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.

 

 

The Not-So-Magnificent Seven: Red Wings who were the last to wear retired numbers

They are hanging from the rafters at the Joe Louis Arena, and some of them go back almost 25 years. I wonder if they’re ever dusted.

No doubt they will relocate, as will the Red Wings themselves, when the new arena complex opens in time for the 2017-18 season.

They’re the seven officially retired uniform numbers in team lore: 1,5,7,9,10,12 and 19.

I don’t have to tell you to whom those cherished numbers belonged.

Gordie Howe’s no. 9 was retired during the 1971-72 season, but in those days the Red Wings didn’t hoist numbers to the rafters, for whatever reason. Never did no. 9 hang at the Olympia, believe it or not.

The first two numbers to be officially retired with a ceremony at JLA were in November 1991, when the Red Wings put nos. 7 and 10 to bed for good, honoring Ted Lindsay and Alex Delvecchio, respectively.

The most recent sweater to be retired was Nick Lidstrom’s no. 5.

But I thought it would be fun to take a look back at the players who wore the retired numbers before they were put into moth balls.

Who was the last Red Wing to wear Terry Sawchuk’s no. 1? Or Sid Abel’s no. 12?

You don’t have to do the digging; I already did—and so what follows is a look back at the seven Red Wings who became answers to a great trivia question.

No. 1: Glen Hanlon (last worn in 1990-91)

Sawchuk played in the days when goalies pretty much wore no. 1 or no. 30. Period. Tony Esposito’s 35 and Ken Dryden’s 29 were exceptions. I remember Gilles Meloche wore no. 27. But the goalies were 1 or 30, as a rule, leaving 2-29 for skaters. Players didn’t start wearing goofy numbers until the late-1970s. Now, hockey players wear uniform numbers befitting a football roster.

Hanlon was a 29 year-old goalie when the Red Wings acquired him in July 1986. He had established himself in Vancouver and was coming off two seasons with the Rangers when the Red Wings got him for defenseman Jim Leavins.

As a Red Wing, Hanlon played five seasons and was huge in the 1987 playoffs, posting two shutouts, a 1.67 GAA and a save percentage of .943. He was a redheaded man of sharp wit and self-effacing humor. In 1988, after the Flyers poured 10 goals past him one night at the Joe, Hanlon joked, “OK, who put the soccer net behind me?”

The Red Wings didn’t retire no. 1 until 1995, but Hanlon was the last to wear it, in 1991.

No. 5: Rick Green (1990-91)

Before Lidstrom, there was Rick Green.

Green, a defenseman, was the first overall pick in 1976 by the Washington Capitals.

After six seasons in Washington, Green was part of a huge trade with Montreal that shipped Green and Ryan Walter to the Canadiens for Doug Jarvis, Brian Engblom, Craig Laughlin and Rod Langway.

The Red Wings acquired Green, by then 34 years old, from Montreal, who still had his rights after Green played a year in Italy.

Green played 65 games for the Red Wings in 1990-91. Lidstrom debuted in October 1991.

No. 7: Tom Bissett (1990-91)

Who?

Bissett, a center, was drafted by the Red Wings in the 11th round of the 1986 draft out of Michigan Tech.

He went back to college and didn’t turn pro until 1988-89, when he played for Detroit’s top minor league affiliate, the Adirondack Red Wings.

Bissett had a cup of coffee with the Red Wings in 1990-91, suiting up for five games and slipping sweater no. 7 over his head, making him the last Red Wing to wear the number before its retirement.

Bissett is in the Michigan Tech Huskies Hall of Fame.

No. 9: Roy Conacher (1946-47)

In the interest of transparency, this is an educated guess. Hockey-Reference doesn’t list jersey numbers on its website for the 1946-47 season, when Howe debuted. What is known is that Howe wore no. 17 initially, and he switched to no. 9 in his second season. Using unscientific deduction and web research, I believe that Conacher, a left wing, was the last to wear no. 9 before Howe donned it for the next 24 seasons.

Conacher played in 60 games for the Red Wings in 1946-47 at the age of 30. He popped in 30 goals, which ended up being a career high for him. Detroit traded Conacher to New York in October 1947, but he refused to report to the Rangers. Ten days later, the Red Wings traded him again—to Chicago. Conacher reported to the Black Hawks (pictured).

