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.
“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?