Just as in his playing days, Yzerman obsessed with winning Stanley Cup as GM

Published April 20, 2019

The man who would save Hockeytown was in full Clark Kent mode.

Bespectacled. Unassuming. Mild-mannered. Apologizing when one of his answers was a little long-winded. Maybe even a tad nervous.

Stevie Yzerman hasn’t changed a bit.

They handed him the reins of one of the most storied franchises in all of professional sports on Friday—forget just hockey—and all he has to do is get it to winning Stanley Cups again, sooner rather than later.

“I know there’s a limit to the fans’ patience here,” he said at his introductory presser at Little Caesars Arena, and he said it with that aw, shucks grin that he’s been flashing in Detroit since 1983, when he arrived with peach fuzz as an 18-year-old rookie player.

But Yzerman can’t change in a phone booth. He can’t leap tall buildings in a single bound. And the task at hand won’t be faster than a speeding bullet.

“If you’re old enough, you remember that we’ve been through this before,” he said, referring to his early playing days in the NHL, when the Red Wings did things like win 17 games and surrender over 400 goals in a season.

Rebuilds nothing new for Yzerman

And Yzerman has been through this kind of thing before, too. At age 21, coach Jacques Demers, in either a remarkable display of prescience or damn fool luck, named Yzerman his captain, with the Red Wings coming off that 40-point nightmare.

Here’s the C, kid, good luck!

You know the rest.

Yzerman now has to do as the Red Wings’ new GM what he did as a player, which is nothing less than win at least one more Stanley Cup. When he said on Friday that it takes time, he neglected to mention that as a player, it took Stevie’s teams 14 seasons to win hockey’s Holy Grail.

That’s not going to fly as GM—not for the fans, and certainly not for Yzerman.

It should have come as no surprise that just because Yzerman went from sweater to suit, he’s no less driven. He said so on Friday, mentioning several times that his biggest disappointment while at the helm in Tampa for nine seasons was not bringing a second Stanley Cup to that franchise. And he reiterated how badly he wants to do so as a GM.

And he wants to do it in Detroit. Badly.

He wore a Red Wings lapel pin on his jacket, matching the logo that’s embroidered on his heart. Really, if Yzerman was going to get back into the GM game after stepping back from it last fall in Tampa, would it be anywhere else than in Detroit? And with his 54th birthday coming up soon (May 9), you can believe that hockey retirement is far, far away.

The length of Yzerman’s contract wasn’t revealed on Friday, but that hardly matters now. According to the fans, Superman has arrived to save Metropolis, er, Hockeytown.

Not just a brilliant PR move

The Red Wings hit the Daily Double here. Not only are they getting the PR glory from bringing a legend back into the fold, they also happen to be getting one of the best hockey executives in the league. This isn’t the Pistons hiring a green Joe Dumars and hoping for the best.

Yzerman went out of his way several times to give props to his predecessor, Kenny Holland, who is willingly moving upstairs to his new role as Sr. Vice President, so Yzerman can sit in the GM’s seat.

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“I have a lot of questions (for Holland). I’m going to want his opinions,” Yzerman told the media throng, and there was a throng, alright. The attendance was like for his retirement press conference in 2006, only the emotions were 180 degrees opposite from that day. Back then, the thing to do was look back and be wistful. Today, it’s all about looking ahead and being hopeful.

Speaking of which, Yzerman could very easily fail here. Only one team out of 31 gets to skate the Cup around the ice when all is said and done. And despite building his stellar reputation as a GM in Tampa, Yzerman could do no better than one Finals appearance (lost in six games to the Blackhawks in 2015) in nine seasons with the Lightning. And his teams missed the playoffs entirely three times.

“It’s hard to do,” Yzerman said, and he was talking about replicating his on-ice success as a suit in the front office.

Listening to Yzerman on Friday and studying his face as he spoke, I’m convinced that, while the Stanley Cup was his white whale for so long as a player, it is no less so as a GM. It bothers him that he hasn’t been able to achieve that goal in the front office.

Sitting to Yzerman’s right on the dais Friday was his mentor, Holland, who’s won three Cups as a GM. And I must admit that although I’ve been one of Kenny’s harshest critics in recent years, he’s actually done a nice job of setting the table for someone of Yzerman’s ilk to finish the job.

At the presser, Stevie joked that for a time, he thought that because of guys like Jim Nill (assistant GM who eventually joined the Dallas Stars) in place in Detroit, by the time Yzerman would get a chance to be the Red Wings GM, “I’d be a hundred years old.”

“I feel a hundred right now, frankly,” he added.

The fans feel like a million. This is what they’ve wanted ever since Yzerman left in 2010, truth be told.

For the fans, Christmas in April

They say that the things that hardly ever come true are your wildest dreams and your worst fears.

For the fans, this is the former. When it leaked early Friday morning that the Red Wings had called a 3 p.m. presser, with Holland, Yzerman and owner Chris Ilitch in attendance, Twitter was abuzz with GIFs of joy and happy tears. Some folks get quite creative on the Interwebs.

The presser was streamed live on Facebook, and the emotions continued there, with “Welcome home!” and “We love you!” comments scrolling at breakneck speed throughout the event.

Yzerman could fail. His white whale, which he finally slayed in 1997 and captured twice more for good measure as a player, could go back into elusive mode. The obsession with winning a Stanley Cup as a GM—and that’s exactly what I think it is for him—might never be realized.

