Published Jan. 13, 2020
If any hockey executive who’s active in the NHL today knows about patience and trusting the process, it’s Steve Yzerman.
It took Yzerman 14 years to taste Stanley Cup champagne as a player, from the time he entered the league as a soft-spoken, wide-eyed rookie in 1983, to that June night in 1997 when the Red Wings ended their 42-year Cup drought.
In those 14 years, 11 of which were spent with he as captain of the club, Yzerman held countless post-game and post-series interviews at his locker stall, trying to put into words the sting of the Red Wings’ latest playoff exit.
There surely must have been moments when he felt that maybe he simply wasn’t fated to be a champion. He wouldn’t have been the first superstar to never hoist Stanley.
But the Cups came eventually for Yzerman in Detroit—three of them as a player and one as a team executive.
Yzerman saw the pitfalls of the attempts at a quick fix with the Red Wings in 1985-86, when GM Jimmy Devellano was given owner Mike Ilitch’s checkbook and told to go to town. Jimmy D signed a plethora of college and NHL free agents in the summer of ’85, trying for a shortcut to winning hockey after more than a decade of ice follies. It failed. Miserably.
Yzerman saw the attempts at copping a Cup with a roster filled with hardworking role players in the Jacques Demers years. It failed, though not nearly as miserably.
It was only after the Red Wings hired a Hall of Fame coach and dotted the roster with Hall of Fame players (of which Yzerman was one), that the pinnacle was finally reached.
Yzerman is, at his core, still that shy, soft-spoken man. A deliberate speaker who chooses his words carefully. There were times in those post-mortems as a player, where the emotions were high and the sweat and tears real, that Stevie was barely audible.
Yzerman is sure to frustrate many Red Wings fans of today, it says here.
The hockey team is merely one of four professional teams in Detroit that are undergoing a rebuild. The city’s fans are at their wit’s end. Losing has come fast and furious. Every player worth his salt in this town is battling injury, or so it seems. It’s an ugly scene.
The fans want quick fixes—or at least quicker. They’re tired of being patient, even though that’s the only thing they can be at this juncture. To paraphrase Casey Stengel, “Can’t anyone here play this game?”
But Yzerman won’t do anything rash in his role as Red Wings GM, which he assumed in April 2019. He’s not a bull in a china shop. He never has been, and he isn’t about to start now.
The fans want the coach fired, for one. Jeff Blashill is in his fifth year behind the bench for the Red Wings and a salient argument could be made (and I’ve tried to make it, more than once) that his time has come and gone.
The fans want trades to be made, sooner rather than later. They want the newer draft picks to be with the Red Wings yesterday. In essence, they want to see, in short order, the “right stuff” that they believe Yzerman the GM possesses. And they want to see it right now.
But that’s not how Yzerman operates and it’s not what the fans are going to see—the same fans who were all-too-eager to see predecessor Kenny Holland take a hike.
Instead, they’ll see the same guy (Yzerman) that they saw for 22 years as a player, and have seen from afar in his work as Tampa Bay’s GM. Patient. Deliberate. Insightful. No move made without considering every consequence—both short term and long term.
Last week, Yzerman sat down with Red Wings radio voice Ken Kal and gave a midseason assessment of the worst team (by far) in the National Hockey League. And, true to Stevie’s way, there no words of fire and brimstone. Nothing to get the fans’ juices going. He predictably didn’t throw them any red meat.
“My plan isn’t to be passive,” Yzerman said in the closest thing to showing signs of impatience. “I’m looking for ways to build for the future and trying to acquire draft picks or prospects or young players that can come into the organization sooner or later.”
Not sexy stuff. But smart, and true hockey people know this to be the case.
On first round draft picks Joe Veleno (forward, 2018) and Mo Seider (defenseman, 2019), Yzerman said, “Do we bring up the (Joe) Velenos and (Mo) Seiders and give them a feel for the NHL? I won’t say absolutely you’re going to see this player or that player here, but I think it’s safe to assume that at some point some of these young guys will get up here and play some games as the season winds down.”
Measured words. Typical Yzerman.
But it’s the fate of Blashill that has the fans the most riled up. And here is where Yzerman might be the cause of some frustration.
Yzerman pointed to injuries, which might drive some customers nuts. The team has played without top defenseman Danny DeKeyser for nearly the entire season while key forwards Anthony Mantha and Andreas Athanasiou have missed extensive time, though in the latter’s instance, the production has been subpar even when healthy.
“We’ve had injuries from day one of training camp,” Yzerman said in his reasoning for not necessarily holding the coaching staff’s skates to the fire. “The injuries make it really difficult to really know what you truly have.”
But don’t characterize Yzerman’s deliberate approach as his being slow on the uptake. He’s taking notes. He’s making his assessments. He’s getting his feel for the pulse of the organization.
He’s just not doing it with the recklessness and rancor that some fans would like to see. And he never will.