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.

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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.

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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.

Stevie Y and Me

With the Tampa Bay Lightning in town on Saturday, rebounding nicely (so far) from a bad 2013 season, and with our old friend Steve Yzerman as the GM, I thought it would be appropriate to reflect on my dealings with Stevie over the years.

October 1983.

I was a cub reporter, assisting my U-M friends with the Michigan Daily, and working my first credentialed event—a Red Wings game in the second year of the Ilitch ownership.

Just a few months prior, GM Jimmy Devellano plucked a kid off the board in the first round of the draft named Steve, with a funny last name people were still unsure of how to pronounce.

The kid got a lot of EE-zer-man and WHY-zer-man in those days. The season was a couple weeks old and the correct pronunciation of EYE-zer-man was only on the tongues of those in the know.

Red Wings fans were hoping the team would draft Waterford native Pat LaFontaine, but the four-time defending Stanley Cup champs, the New York Islanders, nabbed LaFontaine ahead of Detroit.

Ironically, the Red Wings tabbed Yzerman, who wore no. 19 in honor of his favorite player, Bryan Trottier of the Islanders.

So I’m standing in the Red Wings locker room after the game, looking around for someone to talk to, as the rest of the media cluttered around the stalls of veterans like John Ogrodnick and Brad Park.

Behind me, dressing quietly, is that 18-year-old draftee, Yzerman. No one was talking to him.

So I struck up a conversation, the topic of which I have long forgotten. But what I do remember is how quiet his voice was, and that I had to lean in close to hear him over the din of the locker room. He spoke to me as he put his street clothes on. He was about as unassuming as a first round draft pick could be.

It wouldn’t be much longer before everyone learned how to pronounce his name.

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Yzerman on draft day, 1983. Note the jersey no. 29; he would famously switch to 19 later

November 1986.

By this time I was working my first full-time job—as a producer/director for a local cable TV company in Taylor.

We were tabbed to produce a 30-second PSA for MAHA—Michigan Amateur Hockey Association. I was to write the script, and we would be shooting Yzerman and a bunch of local youth hockey players on JLA ice.

As my crew set up on the Red Wings bench, I spoke to Yzerman, who was in his first year of captaincy. I showed him the script I wrote the night before.

“THIS is 30 seconds? It looks like about ten!” he said as he perused it.

I maintained it would take 30 seconds after editing.

We chatted idly as the camera and microphones were readied and the kids were gathered and given their instructions.

I asked him about being the Red Wings captain at the tender age of 21.

“Well,” he said, still speaking softly, “I HAVE been in the league for a few years.”

Touche.

It took us about an hour to shoot the B-roll and Yzerman’s speaking parts. The spot ended with all the kids skating from different directions and stopping behind Yzerman as he says his last line.

October 2006

By now, Yzerman is 41, freshly retired from the Wings, and in attendance at Cobo Hall to see his old boss, Devellano, get inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame. I’m there as part of my affiliation with the sports magazine (now defunct) that I am working for. My wife is with me at the dinner.

After the ceremony, I made a beeline for Yzerman, who was standing and chatting with Devellano, GM Ken Holland and others. I know Kenny a little bit, so I ask him for an audience with Yzerman.

I re-introduced myself, and introduced Mrs. Eno, whose eyes were as wide as saucers as Yzerman extended his hand and politely greeted her. I ask Yzerman to sign the event’s program, but to make it out to Nicole, our then-13 year-old daughter.

I chat him up briefly about retirement and his new role as a sponge in the Red Wings front office. My wife continues to stare at the boyishly handsome Yzerman.

We parted ways after one more thanks for the signature, and to this day Mrs. Eno speaks fondly of the “night she met Steve Yzerman.”

So I interacted with Yzerman as a teenaged rookie, as a new captain, and as a retired, sure-fire HOFer.

Pretty cool, eh?