That’s not throwing shade. That’s being real.

But I do know this. If any executive in the NHL has the pedigree and the drive and the smarts to turn the Red Wings back into Stanley Cup winners, the team just hired him.

That Steve Yzerman also happens to be one of the most beloved athletes to ever toil in this town, is icing on the cake. Pun only partly intended.

Come to think of it, have you ever seen Superman and Yzerman in the same place at the same time?

Hmmm…..

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Book it: Yzerman will become Red Wings GM this summer

Published Feb. 9, 2019

The Wings of change are coming.

I’m not one for predictions, but here’s one.

The Red Wings will overhaul in the off-season, and that overhaul will include a distinctive new look in the front office and a new man behind the bench.

I’m not, as Jim Leyland would say, the Lone Ranger here. I know that I’m not putting forth something that hasn’t been bandied about, but I believe it’s fait accomplit.

Stevie Yzerman is coming home. And Jeff Blashill is going home.

The fact that coach Blashill, in the final year of his four-year contract, hasn’t yet been offered an extension, shouldn’t be a mystery. The Red Wings have no desire to retain Blashill beyond this season.

That’s because they want their new GM, Yzerman, to pick his own coach. Among other things.

Stevie Y in, Blashill out

Book it. Current GM Kenny Holland, whose contract runs through the 2019-20 season, will step aside this summer into a more consultant role–think Jimmy Devellano–and Yzerman, whose contract with the Tampa Bay Lightning expires after this season and hasn’t been extended, will be hired by the Red Wings.

An alternate scenario is that Holland stays through 2020 and then seeks another GM job in the NHL.

Regardless, Yzerman is taking over. Blashill will be out, and Stevie Y will use his clout to hire a big name coach, perhaps one who is currently under contract with an NHL team as we speak.

Someone like John Tortorella, currently bench boss of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

I’m not spewing this forward just to read myself write.

Call it reading the tea leaves, or playing a significant hunch. I might plop a Jackson down on it. You might think it’s worth a Grant or even a Franklin.

Yzerman shocked, but after the shock wore off, it made sense, when he announced last September that he was stepping back from his GM role with the Lightning into a more consultant role in order to fulfill the remaining year on his contract in Tampa.

Not a Tampa guy at heart

Then, he would essentially become a free agent—and thus the most sought after hockey executive in recent memory.

I’ve written it before. Yzerman is no more a Tampa guy, at heart, than Bo Schembechler was a Texas guy. Yzerman took the Lightning gig in 2010 and it was the right thing to do at the time. He was blocked in Detroit, yet had served his apprenticeship to the degree that he was ready to be in charge of his own team. Even a team as lousy as the Lightning, when Stevie took it over.

You know what’s happened since. Multiple Stanley Cup-contending teams in Tampa and the overseeing of a well-oiled hockey machine, from top to bottom. A Cup has eluded him in Tampa but that doesn’t tarnish his look as an executive whatsoever.

Multiple teams would stumble all over themselves to ink Yzerman this summer. The Philadelphia Flyers were reportedly interested last fall, but even the Flyer brass admitted that bidding against the Red Wings, the logo of which Yzerman has branded on his heart, would be a tough deal.

It’s Detroit or bust for Yzerman. He never sold his home in the suburbs, even after moving to Tampa.

Yzerman will be 54 years old in May. For a sports executive, that’s called being in your prime. Yzerman could take the Red Wings job and never work for another NHL team again.

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The case against Blashill

As for Blashill, Yzerman might consider retaining him except for a few disturbing items.

One, the development of players who could have taken that next step when Blashill took over in 2015, simply hasn’t happened.

Players such as Gustav Nyquist, Justin Abdelkader, Andreas Athanasiou, Riley Sheahan and even goalie Petr Mrazek are examples of either unrealized potential or becoming stagnant in terms of growth. Or, worse, regression.

Two is Blashill’s reluctance to call out veterans, and instead levy his discipline and benching to just the young guys. Sitting defenseman Dennis Cholowski, a British Columbia native, on a night when friends and family were expected in the crowd in Vancouver, was odd timing.

Why doesn’t Blashill tell someone like Abdelkader, who’s been awful since he signed his big contract in 2016, to watch a game or two from the press box? Anyone can punish a kid like Cholowski. You and I could do that.

Third, is the maddening frequency with which the Red Wings have become unglued in the third period under Blashill, blowing one lead after another.

Full transparency here. I was on board with the Blashill hiring in 2015 after Mike Babcock followed his instincts—and gobs of cash—and moved on to Toronto.

Blashill, who was coaching the Red Wings’ minor league affiliate in Grand Rapids, was traveling a natural path toward Red Wings coach, especially when you consider how often the organization rewards loyalty. Plus, he had led the Griffins to an AHL championship in 2013.

So it would be disingenuous—plus just plain dishonest—to posit myself as having squawked about the Red Wings’ hiring of Blashill from the get go.

But with Yzerman dangling in front of the Red Wings, Blashill’s fate seems sealed anyway. Blashill is 45 years old. He will have other NHL opportunities, even if as an assistant coach.

A PR field day, but also a smart hockey move

Detroit sports fans are crying for something to get excited about. The state of pro sports in Motown is as bad as it’s ever been, and I’m including the awful 1970s.

