TAMPA — Tuesday was not a great day for hockey.
In fact, Tuesday could go down as one of the darkest days in Tampa Bay sports history. Just two days before the start of training camp in a season in which it is favored to win the Stanley Cup, the Lightning lost its architect. In a stunning announcement, Steve Yzerman stepped down as general manager of the Lightning.
Yzerman, 53, will remain with the organization as a senior advisor to new general manager Julien BriseBois, who has been Yzerman's assistant GM for the past eight seasons.
"I can't say it's an easy decision,'' Yzerman said. "But it's the right thing to do. It's the right to do personally. It's the right thing to do professionally.''
Julien BriseBois has been in demand as a GM for years, including in Montreal, where he cut his teeth in Canadiens upper management for nine years. #TBLightning #GoBolts @TBLightning @mjfennelly @TB_Times https://t.co/QAXNvxSqcO— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) September 11, 2018
Feeling he wasn't able to make a full commitment to both family and job, Yzerman chose family, which includes his wife and three daughters aged 24, 20 and 19. Back in July, as owner Jeff Vinik approached Yzerman about a contract extension, Yzerman started to doubt whether he could be a good GM, while also being a good husband and father.
"Moving forward I asked, 'Can I do that?' And the answer was I didn't think so,'' Yzerman said. "I want to spend more time with my family. My kids are in college in various places and I want to be around them. And if I can't do my job the way it should be done, then I can't do it.''
But there could be more to it than that.
Moving forward, Yzerman will split his time between Tampa Bay and Detroit, where his wife has continued to live since Yzerman became the Lightning GM in May of 2010. That's why there is now rampant speculation that this is the first move in Yzerman eventually returning to the Detroit Red Wings, an organization where he built a 22-year career as a Hall of Fame player before moving to the front office.
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Yzerman, who has one season left on his contract with Tampa Bay, said repeatedly Tuesday that he is fully committed this season to his new role with the Lightning, but he refused to say what the future holds.
"Beyond this year,'' Yzerman said, "I don't know.''
In other words, he didn't exactly shoot down the thought of being a general manager in Detroit or somewhere else someday.
If he does eventually leave the Lightning — and the guess here is that he will after this season — you can't blame him. He has earned that right. He has done everything the Lightning could have hoped, leaving the organization in much better shape than he found it and stepping aside while the team is a championship contender. He also leaves the organization in the very capable hands of BriseBois, who has extensive front office experience and has long been considered a future NHL general manager.
"It's business as usual,'' BriseBois, 41, said.
Shock. Disappointment. Speculation. Here is some of the early social media reaction to the news that Steve Yzerman is stepping down as GM of the Lightning. #TBLightning #GoBolts @TBLightning #NHL #Yzerman @TB_Times https://t.co/mmcdeVya4y— TampaBayTimesSports (@TBTimes_Sports) September 11, 2018
Still, Tuesday's news rocked the hockey world, especially Lightning fans, and for good reason. Yzerman's tenure with the Lightning has been sensational. In eight seasons with Yzerman in charge, the Lightning has made the postseason five times, including four trips to the Eastern Conference final and one trip to the Stanley Cup final.
Considered hockey royalty, Yzerman gave the Lightning credibility and class. He has built a Cup-worthy NHL team while also stockpiling one of the best minor-league systems in hockey. You could make a case that he is the best GM in the game.
Throughout the years, he has deftly navigated several thorny decisions with near-perfect results. He made the difficult choice in 2013 to part ways with the then-face of the franchise, Vinny Lecavalier, but did so in a way that, in retirement, Lecavalier remains close to the organization.
Yzerman has made several controversial trades, including captain Marty St. Louis, goalie Ben Bishop and former first-round pick Jonathan Drouin, yet the Lightning has come out on the other side in better shape.
In recent seasons, he has maneuvered his way through the ever-changing salary cap to sign stars Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Nikita Kucherov to long-term contracts. While Tuesday's announcement feels like a gut-punch to the organization, he does hand over a team that is ready to win now and for years to come.
"I think the organization is good shape,'' Yzerman said. "We want to win. I hope it's this year and I believe Julien is more than prepared to guide this team and make the appropriate decisions.''
Vinik praised BriseBois, but admitted it was tough to see Yzerman take a step back in duties.
"Obviously, I did try to talk Steve out of this,'' Vinik said. "But as always, Steve was thoughtful and he thought through the decision and he made the right decision for him and his family so I stopped real quick trying to talk him out of it.''
Lightning coach Jon Cooper said he was "stunned,'' but understood Yzerman's decision.
"If there's one thing Steve has taught me is you can't lose perspective with your family and the things that are extremely important to you,'' Cooper said. "The only regret I have is that we didn't win the Stanley Cup with him at the helm.''
It's the end of an era for the Lightning and Tampa Bay sports.
It wasn't a great day for hockey. In fact, for the Lightning, it was a pretty crummy one.
Contact Tom Jones at [email protected] Follow @tomwjones.