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Desire for competition drives Lightning's Steve Yzerman

Lightning Vice President and General Manager Steve Yzerman watches from high above the ice during a game against the Florida Panthers in March in Tampa. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Lightning Vice President and General Manager Steve Yzerman watches from high above the ice during a game against the Florida Panthers in March in Tampa. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Published Apr. 16, 2015

TAMPA — He often sits alone in a press box booth, his intense glare pouring through his brown eyes.

He lives alone, too. His high school sweetheart and wife of 25 years, Lisa, and three daughters, Isabella, 21, Maria, 16, and Sophie, 15, are 1,000 miles away in Michigan, where locals say he can walk on water.

But here is Steve Yzerman, the former Red Wings iconic captain, staring down at the Amalie Arena ice, watching, analyzing a Lightning team he has molded since becoming general manager in 2010. The stoic exterior masks a competitive fire raging inside of him.

"I like competition, I like winning," Yzerman said. "I like being part of something where winning matters, losing matters. Competitiveness, as an athlete, that's the way we all were. I'm in a position now where you're trying to win. And I enjoy that."

Yzerman said he'd prefer not having to face Detroit in this first-round NHL series that begins tonight at Amalie Arena. It's a sizzling story line, with Yzerman, one of the Red Wings' favorite sons, standing in their way with a team he crafted in their image.

"Honestly, I'm going to have a relationship with the organization my entire life, an affinity for them forever," Yzerman said. "I was there for a long time and am proud of what we accomplished. But let's play hockey."

Yzerman, less than a month shy of his 50th birthday, would probably still play if he could. But his right knee throbs every time he jogs, a parting gift from a Hall of Fame career that included three Stanley Cups, 692 goals and one knee realignment surgery.

He could be riding out his retirement in style, playing golf, signing autographs, relaxing at his northern Ontario lakefront cottage with his family. He could have comfortably stayed in his "lifetime" appointment as an executive with the Red Wings.

But building his own team has long been his dream. This is his chance. Yzerman jets back and forth as often as he can, squeezing in trips to Michigan to reconnect with his family. He'll attend his daughters' lacrosse or equestrian events, even soaking in a football Saturday in Ann Arbor for parents weekend at the University of Michigan.

But most of his life is spent here, grinding away in his Amalie Arena office, traveling with the Lightning on road trips or scouting his AHL team in Syracuse. He seems much more comfortable behind the scenes, saying GMs should just do their jobs, "not be on the front page of newspapers."

Yzerman wasn't a big fan of talking to the media as a player, but does it more now because he believes it's his responsibility as a team spokesman.

"There are guys that seek attention and can't wait to get in front of the microphone," Yzerman said. "I'm not one of those guys."

But those who had a front-row seat for Yzerman's journey said he was a shy superstar who experienced his share of scars. Before Yzerman reached rarefied air, he failed. He was doubted, nearly traded. And those experiences have shaped how he has molded the Lightning.

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• • •

Yzerman inherited a mess with the Lightning in the summer of 2010.

Before Jeff Vinik bought the team a few months earlier, Tampa Bay was run by a couple of cowboys, meddling and bickering owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie. Instead of making the playoffs, the Lightning was a punch line.

But Yzerman had seen a successful rebuild before — he was part of one.

When the Red Wings drafted Yzerman fourth overall in 1983 — coincidentally three spots after his predecessor as Lightning GM (Brian Lawton) — they hadn't made the postseason in four years. Joe Louis Arena was half empty.

"It wasn't Hockeytown," said former Detroit general manager Jimmy Devellano. "They were the 'Dead Wings.' "

Devellano wanted to pick Pat LaFontaine, a local product (and future Hall of Famer) who could put butts in the seats. Yzerman, who grew up in the Ottawa suburb of Nepean, was an unknown to fans. He wasn't considered a franchise-changing prospect like a Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux.

"(Fans) didn't pronounce his name properly," Devellano said. "They called him 'Why-zerman.' "

But after the Islanders snagged LaFontaine at No. 3, the Red Wings settled for Yzerman.