The hiring of Yzerman would not only instantly vault the Red Wings to kings of the town once again, it would be a solid hockey move.

Don’t listen to the nonsense about Red Wings owner Chris Ilitch not wanting to hire Yzerman, for whatever reasons. And I think Holland would be more amenable to a change now, than he was when it was suggested to him before Yzerman left for Tampa.

Despite my frequent criticism of Kenny, I must admit that he’s laid a solid foundation in the current rebuild—though he was slow on the uptake. Holland has set the franchise up for success for a seasoned man like Yzerman to massage. And Stevie knows it.

Yzerman is too good of a hockey man, too wise and cerebral, to make a career move of this magnitude based on emotions alone. If the Red Wings were an unmitigated disaster, he wouldn’t come home.

But there are enough good, young players, both in Detroit and coming through the pipeline, and there will soon be plenty of salary cap space, to enable Yzerman to do his thing successfully with the Red Wings.

It would be stunning, I believe, if Yzerman took his next NHL job with any team other than the Red Wings, despite any reports to the contrary.

I believe the prospect of winning a Stanley Cup as a GM for the first time, with the same team that he won as a player three times (and one as a front office apprentice), is too good for Yzerman to pass up. It’s too enticing.

And, Mother Hubbard’s cupboard isn’t bare with the Red Wings. There’s enough to work with here. There’s enough to get Yzerman’s signature on a contract, emotions and nostalgia aside.

Change is coming. Significant in nature. Stevie Yzerman is going to join the Red Wings this summer and he’s going to make this town go crazy for hockey again.

Book it.

Forty years later, Holland has chance to avenge wrongs of Terrible Ted

Published April 14, 2018

In 1978, the Red Wings had two picks in the first round of the NHL entry draft. It was the last time such an occurrence…occurred.

They have two picks in the first round this year. Right on time—once every 40 years.

The Red Wings’ GM at the time was Terrible Ted Lindsay. As a player, Teddy’s nickname was appropriate for his on-ice behavior, which was of nasty countenance. As a GM, the nickname was also appropriate.

The Red Wings in 1978, in Teddy’s first year in the front office, were coming off a rebirth of sorts. They doubled their win total from 16 to 32. Their points total went from 41 to 78. They made the playoffs for the first time in eight years. They even won a series, though it was one of those best-of-three jobs that the league held in those days.

The mighty Montreal Canadiens blasted the Wings out in five games in the next round, but it was still a remarkable season. Teddy looked like he would be pretty good at this GM thing.

But the summer of 1978 showed that Teddy still had a lot to learn.

Rebirth aborted

It started with the draft.

The Red Wings had those two first round picks and coming off a season in which fan interest was the highest it had been in nearly a decade, the team looked to be on the precipice of good times after the dreary years of Darkness With Harkness—that old-time Red Wings fan’s moniker bestowed on embattled GM Ned Harkness.

Then Terrible Ted lived up to his nickname, the wrong way.

Lindsay drafted Willie Huber, a German-born defenseman, with the ninth overall pick. Three slots later, Lindsay grabbed Brent Peterson, a forward from Alberta. Both were 20 years old.

Within five years, both were traded, ending up as nothing more than fodder in multi-player deals.

Peterson never lived up to his hype as a high-scoring power forward type, scoring a whopping eight goals in his 91 games as a Red Wing. He was traded with a bunch of higher profile Red Wings to the Buffalo Sabres in 1981.

Huber was a little better but in the summer of 1983 he was part of a multi-player trade with the New York Rangers. Huber played in 372 games as a Red Wing but never was he a Norris Trophy candidate, which isn’t unreasonable to expect from a ninth overall pick.

The point is that Teddy had two first round picks and neither helped the franchise get over the next hump.

Image result for willie huber red wings

Willie Huber, selected ninth overall by the Red Wings in the 1978 draft, was one of two first round picks that year whose NHL career was underwhelming.

Lindsay capped off a bad off-season by signing 33-year-old, washed up goalie Rogie Vachon from the L.A. Kings. The signing cost the Red Wings young Dale McCourt as compensation, and only a long court battle kept McCourt on the Red Wings. The Kings had to settle for Andre St. Laurent, an older and much less appealing player.

Teddy won the battle but he lost the war. Vachon was horrible with the Red Wings and was traded two years later.

Why all this bluster about the bad old days?

Forty years later, another golden opportunity

Kenny Holland, who just re-upped for another two years as Red Wings GM—not what I would have done if I was the Red Wings but that’s another story—has two first round draft picks at his disposal this summer.

The Red Wings, according to the mathematicians, have a less than nine percent chance of turning their fifth overall pick into the number one in the NHL’s lottery. The prize this year is generational defenseman Rasmus Dahlin, who has league observers drooling.

Assuming the Red Wings don’t get Dahlin, they will have two chances to slice even deeper into their rebuild in the first round.

Holland, his lieutenants and his scouts better get it right.

The Red Wings have, all told, 11 picks in this year’s draft, which is to Holland’s credit. I’ve been a critic, but I have to be fair. Eleven picks is 11 picks. The Red Wings can make the 2018 draft one that NHL experts and historians will look back on as the turning point in the team’s return to glory.

The entry draft in the NHL is much like that of the NFL. It’s sometimes nothing more than a glorified game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Yet countless time, energy, money and resources are put into this game. The experts will grade the Red Wings as soon as the last pick is made. They will apparently use a crystal ball that no one else possesses to tell us which teams had a good draft and which teams didn’t. As if.