No. 10: Jimmy Carson (1990-91)

Carson is interesting because not only was he the last Red Wing to wear no. 10 before it was retired, he then switched to no. 12, and thus became one of the last Red Wings to wear that number before it, too, was retired.

Carson was a local kid (Southfield) who badly wanted to play for the Red Wings. But even though Detroit had the no. 1 overall pick in 1986, the Red Wings selected Joe Murphy instead of the local boy Carson, who was drafted by Los Angeles.

Carson openly campaigned for a trade to Detroit whenever rumors of a deal popped up.

Carson was involved in a trade, all right—perhaps the most shocking in NHL history.

Carson was part of the package that the Edmonton Oilers got for Wayne Gretzky in the summer of 1988.

Jimmy finally got his wish on November 2, 1989, when the Red Wings acquired Carson in a big trade that sent Petr Klima—and Joe Murphy—to Edmonton.

No. 12: Mike Sillinger (1993-94)

Sillinger was a number whore.

He only played parts of four seasons as a Red Wing, yet he managed to wear five different numbers in Detroit.

The last was 12, in 1993-94, before it was retired to honor Sid Abel.

Sillinger was the Red Wings’ first round pick in the 1989 draft, and he went on to have a decent, though well-traveled,  NHL career: 19 years, 240 goals, while playing for—count ’em—12 NHL teams.

All told, Sillinger wore 10 different uniform numbers in the NHL.

No. 19: Randy Ladouceur (1982-83)

Steve Yzerman, as many Red Wings fans know, chose to wear no. 19 because his favorite player was Brian Trottier, Hall of Fame center for the New York Islanders.

Everywhere Yzerman played, he wore no. 19.

So when Stevie arrived in Detroit in 1983, he managed to convince Ladouceur, a defenseman who preceded Yzerman to the NHL by one year, to switch from 19 to 29.

Ladouceur played for the Red Wings from 1982-1987. Detroit traded him to Hartford in January 1987 for Dave Barr.

Ladouceur played 14 years in the NHL before becoming a longtime assistant coach in the league.

 

So there they are—the Ignominious Seven.

Don’t you feel smarter now? Now you’re ready to win some money with some bar bets.

With Fedorov in HOF, it’s time now to retire no. 91

As far as love affairs go, it was at times tumultuous, the relationship between Sergei Fedorov and the hockey fans in Detroit.

Mention Stevie Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom’s names in Hockeytown and the fawning will begin in earnest.

Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio, Sid Abel, Terry Sawchuk and Ted Lindsay will get you nothing other than a bow down on one knee from the person to whom you utter the names.

And it’s not Normie Ullman’s fault that he wore the same no. 7 immortalized by Lindsay, but Normie scored 324 goals for the Red Wings and it’s too bad that he gets forgotten about in Detroit.

Ullman’s name should be in the rafters at Joe Louis Arena, as well as at the new arena that will open in a couple of years. And I’m not one to retire numbers like they do at the deli counter.

I believe that if you’re going to take a number out of circulation forever, then your case ought to be pretty damn compelling. To me, it’s almost as hallowed as being inducted into that sport’s Hall of Fame.

Which brings me back to Fedorov.

You bring up Fedorov in Detroit and it’s not a slam dunk, like it is with the other men whose numbers have been retired by the Red Wings.

Fedorov doesn’t emit the same aura as his honored teammates Yzerman and Lidstrom.

You can’t find a soul in Detroit who’ll besmirch no. 19 and no. 5, but no. 91 will sometimes elicit an eye roll and a snort of disgust.

It’s the same old thing with the Detroit sports fan: you’d better not leave on your own volition.

There are two things the sports fans in the Motor City demand from their pro athletes: loyalty, and empathy for their pain.

The lack of the latter is what got Prince Fielder turned into a pariah in this town.

And the perceived lack of the former is why Fedorov doesn’t get nearly the same love as Yzerman and Lidstrom, with whom Sergei won three Stanley Cups.

