Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Tampa Bay Lightning

Yzerman guides a nation's Olympic hopes

TAMPA

Lightning general manager Steve Yzerman sat last week in a conference room at the Tampa Bay Times Forum and looked like a guy who hadn't slept in a week and hadn't fully digested a meal in a month.

He looked tired. He looked queasy. He looked like he could have used a pillow, a blanket and, truth be known, a swig of something way stronger than Diet Coke.

This is what you get when you end up with your dream job.

Yzerman is the executive director for the Canadian Olympic hockey team. When you think about it, that's just about the most prestigious job in sports.

It's bigger than coaching Alabama football or North Carolina basketball. It's bigger than managing the Yankees or running the Cowboys.

It's Canada. It's hockey. There aren't many things in Canada more important than hockey. It ranks right up there with oxygen and food.

And to be asked to run your country's hockey team in the biggest hockey tournament in the world, the Olympics?

What an honor.

What a headache.

"I did this four years ago,'' Yzerman said. "I knew what I was getting myself into.''

Here's what Yzerman got himself into: a thankless job where you're constantly second-guessed and criticized. It's a job where first place isn't only the goal, but the expectation. It's a job where second place might as well be last place.

And, now here we are, as Canada gets set to defend its gold medal in Sochi.

Four years ago, the Yzerman-picked Canadian team beat the Americans in a thrilling overtime gold-medal game.

When it was over, even diehard American hockey fans probably stared at their television screens and thought, "Oh my gosh. What a game. What a heartbreaker. What a shame. … Hey, switch over to the golf, will ya?''

Meantime, Canadian hockey fans were merely trying to breathe after Sidney Crosby's overtime winner.

"It's a sense of relief,'' Yzerman said. "It's hard to even enjoy it. It's not happiness. It's relief. I felt that way after 2010. You felt more relief than joy."

That's hockey in Canada. When Canadians win in hockey, they stick out their chests and brag that they're the best at their sport. But when they lose, the entire country see-saws between depression and anger.

For many Canadians, hockey is the country's identity and when they lose to Sweden, Finland or, worst of all, the United States, they feel as if their identity has been stolen.

Canada hasn't won a World Junior championship since 2009. The United States has won two in that span. The next time you run into a Canadian hockey fan, remind him of that. Then duck.

When it comes to professionals and the Olympics, Canadians are even more obsessed. When the Lightning's Steven Stamkos had a news conference last week to announce he would be unable to play for Canada in Sochi because of a broken leg, Canadian television interrupted regular programming to air it live.

When Yzerman and Team Canada announced the original roster back in January, that, too, was televised live across Canada.

"The sad thing about when that team was announced was people … didn't embrace the (players who) made the team,'' Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. "All that really was talked about were the people who were left off.''

How true, especially here in Tampa Bay where Yzerman was grilled for leaving one of his own Lightning players, Marty St. Louis, off the original roster. When he then named St. Louis to replace the injured Stamkos, Yzerman was raked over the coals by Flyers owner Ed Snider, who thought his player, Claude Giroux, should have been taken over St. Louis.

"It's politics, to a certain degree,'' Snider said. "He had to pick his own guy. His own guy is good, but Claude is better."

This is how it works. No matter what you do, no matter who you pick, you're an idiot.

Yzerman said even if the Canadians win the gold, he will still get criticized for the roster.

Which makes you wonder if all these high expectations, overwhelming pressure and constant criticism makes this job even worth it.

"Are you under the gun? Absolutely,'' said Red Wings and Team Canada coach Mike Babcock. "Do I feel that again? For sure. But the people who live in my house and the people that come to my lake home, they're going to feel the same about me when we win or don't win.''

Okay, let's put it this way: Is this even fun?

"Is it fun?'' Yzerman said, momentarily taken aback by the question. "Uh … there are times when it's not fun. There are times when being the general manager of an NHL team isn't fun, either. I chose it. I was offered the position and accepted it and I'll try to do it as best I can."

Here's when it becomes fun: when someone throws a gold medal around your players' necks.

"We want to go into Russia and play in the Olympics on foreign ice and try and win a gold medal,'' Yzerman said. "We accept all the stuff that goes along with it during the entire process."

If Canada wins the gold medal, maybe Yzerman can get himself a good meal and a good night's sleep.

Then it's right back to work. After all, he has a day job.

There's a Stanley Cup to be won here in Tampa Bay, right?

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