But one thing isn’t debatable. The Red Wings have an opportunity that rarely presents itself. Any franchise that wants to undergo a self-facelift would fall all over itself to have two first round draft picks among 11 overall. A franchise could accelerate things greatly with such an opportunity.

It’s all there for the Red Wings and the newly-extended Ken Holland.

All they have to do is not blow it.

Why Jeff Blashill should go

Published Dec. 2, 2017

The easiest way to dismiss the Red Wings is to say that they’re simply not good enough.

That would be a quick, nice and tidy way to wash your hands of them. On to the next topic!

It’s true that the Red Wings aren’t very good. They weren’t predicted to be very good before the season began, and after coming out of the gate with a 4-1 record, they’re proving the prognosticators to be correct.

They lack several top-flight defensemen. They struggle to score because they don’t have enough “finishers,” as they say in the hockey world. I like to call them “snipers.” Same thing. The goaltending can’t be trusted, no matter how much you’d like to believe in Jimmy Howard. They can’t win in overtime to save their souls.

All true.

But what’s the most damning about the Red Wings isn’t their lack of talent. It’s their lack of heart.

Same old tired refrain

“We have to fix it.”

“We have to clean that up.”

“We played stupid hockey.”

“We have to be better.”

These are the same, tired refrains pouring out of the dressing room from the players and the coach after the latest uninspired loss.

The Red Wings like to play 20 minutes of hockey per night. Sometimes they’ll surprise you and play 40. It takes them two games, at least, to cobble together 60 good minutes.

The 20 minutes they play may come in the first period, they may come in the second period, they may come in the third period. And it’s not even 20 consecutive minutes, necessarily.

The rest of the time?

“We have too many passengers,” is how the coach summed up a recent loss.

Jeff Blashill is trying really hard, I believe that. He’s tried calling out young Anthony Mantha. He’s tried withholding ice time from Andreas Athanasiou and Dylan Larkin. He’s tried juggling lines, until he stopped. He’s implored his club, via the media, to step it up.

Nothing’s really worked.

Blashill, to his credit, isn’t delusional. He didn’t arrive at training camp at Traverse City trying to sell the fan base a bill of goods about his hockey team. He didn’t portend that the Red Wings were a playoff team—not even a no. 8 seed. He didn’t take the “Why not us?” mentality that some coaches use when their players aren’t as talented as others in the league—a smoke and mirrors tact to get them to believe in themselves.

Blashill, from the jump, warned anyone who would listen that the Red Wings would have to work their collective asses off to get every stinking point they could muster this season. He knew he wasn’t coaching the 2002 Red Wings.

It’s fair to wonder if everyone was listening to the coach’s warning except the players.

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Veteran players free from Blashill’s wrath

I’m not usually one of those “fire the coach” types, especially mid-season. But firing the coach mid-season is a professional sports fetish. And I’m getting close to advising the Red Wings to break the glass and reach for the alarm.

The Red Wings haven’t sacked a coach mid-season since they released poor Harry Neale from his bondage the day before New Year’s Eve in 1985, replacing him with the ill-equipped Brad Park.

In fact, the team hasn’t even canned a coach, period, since they didn’t renew Dave Lewis’ contract after two seasons of following in Scotty Bowman’s skate steps, in the summer of 2005.

But how many times do we have to hear Blashill and his players say the same thing, loss after loss?

Well, what would you have them say, you might ask me.

Good question. Which is why the coach should be on the hot seat.

If the refrain is the same, and if it seems to center around effort and loss of focus during games—which it does, then whose fault is that?

I notice that Blashill has tried a lot, but he hasn’t tried calling out any of his veterans. Instead, he’s picked on poor Mantha, a 23-year-old kid who’s still trying to grow into his body, let alone grow into a consistent NHL player. The coach has picked on Larkin and Athanasiou.

Free from scourge has been anyone over the age of 25. I find that odd.

I understand the desire to challenge the kids and give them a baptism by fire into the ways of the National League. But that’s only who Blashill has publicly called out. I haven’t seen any reduction of ice time from players who have more than three years’ tenure in the NHL. For example, I haven’t heard Blashill say—not once—that Justin Abdelkader needs to step it up. And Abbie has been a passenger too often since inking his big contract a couple years ago—a contract that I endorsed.

I haven’t seen Blashill park Jonathan Ericsson’s butt on the pine despite one goofball play in his own zone after the other.

I haven’t heard Blashill wonder where his veteran leadership is.

It’s easy to hold young players’ skates to the fire. And it’s fine to do so, to a degree.

The Red Wings aren’t very good. That’s true. But they also don’t bring forth a total effort very often. That’s true, too.

Too much bad, unfocused hockey

The other night against the Canadiens at Little Caesars Arena—their new home and where they rarely win—the Red Wings played a decent first period then came out for the middle stanza in a fog. You half wondered if they consumed a huge meal in the dressing room during the intermission.

The Canadiens, who haven’t been world beaters this season and who were missing some key players, looked like the Firewagon Hockey Habs of the 1950s or 1970s. They skated circles around the dazed Red Wings.

The reporters needn’t have bothered to enter the dressing room afterward for quotes. They only needed to cue up their saved recordings from any game of their choosing this season.