But only three Red Wings scored more goals in the Winged Wheel than Fedorov, who tallied 400: Howe, Yzerman and Delvecchio. And only Howe and Yzerman scored more playoff goals as a Red Wing than Fedorov, who notched 50.

That’s some not bad company.

Sergei is in the Hockey Hall of Fame now, fair and square. He was formally inducted on Monday night, along with Lidstrom, who goes by the nickname The Perfect Human.

Fedorov, the Imperfect Human (tying him with billions of people around the world behind Lidstrom), has waited long enough. It’s time to put aside whatever rancor is left about Fedorov and string his stinking number into the rafters at The Joe.

I can still hear some gasps of indignation.

But he left! He left us!

He held out! He was a Johnny-come-lately in 1998!

He had a weird relationship with Anna Kournikova!

Yes, yes, and yes.

So what?

Fedorov remains the last Red Wing to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s MVP—in 1994. He was just as much a part of the Red Wings’ Cups won in 1997, 1998 and 2002 as Yzerman and Lidstrom.

Yes, Fedorov bolted town as a free agent in the summer of 2003, defecting for the second time in his life, this time for Anaheim.

Yes, FedoFedorov Stanley Cuprov’s contract holdout in 1998 was something that Yzerman and Lidstrom—and every other Red Wing, frankly—never engaged in.

Yes, some would call Fedorov’s relationship with teen tennis star Kournikva unseemly and definitely non-Yzerman and non-Lidstrom-ish.

But what should really matter is what Fedorov did on the ice for the Red Wings, and this is where it gets ironic.

Bob Probert. Denny McLain. Miguel Cabrera. Bobby Layne.

Those are just four Detroit athletes whose off-the-field/ice issues are legendary.

Probert, with the bottle and the drugs.

Denny with his suspensions in 1970 for carrying a gun and for dumping ice water on a sportswriter—long before the ice bucket challenge existed.

Cabrera with his DUI arrests.

Layne with his party-hearty ways.

Yet Probert was about as popular as Yzerman in his heyday with the Red Wings.

McLain returned from suspension in 1970 to thunderous applause at Tiger Stadium.

Cabrera is revered in Detroit.

And Layne is so worshiped in Motown that some folks actually think he put a curse on the Lions.

So why doesn’t Fedorov get the same accommodation?

I think of the three grievances listed above, the most egregious to Red Wings fans is Fedorov leaving via free agency, which none of the aforementioned stars ever did.

Probert was waived. McLain was traded. Cabrera is still here. Layne was traded.

None of them left on their own volition, and Detroit sports fans don’t like it when their athletes bid adieu willingly.

It’s time now to get over that with Fedorov. It’s not like the Red Wings stopped winning Stanley Cups after Fedorov left.

It’s time to put no. 91 up with 1, 5, 7, 9, 10, 12 and 19.

And I’m not a “retire his number!” kind of a guy. The case has to be compelling.

With Sergei Fedorov, it is.

For the Red Wings’ part, GM Ken Holland said in July that the team would consider honoring Fedorov with a number retirement ceremony.

The Red Wings have had four months since then to hash it out.

This morning, Sergei’s plaque is in the Hall in Toronto.

It’s time now.

Larkin has chance to follow in Yzerman’s footsteps, some 32 years later

It was early in the rookie teenager’s first NHL season.

He was all of 18 years old, the age where high school graduation is either on the agenda or still a fresh memory.

Veteran Red Wings players dressed around him inside the Joe Louis Arena locker room, talking to reporters following a win, which was a lot more rare in those days than it is today.

Left wing sniper John Ogrodnick leaned back in front of his stall, his hands clasped around a knee, engaging the microphones and cameras after helping lead the team to victory on that October evening in 1983.

Thirty-five year-old defenseman Brad Park ambled up to a table and drew some water from a large cooler, a towel wrapped around his waist.

Other players milled about, laughing and teasing each other. Goalie Ed Mio, who got the win that night, rubbed mousse into his hair as he bantered with reporters and some joking teammates.

The mood was light. Players were tired, as they are after very game, but it was a good kind of tired. Victories will do that.

Covering the game as a cub reporter for the Michigan Daily,  I wedged myself between the cameramen and scribes. There was a moment when I tried to get out of someone’s way and took a couple of steps backward.