"Stevie fell to us," Devellano said. "Boy, sometimes it's better to be lucky than smart. The rest was history."

• • •

Though Yzerman was the only one of five children who didn't go to college, he earned a Ph.D. in hockey. Devellano saw this early on, Yzerman one of the rare players who peppered him with questions on the inner workings of the organization.

"I was fascinated," Yzerman said.

Devellano sought out the captain's opinions on moves by the club. By 1997, Yzerman negotiated his own contracts.

"Thirty minutes are on Steve's situation," general manager Ken Holland said of the discussions. "The next two and a half hours are on the Red Wings."

Said Devellano: "I always knew he'd eventually take over a team. I felt it was in his DNA."

So was competing. It was part of everything Yzerman did.

On the golf course, Kris Draper would show up for their tee time and find Yzerman already hitting a couple of buckets of balls on the range. "He's got a full sweat, full lather going," Draper said. "That's the meticulousness of Stevie."

Yzerman was one of the game's most prolific scorers, though he often resided in the shadows of Gretzky and Lemieux, who were more flashy.

"Wayne is the greatest player that ever played the game," said defenseman Paul Coffey, who played with Gretzky, Lemieux and Yzerman. "I consider Mario the most talented player that ever played. … Stevie was a guy that wasn't 6-foot-6, but had the heart the size of the rink. His determination was second to none."

• • •

The Red Wings lost in Game 7 of the Norris Division semifinals the summer of 1993, and a dejected Yzerman took a seat in the dressing room.

It was the eighth playoff appearance in 10 seasons for Yzerman, but he still hadn't reached the Stanley Cup final. Coffey, a winner of four Cups with Gretzky's Oilers and Lemieux's Penguins, sat next to the captain, who was questioning his ability and pondering his place in history.

"He was really down," Coffey said. "He said, 'You know, I'm never going to be remembered with you guys unless I win a championship.' And I remember looking at him going, 'Wow, that's a guy that wants to be a winner.' "

There were some doubts, even in Detroit.

"The talk radio shows and media were saying, 'Can you ever win with him? Can he take the team to the next level?' " Devellano said. "It hurt him. But he stuck with it."

Devellano admits there were two scenarios where trading Yzerman was pondered in the early-to-mid 1990s.

Former teammate Gerard Gallant will never forget the season opener that followed the trade rumors. During pre-game introductions, Yzerman came out last and received a standing ovation. "The crowd showed there was no way they wanted him traded," Gallant said. "The next day, (owner Mike) Ilitch said, 'Stevie Y isn't going anywhere.' "

It took 14 seasons for Yzerman to finally win a Stanley Cup, in 1997, the first of back-to-back championships. Draper can still see that huge smile from Yzerman, who had lifted a mountain off his shoulders.

"It was weighing on him and it bothered him," Coffey said. "A lot of guys, 14 years into it, they're on the way down. It wasn't that way for him. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. That's the stuff he draws from. You experience it, you can teach it. The guy just wouldn't say, 'No.' "

• • •

Yzerman wrote into his Red Wings contract that he'd have a position in management after he retired in 2006. But he never has been one for ceremonial titles. Yzerman sat in on all the meetings, from those at the trade deadline to others with amateur scouts involving the draft. On car trips, he picked the brains of Holland and assistant GM Jim Nill.

"It was hockey, hockey, hockey, hockey," Holland said.

Yzerman became a rising star, selected to be executive director of Team Canada in 2010, leading the country to the gold medal. Soon, he'd have his own NHL team to run.

• • •

Vinik bought the Lightning in 2010, vowing to make it a "world class" organization.

The Boston hedge fund billionaire reached out to Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman for advice, telling him he wasn't looking for a quick fix. Should he hire an experienced GM, or a first timer? What about Yzerman?

"I said, 'Where could you do better?' " Bowman said. "Unfortunately, I don't see him leaving."

After all, Yzerman is as synonymous to the Red Wings as the winged wheel. On the franchise's Mount Rushmore, he trails only Gordie Howe, and even that's close.