Jeff Blashill in his third season of coaching the Red Wings. He’s following a tough act in Mike Babcock, but too often, the team hasn’t responded to Blashill. It may not be his fault. But when was the last time a coach got fired because things were expressly his fault?

Country Club culture

The Red Wings appear to need a new voice. They appear to need a swift kick in the hockey pants. It’s fair to theorize that too many “key” players don’t respect the coach as they should.

The Red Wings right now are victims of their own winning, Kumbaya culture. The culture where everyone is a Red Wing for life and gets a job after their playing days are done, should they want one—even the fourth line players. The culture where no one gets fired and pluggers like Luke Glendening get awarded fat contracts. The culture where there’s no true fear for your job. The culture that merely points to the Winged Wheel on the sweater and thinks that’s enough. The culture where you merely promote the minor league coach instead of conducting a real search.

The Red Wings are run like a country club in a league that requires a less privileged atmosphere from time to time.

You can’t only call out the kids while the veterans get off scot-free, for example.

Since this is a culture issue, the coach can’t solely be at blame. Culture starts at the top of an organization, not at the middle.

So what I’m proposing isn’t likely.

I’m proposing that the Red Wings let Jeff Blashill go and look for a coach—outside the organization with zero ties to the Red Wings (not even a fan of the team as a kid)—who won’t put up with the nonsense we see on an almost nightly basis. Someone who couldn’t care less if they ruffle the feathers of Justin Abdelkader or Jonathan Ericsson or Gustav Nyquist.

I’d suggest John Tortorella but he’s not available. But someone like Torts, who whipped the sad-sack Columbus Blue Jackets into shape almost immediately when brought in midway through the 2015-16 season.

I don’t think Red Wings GM Kenny Holland—who is also quite complicit here—has the temerity to fire Blashill, a friend. Especially not during the season.

But he should.

This time, the fans are right: Stevie needs to come home

Published April 13, 2017

Some guys just wear certain threads well.

Al Kaline looks splendid in the Old English D. Can you imagine Al wearing anything else?

How out of place was it to see Tony Dorsett wearing the orange of the Denver Broncos? Or Hank Aaron in those hideous Milwaukee Brewer duds?

Ask Boston Bruins fans what they think of Bobby Orr wearing the Chicago Blackhawks sweater and be prepared to duck.

Stevie Yzerman still looks good in the Winged Wheel, doesn’t he?

On Sunday evening, Yzerman donned the blood red sweater yet again, as the Red Wings alumni helped bid farewell to Joe Louis Arena.

The adoring faithful chanted “Come home Stevie!” as Yzerman stepped onto the red carpeted ice, raising a hockey stick at the Joe one last time.

The chant was obvious. The fans want Yzerman to be the Red Wings’ next general manager.

Yzerman still looks good in the Winged Wheel.

It’s been five years since Yzerman took the Tampa Bay Lightning GM job and folks around Hockeytown still refuse to accept the images of Stevie giving press briefings with the Lightning bolt logo behind him.

Red Wings fans still think of the Lightning job as Yzerman’s apprenticeship in being an NHL front office guy. In their minds, Yzerman learned some executive ropes with the Red Wings after his 2006 retirement as a player, then went to Tampa to ply his new trade, and so it’s time to come home, seasoned in the ways of managing an NHL team.

And you know what? They’re right. It’s time. If not now, then soon.

The fans’ trust in Red Wings GM Kenny Holland is at an all-time low. And with good reason.

Despite missing the playoffs for the first time since 1991, which was several years coming, Holland still seems to be resistant to the notion that the Red Wings are in for a significant overhaul.

The fans have been bracing themselves, and are now ready, for a new era of Red Wings hockey. Missing the playoffs this spring was almost cathartic—to them.

Holland doesn’t seem to have the chops, or the wherewithal, to plunge into the depths of this new challenge. He’s not used to it. He’s never done it before.

Holland has been the Red Wings’ GM since 1997. That’s an awful long time to be a front office guy in professional sports, which is the ultimate “What have you done for me lately?” business.

It’s admirable, and the Holland era has been marked with three Stanley Cups under his watch. But people and their ideas get stale. You can even say that the game passes them by.

The fans want Yzerman to replace Holland, and they want it yesterday.

The Red Wings could do worse.

Yzerman isn’t a Tampa guy. It’s not in his DNA. He still resides in the Detroit area. You can tell from his words and emotions that he doesn’t just bleed red, he bleeds Red Wing red. The Winged Wheel is tattooed onto his heart.

The Lightning didn’t even come into existence until Yzerman was 10 years into his playing career.

Tampa is nice. It’s sunny and warm during the hockey season. But is that hockey weather, really?

Yzerman is Canadian first, Detroit second. He knows his way around a shovel and an ice scraper.

He has two years remaining on his contract with the Lightning, but you know how it goes with sports contracts. Where there’s a will, there’s a way to wriggle out of them.

Yzerman is too modest, too humble, too polite to say anything remotely indicative that he’d like to run the Red Wings. He has too much respect for Holland, for one, and for a fellow GM second.

But if you pumped Stevie full of truth serum, he’d tell you that he’d be thrilled to do for the Red Wings as a manager what he did for them three times as a player.

Yzerman is a seasoned GM now. This isn’t some former star player who’s never stepped foot into an executive washroom who’s being drafted by the fans to learn on the job.