I stepped on someone’s foot.

I immediately turned around to apologize.

“It’s OK,” the voice of my victim said, barely above a whisper.

I recognized the youthful face, free of the stubble, scars and lines that pocked the mugs of his more veteran teammates.

It was that kid rookie with the funny last name.

WHY-zerman? EE-zer-man? Something like that.

I was done listening to Ogrodnick so I flipped the page of my notepad and decided to talk to the kid, mainly because nobody else was.

I asked a couple of questions, long since forgotten from the banks of my 52 year-old memory.

What I do remember, however, is that I had to strain to hear his answers. I also recall that he seemed almost embarrassed that I wanted to talk to him to begin with.

He was 18 and in his second week in the NHL.

Three years later I was directing Steve Yzerman in a TV commercial. I told him about our first encounter in 1983.

He smiled sheepishly.

“My dad always told me that the less you talk, the less people will realize that you have nothing to say,” he said, chuckling. Yzerman’s father had been a respected politician in Ottawa.

Yzerman, at that time, was the 21 year-old boy captain of the Red Wings, the youngest player to wear the “C” in franchise history. Coach Jacques Demers named Yzerman his captain not long after agreeing to coach the Red Wings in the summer of 1986.

For Demers, the move was a no-brainer, even though the roster was dotted with players much more steeped in NHL experience.

Cynics wondered when Demers would come to his senses and name a more veteran captain.

Yzerman remained captain until he hung up his skates in 2006.

No teenager has made the Red Wings roster out of training camp since Yzerman did it in 1983 as the fourth overall pick in that summer’s NHL draft.

That streak might come to an end.

dylan-larkin-9-24-15-229032becff65fff

Larkin is congratulated after scoring a goal against Pittsburgh this exhibition season

Dylan Larkin is 19 years old, can skate like the wind, has immense hockey sense and to hear observers tell it, the kid has ice vision so impressive that he must have eyes in the back of his head.

New Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill is giving Larkin, the team’s first round pick (15th overall) in 2014, every chance to show off his mad hockey skills.

Blashill has been putting Larkin, a center, on a line with wingers Gustav Nyquist and Justin Abdelkader in recent exhibition games.

That’s not what you do if you’re thinking of sending Larkin to the minors to start the season.

And with fellow centers Pavel Datsyk and Darren Helm on the mend and not ready to be in the lineup for Opening Night next Friday, this just may be Larkin’s time. Already.

The thing about the NHL is that pretty much every front line forward in the league was, at some point in his hockey life, a dominating player, somewhere.

But not every player dominated his competition like Larkin has.

In 2013, the Waterford-born Larkin played 26 games for the United States National U-18 team. In those 26 games, he registered 17 goals and 9 assists. In 2014, his freshman year at the University of Michigan, he tallied 15 goals and 32 assists in 35 games. He also got his first taste of professional hockey, being sent to play with the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins during their playoff last spring. In his six game sample, he scored three goals and two assists.

This exhibition season with the Red Wings, Larkin scored three goals in his first four games. One of them, in Pittsburgh, was a beauty.

Larkin used his blazing speed to beat the Penguins defenseman around the outside, then he swooped in on the goaltender and scored on the blocker side.

There’s also some great irony when it comes to Dylan Larkin—a direct connection to Yzerman, no less.

Larkin hails from Waterford, and when the Red Wings traipsed to the NHL draft in Montreal in 1983, they had their eye on another Waterford kid, Pat LaFontaine.

The fans wanted the local hero LaFontaine, also a center. Red Wings GM Jimmy Devellano wanted LaFontaine. Badly.

But three teams picked ahead of Detroit.

The first, the Minnesota North Stars, selected Brian Lawton. The second, the Hartford Whalers, picked Sylvain Turgeon. The New York Islanders, despite being the four-time defending Stanley Cup champions, held the third overall pick thanks to a trade.

The Islanders, Devellano’s old team, slugged their former executive in the gut by picking Pat LaFontaine.

So Jimmy D “settled” for Steve Yzerman, center for the Peterborough Petes of the Ontario Hockey League.

