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.
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.