So we know that being a general manager is something that Yzerman enjoys. He built the Lightning into Cup finalists in short order. He has been, without question, a success in the Tampa front office. He’s drafted well. He made some bold coaching decisions.

Frankly, Steve Yzerman threw himself into the Tampa job as if he’d been an NHL manager for years. He looks to be a natural.

But he’s not a Tampa guy. Not for the long haul. He’ll never wear the lightning bolt on his sleeve, truly.

The pull of the Red Wings is strong for him, I believe. So strong, that if the Red Wings gave him a call, he’d listen. Hard.

Image result for steve yzerman joe louis arena april 9

Yzerman bade farewell to the JLA on Sunday, and he still looks good in the Winged Wheel.

Then there’s the matter of the Ilitch family.

There are rumblings that as long as Christopher Ilitch is running the show, Yzerman-to-Detroit won’t happen, for whatever reason. And Mike’s kid has already come out publicly in full support of Holland.

But you know how public votes of confidence go in sports. I’ve seen them followed by a firing less than 24 hours later.

I have no idea if the “Chris Ilitch will never hire Steve Yzerman” thing is true, nor do I know why it would be. Yzerman was always like a son to Mike and Marian Ilitch. And Marian is still alive and kicking.

Holland isn’t the man for this challenge that the Red Wings currently face. I firmly believe that. Kenny needs to be with a team that’s on the verge of winning, or is still relevant. He’s not built for this. Or, he needs to be booted even further upstairs with the Red Wings than he already is.

I know it can be tricky to pump for a local hero to return to his roots. Those stories don’t always end well.

And I remember what happened when the fans and the media cried for Dickie Vitale to coach the Pistons in 1978.

Yet John Elway has done wonderfully with the Denver Broncos. Mario Lemieux has done the same with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Jimmy Harbaugh has full support at Michigan after two seasons.

It can be done successfully.

Perhaps Yzerman, in his earlier days of retirement, would have been more reticent to take on the GM role with the Red Wings. He likely would have seen himself as ill-equipped and too green for such a job. I can buy that.

Yzerman isn’t green any longer. He’s wise in the ways of running an NHL team. He’s got to be more comfortable in his own skin now, wearing Armani and wing tips instead of Nike and skates.

The Red Wings are ripe for change. They’re moving into a new arena. Their playoff streak is over. The old guard is pretty much gone.

The front office, led by Holland, has become stale. There’s no crime in that. It happens to the best of franchises.

Yzerman represents not only change, but competent change. He’s bold. He’s got an eye for talent. He understands player development. He knows what makes a good coach, and what doesn’t.

Yzerman would be taking over the Red Wings in a period of decline, which is probably the way it should be. Expectations are the lowest now than they’ve been for over 20 years in Detroit. No honest fan believes the Wings are on the verge of greatness.

But there’s some young talent on the roster. There are enough veterans who can still play who can help the kids along.

Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard isn’t bare.

Ken Holland, as it was duly noted on social media, didn’t speak during the Joe’s farewell festivities on Sunday. Sometimes silence can be deafening.

Holland was holed away while Yzerman, who the fans think could walk from Detroit to Windsor on the river, took his bows and enjoyed his thunderous ovations.

It can be tricky to pump for local heroes to return. But it’s not a doomed proposition, either.

Yzerman is still under contract with the Lightning. So what? You think that’s ironclad?

The fans chanted it on Sunday night, and so it’s repeated here, now.

Come home, Stevie. The Red Wings need you. Again.

 

 

Red Wings about to bookend the JLA era with playoff-less seasons

Published February 19, 2017

The ovation was thunderous.

The throng stood for a solid seven minutes. Thirty-three years of love was pouring forth.

The man they cheered didn’t have his name announced. He went by a number.

“From the Hartford Whalers,” the public address announcer said, “number nine!”

Number nine. It was all that needed to be said.

Gordie Howe skated onto the ice, the last player announced at the 1980 NHL All-Star Game. The game was played at the new Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, which opened for hockey just six weeks earlier. But Howe wasn’t introduced by name. He didn’t need to be.

“Number nine!”

They stood and yelled and cheered at the JLA on that February night in 1980—an ovation as loud and as long as there would ever be in the barn for the next 37 years, including for Stanley Cup-winning celebrations.

Howe, ever humble and “golly, gee whiz,” acknowledged the thunder, almost sheepishly.

He raised his stick to the crowd and skated out of the line of players for a moment, then returned to his place, thinking that the noise would die down and they could get on with playing the game.

But the noise didn’t stop.

Howe tried it again a few moments later. He returned to his place in line.

But the noise didn’t stop.

Finally, even Howe allowed himself a chuckle at what he no doubt thought was the over-the-top reaction of the hockey fans in the city to which he was attached from 1946-71 as a player.

Young Red Wings defenseman Reed Larson, an All-Star teammate of Howe’s that evening, began giggling at the legend’s reaction to the ovation. There are videos of it all over the Internet.

The new JLA was designed to hold 20,000-plus for hockey, but attendance that night is probably 10 times that by now, if you go by the number of people who say they were there the night Gordie Howe was introduced at the 1980 All-Star Game.

The All-Star love thrown at Howe that night would be the last big night at the Joe for over four years.

Image result for 1980 nhl all star game gordie howe

Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky and Phil Esposito pose before the 1980 NHL All-Star Game at then-new Joe Louis Arena.