So here’s Dylan Larkin, from Waterford, threatening to make the Red Wings roster out of training camp as a teenager, the first player to do so since Steve Yzerman, who the Red Wings settled for after the Waterford kid, Pat LaFontaine, was taken ahead of them in the 1983 draft.

Funny how things work out sometimes, eh?

Larkin, not as shy as Yzerman was (and still is), has made no bones about it. His intention is to make the Red Wings. Right now. He’s trying to avoid a bus ticket to Grand Rapids at all costs.

“It is what I have been waiting for and I’m ready for it,” Larkin said about playing in the NHL, sooner rather than later.

“I think I’ll be a dominant player all over the ice,” Larkin continued. “I’ll be a player than can play against the other team’s top line and can still produce offense. It might take a while, but it does for everyone to become a dominant player.”

You never heard Steve Yzerman talk about himself in that manner at age 19—and Yzerman never really did, not even after he was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame, for goodness sakes.

Coach Blashill is helping by letting the teenager show off his wares against other top-line NHL players in the pre-season matches, and Larkin has been responding.

GM Kenny Holland has said that there’s no rush in getting Larkin to the NHL.

But that was before training camp and the exhibition schedule began.

Sometimes if a kid has it, he has it. Sometimes there really is no need for him to play in the minors, where even at age 19 he would be a man among boys.

They talk a lot around Hockeytown about the Red Wings’ streak of 24 straight playoff appearances.

Here’s one streak that might come to an end: the 32 years between teenagers making the Red Wings out of training camp.

Lightning-Red Wings playoff matchup inevitable for Stevie Y

Steve Yzerman didn’t celebrate a lot of birthdays at home with family when he played for the Red Wings.

More likely, Yzerman was in a hotel room or at the rink for a morning skate. Or he was in a plane, jetting his way to the West Coast. And if he was in Detroit proper, he was likely at Joe Louis Arena, lacing up his skates for a game that evening.

Yzerman, the iconic Red Wings captain of days gone by, was born on May 9. For too many NHL players, a birthday in May would almost assure the man of the hour a cake with candles and the wife and kids.

But for Yzerman, May was still hockey time. His Red Wings were usually still in the mix, still alive in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

And birthdays were way down on the priority list.

It was Yzerman’s teammate and winner of three Cups in Detroit, Brendan Shanahan, who explained to me the mindset of a player pursuing the Cup.

We sat in an office inside the Trenton Ice Arena, in April 2010. Shanny was in town for a promotional hockey game between the alumni of two high schools.

I asked him what spring hockey, post-season hockey, was like for a player.

“You close yourself off to all other things,” he said. “Eating wasn’t enjoying food—it was just adding more fuel to your body. Sleeping wasn’t rest, it was something you needed. Everything was done for the next game. You sequestered yourself in the hotel with your teammates and you got blinders on.”

But the ultimate payoff made it all worth it. Shanahan experienced it thrice, in 1997, 1998 and 2002.

“That’s what I liked most about it. When the final horn sounded and you were the winner and the season was over, that’s when you sort of pulled the blinders off and really took a look around you. You were on a mission. You were focused entirely on winning, and that was a lot of fun.”

Yzerman won three Cups with Shanny. And Stevie Y was a member of the Red Wings’ front office for a fourth Cup, in 2008.

Yzerman is closing in on 50 years old now, proof that time truly does not stop for any man.

Chances are, on May 9 this year, when no. 50 hits, Yzerman won’t be at home with wife Lisa and his three daughters.

Chances are, Yzerman’s current team, the Tampa Bay Lightning, of which he’s the general manager, will still be rolling along in the Stanley Cup playoffs. That will have meant that the Lightning would have disposed of Yzerman’s old team in the Eastern Conference’s first round, which is expected to happen.

It will mean another birthday put on hold, shoved to the background. Even one as significant as his 50th.

For many a May, Yzerman’s suit was a blood red sweater with the “C” on it, and skates. These days in May, Yzerman wears Armani and wing-tipped shoes. But the goal is the same.

It’s hard to believe, but Yzerman was named Tampa Bay’s GM nearly five years ago.

