a prominent coach in this league for a long time."

That Yzerman is willing to wager a bit of his considerable legacy on that idea is instructive. It tells us that two weeks into his tenure as the general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Yzerman has the confidence to make decisions without worrying about perceptions.

Because, let's face it, he could have gone a safer route. He could have hired a bigger name with a larger resume that would have had more heads nodding in agreement. He could have hired someone from his past with whom he would feel more comfortable.

Instead, his first coaching hire is a man with no NHL experience and with a reputation for running an aggressive and innovative system that is not the norm in today's game.

And that should tell you as much about Yzerman as it does about Boucher.

You see, Yzerman has been thinking about this decision for a long time. Long before the Lightning was purchased by his new boss, Jeff Vinik. Yzerman has been preparing for this day from the time he retired as a player and agreed to take a role in the Red Wings' front office.

He has been watching coaches ever since. Coaches in the NHL, coaches in the minors, coaches on the junior level. He has picked the brains of friends and associates, which is how he heard Boucher's name.

It was two years ago when Luc Robitaille mentioned Boucher as someone to keep an eye on. Yzerman then asked some other people about him and watched closely as Boucher made a wildly successful debut in the American Hockey League this season.

Within days of being hired by the Lightning, Yzerman had arranged for the dinner with Boucher after the scouting combine in Toronto.

It was not the unorthodox system per se that swayed Yzerman. It was Boucher's willingness to try it. Yzerman was looking for a thinker. Someone who understands that the game and the world are changing, and that coaches have to be willing to adapt. Players are different. Strategies are different. And it's important to keep ahead of the curve rather than constantly follow behind.

"I played forever in a certain way (in Detroit). We all did things a certain way," Yzerman said. "Scotty Bowman changed things a little bit. And then Mike Babcock, who is more in the era of Guy, came in and did a few things I would have never considered. When he first did them, I was thinking, 'It doesn't work that way. That's not right.' Then, after a little while, it was like, 'Well, that was obvious. Why haven't we been doing it that way all along?'

"I wouldn't call Guy's system unorthodox, because it's still very basic. Things have just evolved."

And so Yzerman ended up with a coach who has multiple degrees, including a master's in sports psychology. A coach who will fish for hours on end because walking away empty-handed is like acknowledging defeat. A coach who proposed to his wife, Marsha, in the middle of a forest with a guitar in his hand and a poem he had written for the occasion. A coach who embraces the idea that a team is made up of individuals and that all must be handled according to their unique circumstances. A coach with new-age tendencies who constantly seeks the advice of elders.

"I just felt extremely comfortable with his philosophies, how he wants to coach, how he wants the team to play and the kind of person he is," Yzerman said. "He'll be a good fit for me and the vision I have for the team."

Boucher was not the only candidate Yzerman spoke to, but he zeroed in on him quickly. Mindful that Columbus was also pursuing Boucher, Yzerman spoke to him a couple of times on the phone and then set up another meeting. Within a week of the dinner in Burlington, Yzerman called and offered the job.

So today, Boucher is the youngest and most inexperienced coach in the NHL. He will soon walk into a locker room with players who have tens of millions of dollars, a player who has been an MVP, two who have been No. 1 draft picks, and several with their names on the Stanley Cup.

"You have to earn their trust and earn their respect, and I don't have any doubt that he'll do that," Yzerman said. "He's got really good people skills, he's a great communicator, he's honest, he's sincere. He'll have no trouble with these players earning their trust. But he'll also have no trouble letting them know he's in charge and this is the way we'll be doing things."

In a way, Steve Yzerman has already done that. He did it the moment he chose Guy Boucher.

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

Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman gambles confidently with coach pick 06/10/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 11, 2010 12:43am]

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