The next big night would come in April 1984, when the Red Wings finally played their first playoff game at JLA. The Red Wings lost in overtime. They played a playoff game the next night at the Joe. The Red Wings lost in overtime. Their season was thus ended in four games by the St. Louis Blues.

There were no playoffs for the Red Wings in the spring of 1980, JLA’s first spring as a functioning hockey barn.

There will be no playoffs for the Red Wings in the spring of 2017, in JLA’s final spring as a functioning hockey barn.

It’s amazingly ironic that the Red Wings, despite annual playoff participation from 1991-2016, will cap their run at JLA in bookend fashion.

No playoffs when they christened the arena, and no playoffs when they say goodbye.

Yet it would be highly cynical to say that this year’s Red Wings team is in the same boat as the 1980 version, despite the non-playoff common denominator.

The Red Wings of 1980 had missed the playoffs in all but one year since 1970, and would endure three more years of postseason absence before qualifying in 1984 with a gnarly record of 31-42-7.

This year’s team, while saying goodbye to a 25-year playoff streak and having its warts and its salary cap issues, is not the ragamuffin group that first stepped onto Joe Louis Arena ice on December 27, 1979.

There are several young players on the 2016-17 Red Wings and in the minor league system around whom the franchise can build. That was certainly not the case in 1979-80. Only Dale McCourt and the aforementioned Larson were up-and-coming “star” players of that time. The minor league affiliate, Adirondack, was bereft.

There are building blocks now, but there’s still the question of which path Kenny Holland and his lieutenants in the front office will take as the February 28 trading deadline fast approaches.

These are perilous times for the Red Wings.

In 1980, the Red Wings were in the middle of a freefall as a franchise that began in 1970 and wouldn’t right itself until 1986-87.

Today, there’s no freefall—yet—but there has been a fall from grace, which isn’t necessarily the same thing, if you handle things correctly.

Holland needs to be a seller a week from Tuesday. It’s not a role that he’s played—ever—as Red Wings GM, and he’s been doing this for some 20 years. But it’s a role he needs to embrace, quickly.

It’s time now for the Red Wings to be the team that surrenders NHL players for youth and prospects. It’s time for the Red Wings to give a team ahead of them in the standings a short-term fix while the Detroiters prepare for the long term.

It’s time now.

It’s been time, frankly. I believe that the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom in 2013 should have been the sounding horn, but it wasn’t.

The Red Wings will close the doors on Joe Louis Arena the same way that they opened them—with a team not good enough to make the playoffs.

But this doesn’t have to signal an era of hockey morass in this town. If the required remake is done correctly, it might only take two to three years for the Red Wings to return to relevance.

A small price to pay, especially considering what the franchise put the fans through from 1970-87.

 

Blashill must go, but that should just be the start

Kenny Holland has done a lot of things since becoming Red Wings manager—the hockey people don’t put “general” in front of it—in 1997.

He’s made trades. He’s signed free agents. He’s hired scouts. He’s given jobs to former Red Wings left and right—including to fourth line players.

He’s hired three coaches.

But there’s one thing that Holland hasn’t done.

He hasn’t fired a coach.

I don’t count Dave Lewis, by the way.

Lewis, who was elevated from assistant to head coach after the retirement of Scotty Bowman in 2002, coached the Red Wings for two seasons. Then the NHL had its lockout, wiping out the 2004-05 season.

During that time period, Holland quietly ate Lewis’ contract and brought in Mike Babcock to coach, starting in 2005-06.

That’s not a true firing.

The Red Wings haven’t given a coach the ziggy since December 30, 1985, when Harry Neale was relieved of his duties—and relieved is the right word—and replaced by Brad Park.

Jimmy Devellano was the GM in those days. Holland was in his first season as a western scout for the Red Wings, having hung up his goalie pads the previous spring.

Holland has never fired a coach. You wonder if he knows how.

I’m not being facetious here.

To some front office folks, knowing when to can a coach has a certain feel to it. You can’t really explain it. You just know that it’s time to make a change.

Does Holland have that knack? We don’t know, because he’s never had to do it before.

The Red Wings are off on a lengthy road trip. They play 10 of their next 11 games away from Joe Louis Arena, which used to be a house of horrors for the visiting team but is now horrifying to the guys wearing the Winged Wheel.

Jeff Blashill is likely to return from the next 11 games as coach of the Red Wings, just as he began the sojourn, despite the team’s woes over the past month.

But if there is a team that could use a new man behind the bench, it’s the Red Wings.

In full disclosure, I was on board with the Blashill hiring in the summer of 2015. I felt he was the best choice to replace the departed Babcock, given Blashill’s ties to the organization as coach of Grand Rapids of the AHL. He knew many of the current Red Wings (Blashill served one year on Babcock’s staff), so what the heck, why not?

It was another example of the Red Wings’ unfailing loyalty, which has turned into a double edged sword for the franchise in recent years.

But 114 games into the Blashill Era, the same bugaboos are there as existed when he took over.

The lack of shooting and driving to the net. The lack of desire in scoring dirty, ugly goals. Starting games, as Babcock used to say, not on time.

The blowing of third period leads, which has been mind-numbing.

In professional sports, of course, it often matters little if the players are deficient in talent or ability. The coach bites it anyway.