When he was rumored to be in the Lightning’s cross-hairs for the job—a time when Tampa Bay hockey left a lot to be desired—I wrote that even though the job and the franchise were beneath him, that Yzerman should take it. Sometimes that’s what you have to do when you want to do something in the worst way.

The Lightning qualified for that back in 2010. They were one of the NHL’s worst teams, and organizations. If you don’t believe me, just remember that the Lightning actually plucked Barry Melrose from the TV studio and put him back behind the bench, with disastrous results.

The Melrose debacle was still fresh on the minds of hockey people when the Lightning pursued Yzerman, who badly wanted to run his own team after serving his apprenticeship under Ken Holland, Jimmy Devellano, Jim Nill et al.

It wasn’t going to happen in Detroit, and Yzerman knew it. Everyone around hockey knew it.

The Minnesota Wild had made a run at Yzerman during the 2009-10 season, but Stevie Y turned them down, for whatever reason.

But when Tampa called, Yzerman was all ears.

The Lightning franchise was a mess, and it didn’t look like a very good GM job, but as I wrote, Yzerman was wise to accept it. That way, I surmised, Yzerman could learn the ropes with a franchise from which little was expected.

Ha!

Yzerman, using whatever deftness he learned from Holland and company, turned the Lighting around in one year.

Tampa Bay didn’t even qualify for the playoffs in 2010, but one year later, with Yzerman pushing the buttons and pulling the gears, the Lightning were in the Eastern Conference Finals.

And Yzerman, as a rookie GM, was named the NHL’s General Manager of the Year.

Yzerman was a rookie in 1983, as well—an 18-year-old dressing next to the likes of Brad Park and Danny Gare in the Red Wings locker room.

Yzerman was as quiet as a mouse. After a game that season, I asked him some questions and even if the room had been deserted, I would have had a hard time hearing his answers.

Yzerman is still quiet, relatively so. And he quietly has built the Lightning into one of the NHL’s best teams.

He’ll look down from the press box during this upcoming first round, as his team likely skates circles around the Red Wings, and one can only imagine the emotions coursing through him.

This playoff series is the only time that Yzerman, a Red Wing forever, won’t be a fan of the Winged Wheel in the post-season. It will be the only time that he roots against the boys in the blood red sweaters.

Yzerman hired a coach, Jon Cooper, who is (again, quietly) doing a whale of a job behind the Lightning bench. Cooper is in his second season with the Lightning and in both of them, the team topped 100 points and finished second in the Atlantic Division.

For all of his early success as an NHL general manager, Yzerman is also a winner in Armani at the Olympics.

He put together the 2010 and 2014 Gold Medal winning teams, as Team Canada’s Executive Director. The British Columbia native is revered in his home country.

You figured that once the Red Wings moved to the Eastern Conference in 2013, it was only a matter of time before Current GM Yzerman would go up against Former Player Yzerman in the playoffs.

The Lightning sign his checks, but the Red Wings logo will forever be branded on Yzerman’s huge, competitive heart.

But starting on Thursday, it’s all business. There won’t be time or room for sentimentality. There are 16 teams vying for the Stanley Cup and its pursuit every spring is cutthroat and its competitors would just as soon knock their own mothers off the puck. And maybe give her an elbow when the referees are looking the other way.

Chances are, Yzerman’s Lightning will oust the Red Wings in a series that will be lucky to go six games.

Or, the Red Wings could pull off an upset. Yzerman knows what that feels like, too—from the losing end. As Red Wings team captain, it was up to Yzerman to explain away yet another playoff disappointment, when the sweat was still running down his body and his skates still on.

Those unexpected playoff ousters made the three Cups won as a player all the more sweet.

Starting Thursday, the Red Wings will lose at least one fan. But if the Red Wings somehow manage to upend the Lightning, you can bet that Stevie Y will be pulling for that Winged Wheel the rest of the way.

Even if it means peeking at the TV during his 50th birthday celebration.

Memories Prove to be Too Much for Yzerman to Resist

Looks like the pull of camaraderie and nostalgia was strong enough, after all.

News yesterday that Steve Yzerman would return to Detroit at the end of the month to participate—on the ice—in the Winter Classic’s alumni game was a pleasant surprise to many in Hockeytown.