But Vinik wooed Yzerman through a visit and a series of 100-minute phone calls, offering passion, vision and resources that reminded Yzerman of Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch.

Yzerman knew he had to tell "Mr. I" he had to move on in order to evolve.

"It was a really difficult decision at the time," Yzerman said. "I had been there for so long and it was comfortable. The uncertainty of leaving kept me up a while. But I felt like I really wanted to do this. It's something I had to do."

• • •

Yzerman said his time with the Red Wings "greatly influenced" how he performs his job, serving as model for Tampa Bay.

"It's impacted every decision," he said.

It's seen in his ability to draft well, allow prospects to develop in the minors, and hire and trust great people, including director of amateur scouting Al Murray and assistant GM Julien BriseBois.

Signing undrafted free agent Tyler Johnson or picking Ondrej Palat in the seventh round and seeing them blossom into Calder Trophy finalists gives Yzerman a sense of pride.

"What I like about management is I like building a team," Yzerman said. "Your coaching staff, your pro and amateur scouting staffs. Watching these players develop, you start watching them at 16-17, they start coming into the organization at 18-20. I like the whole process. It's challenging, but it's a lot of fun."

• • •

Coach Jon Cooper laughs when he recalls his interview with Yzerman, back in 2010, for the AHL coaching job.

"I sat outside his office, 'Steve Yzerman' was on the door," Cooper said. "I was let in and he stood behind his desk, said, 'Hi Jon, I'm Steve Yzerman.' I remember everything stopped for me. And if you could put the little cartoon bubble above my head, it'd say, 'No (kidding).'

"But I knew it'd be a comfortable interview because it was like meeting a regular guy off the street."

There are many ways friends see the "regular guy" in Yzerman, from his sneaky — and often stinging — sense of humor, to his interest in the House of Cards Netflix show and Liverpool soccer. There's his very average golf game, which became evident on his 40th birthday trip to Scotland, "We had a lot of fun," he said with a sly grin, "And played golf, too." He's a doting father, owning a "Michigan Dad" hat.

But while Yzerman wants to remain anonymous, he can't escape the reality of how famous he is. Cooper remembers when, a few months after he was hired in 2010, he joined the Lightning for its preseason game in Winnipeg. Yzerman asked him to walk with him from the hotel to the rink.

"All of a sudden, people are walking by and you can hear whispers, and they run around and come back with their cameraphones," Cooper said. "The cars, you can see people slam their brakes. I was like, (wow), I'm watching this guy stop traffic. "

• • •

Yzerman's best — and worst — move as Lightning GM might have been the same moment.

As the executive director for Team Canada, Yzerman was determined to lead his home country to its second straight gold medal in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

But, Yzerman was also the GM of the Lightning, and his captain, Marty St. Louis, the best player in franchise history, didn't initially make the Canada roster.

"Marty was very, very close," said Bob Nicholson, former Team Canada president. "There was a time he was on, and a time he was off. Steve was more on having him (on the team) than off. But it was a group decision. Steve had the right to overturn, but throughout the whole process, he had never done that before, so he wasn't going to do it then."

Yzerman called it a very difficult decision. Although he later was added to the team, St. Louis, who had also been left off the 2010 team, demanded a trade to the Rangers, but Yzerman managed to net Ryan Callahan and two first-round picks.

"I think it was masterful," former Lightning GM Jay Feaster said of the deal.

• • •

Yzerman's stare doesn't drift too far into the future.

He loves the area and is excited about his team's nucleus, showing faith in Vinik by signing an extension last summer through 2018-19. But the Lightning, which hasn't won a playoff game since 2011, is still in the "relatively early" stage of his plan. Ask him about being here 27 years, as he was in Detroit, and Yzerman laughs.

"In order to be here that long, we have to have success," Yzerman said. "I don't look that far ahead. But we're starting to build something and, hopefully, we can get there and win, and just keep doing it over and over and over. But that's a long way off."

Contact Joe Smith at Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.


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