Players such as Riley Sheahan, Tomas Tatar (Saturday’s hat trick notwithstanding), Gus Nyquist, Tomas Jurco and Jonathan Ericsson are either stagnant or are regressing. Or—and don’t say this too loud or Kenny might hear—they were never very good to begin with.

None of that will likely change if Holland decides to give Blashill the ziggy.

A new coach isn’t going to cure the deficiencies in talent. Casey Stengel was a great skipper when he managed the Yankees but not so good when he piloted the Mets. See how that works?

But whatever Blashill says he is preaching to his guys, it doesn’t seem to be getting through.

The coach complains of lack of shooting, yet the team continues not to shoot.

The coach says the power play needs to improve, yet it doesn’t.

The coach says the team needs to bear down more in the third period and not let leads slip away, yet they continue to vanish.

The lines get juggled constantly. Because there’s only so much a coach can do, you know.

The players don’t seem to be responding to whatever method Blashill is using to motivate them.

The fact of the matter is that the Red Wings simply aren’t very good. But you don’t need me to tell you that.

But you don’t fire a coach because the team is lagging behind in talent. You fire a coach if effort, urgency and mental strength appear lacking.

The Red Wings finally got the message—or so we hope—in Saturday’s 6-4 win over Anaheim.

Most of the goals were scored within five feet of the crease. The Red Wings pounded home rebounds. They scored ugly, playoff-type goals.

Can somebody please tell these guys that they’re not capable of scoring the same pretty, precision goals that Red Wings teams of yore used to score?

The game last Tuesday against Arizona was an indictment. The Coyotes were coming off a 7-0 shellacking in Pittsburgh the night before. The Red Wings were at home, rested.

The Coyotes buried the Wings, 4-1.

OK, so let’s see how they react two nights later against Los Angeles, folks said. That will be more telling than the Arizona game, because anyone can have a bad, uninterested night.

About 30 seconds into Thursday’s tilt against the Kings, the Red Wings trailed, 1-0. They lost, 4-1, and the fans got surly again, as they did on Tuesday.

The same old thing: abysmal power play, lack of shooting, yadda yadda.

Video surfaced recently of captain Henrik Zetterberg, miked up, talking to his teammates in the locker room after the Arizona game. The message was designed to be a scolding, but it wasn’t exactly Knute Rockne stuff.

The Red Wings organization used to hang its hat on its stability.

There was a time when the Red Wings were considered a model franchise.

But today, that same stability has morphed into a staleness that is keeping the franchise, I believe, from making some tough yet necessary decisions.

Firing the coach isn’t the panacea, of course. But it should be done. That’s not all that should happen, though.

The Red Wings need an enema. And I wonder if Holland: a) realizes that; or b) is interested in performing it.

That damn playoff streak.

Holland is tone deaf, and it’s hurting everyone—the organization and the fans alike.

The manager of the hockey team in Detroit is so wrapped up in the Red Wings’ playoff streak—every year since 1991—that he thinks everyone else is wrapped up in it, too.

If he’d only listen—or read—the fans in Hockeytown would be amenable to a flat out rebuild. They’d understand. In fact, they’ve been ready for a couple of years for such an exercise.

I believe that Kenny Holland’s pride is leading the Red Wings down a slippery slope.

He doesn’t want the playoff streak to end on his watch. The fans are ready, but he’s not.

As a result, hard decisions aren’t being made about the franchise’s direction.

Now, it’s one thing to declare that a rebuild is necessary, and quite another to actually pull it off.

The Red Wings are in a financial box with their contracts and the salary cap. Their inflexibility with the roster is an albatross.

Holland doesn’t have much to trade. Just about any player he moves, with the exception of Anthony Mantha and Dylan Larkin, will be a case of selling low. Holland would be taking a bath.

Plus, in today’s NHL, midseason trades just aren’t very common anymore. Gone are the days of a December or February blockbuster that shakes the league to its core.

Holland can’t trade his way out of this and come away with anything more than draft picks or low level prospects. He alone is responsible for the financial mess the Red Wings are in.

But he has to do something, and what he has to do is not comfortable for an organization that is loathe to upset the apple cart.

Holland needs to, in no particular order: fire the coach; cut some veterans; give NHL jobs to current AHL players; and put a padlock on his boss’ checkbook and give someone else the key.

No more spending. Use the draft.

Am I talking about the team bottoming out? You betcha.

Babcock, when he arrived in Toronto to take over the Leafs behind the bench, didn’t mince words with the media and the fans who were clamoring for his hiring.

“There’s no doubt about it,” Babcock warned. “There’s going to be pain.”

Babs saw a sinking ship in Detroit. And that was before Pavel Datsyuk’s return to the motherland.

Yet he was willing to go to Toronto, because at least Brendan Shanahan, Lou Lamoriello and company weren’t in denial. The Maple Leafs brass knew that a tear down and a rebuild were in order.

Holland seems unwilling to totally buy into the R-word and its need in Detroit.

“We have to find a way to score goals,” Holland said last week. “We’re not scoring goals the way we expected to be.”

See, that’s the problem. The Red Wings didn’t possess very many forwards on their roster that realistically could be expected to score a lot of goals to begin with. The ones that had, were regressing.

The line between loyalty and denial can be very fine in pro sports.

Hard decisions face the Red Wings right now.

Trouble is, the one man who can make them, refuses to acknowledge their need.