“This event is an opportunity for us all to celebrate the history of the Detroit Red Wings and I”m happy to be involved,” Yzerman told the Detroit Free Press. “I really look forward to seeing a lot of very good friends.”

As written here last week, the Winged Wheeler didn’t have much faith in the idea of Yzerman being in uniform for the alumni game at Comerica Park on December 31. Yzerman, by his own words, had only been on skates once since he retired in 2006.

But apparently the temptation of getting together with so many former teammates and the thought of skating, one last time, against so many players he competed against in his 22-year career, was too much for the Tampa Bay Lightning GM to resist.

So treasure this moment, because this, for sure, will likely be Yzerman’s last time wearing the Winged Wheel.

The Thought of Skating Again Still Doesn’t Move Yzerman

The Detroit Red Wings-Toronto Maple Leafs alumni games are less than a month away. The rosters are pretty much set. You can view them by clicking here.

Naturally, the names bring back fond memories and some “Oh yeah!” moments—guys you kind of forgot about but that you’re glad they’re going to suit up, all the same.

Red Wings fans shouldn’t get their hopes up about one big name showing up who isn’t on the announced list.

If I were a betting man, I wouldn’t put any dough on number 19.

Steve Yzerman is seven-plus years into retirement and rarely has a professional athlete eased into his non-playing days more smoothly than the former Red Wings captain.

Yzerman skated off the ice for the final time as an active player in Edmonton in May, 2006, his team eliminated by the Oilers in a first round playoff upset.

He says he’s been on skates once since then. Once.

The mantra has been consistent for Yzerman. Once he peeled off the sweater and hung up the skates, that chapter of his life was finished, complete with “The End” after it for good measure.

I hit Yzerman with the question twice, a few years apart.

The first time was at the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame Dinner in October, 2006. He was just five months into retirement at that point, feeling his way in his new job as a member of the Red Wings front office.

Yzerman was at the dinner to see his old boss, Jimmy Devellano, get inducted.

I caught Yzerman after the dinner.

“So, you miss it?” I said, or something like that, about his playing days.

“Not at all. Perfectly happy,” he said.

A few years later, Yzerman was taking part in a teleconference, talking about his role as part of the executive management team for Team Canada, prior to the 2010 Olympics.

I was one of the questioners, and I again asked him about putting on the skates. As in, had he done so?

“No,” he said flatly. “I don’t miss it. I really don’t. I think I put on skates once, and that was enough.”

STEVE YZERMAN

Yzerman, now the GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, was a TV guest during the first intermission of a Red Wings-Lightning game last month. FSD’s Mickey Redmond tried to get a yes or no answer from Yzerman about whether he was going to play in the Alumni Game at the end of December.

Yzerman was non-committal, but I think it was just a polite way of saying no. He alluded to other commitments he had around that time, GM-related.

Certainly he didn’t wax wistful, nor did he seem to miss skating. He re-asserted to Redmond that the skates continued to gather dust.

Yzerman is the rare pro athlete who doesn’t seem to be pulled back by the camaraderie and the locker room brotherhood, especially after being a part of it for over 20 years.

His feelings about retirement clash with those of former teammate Darren McCarty, whose new book, “My Last Fight,” just hit the stores and some excerpts of which have been published by the Detroit Free Press.

McCarty, like so many others of his brethren, openly misses everything about playing—the travel, the practices, the pranks. Winning four Stanley Cups wasn’t too bad, either.

I remember talking to former Red Wings player and coach Bill Gadsby about this. Gadsby played in the 1950s and ’60s. When I spoke to him in 2006 for a magazine piece, Gadsby told me that even at his advanced age (over 70), he still missed practices in addition to the games. And Gadsby never did win a Stanley Cup.

Not Yzerman. He took the skates off and with them, he took off the player’s cloak forever.

It would be wonderful, of course, if no. 19 in the blood red sweater stepped onto the ice to do battle against the Maple Leafs alumni—some of whom Yzerman played with and against, as several listed on the Toronto roster also played for the Red Wings when Yzerman did—namely Darryl Sittler, Dave Williams, Steve Thomas and Bob McGill.

But will it happen? Will the Red Wings coax Steve Yzerman into the gear one more time?

Don’t get your hopes up.