Upon retirement from playing hockey, Steve Yzerman could have chosen any easy life he wanted. He had played 22 seasons, had been captain since age 21, had hoisted three Stanley Cups, had made more than $60 million and had become a legend in a place called Hockeytown. Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch granted him the title of vice president. The mayor of Detroit presented him the key to the city. He had a wife and three daughters and a secure legacy. All that was left were honorifics and golf.
There was only one hitch: He could not turn off what made him Steve Yzerman. As a player, he could have coasted on talent, especially late in a career pockmarked by scares and surgeries, but he still barreled into corners, hard on his stick, shoulder-first. He took the same approach in the Red Wings’ front office. There he was, fresh off a historic career, driving to Grand Rapids, five hours round-trip, to watch minor league games and evaluate prospects, to learn what it takes in the life he wanted next.
“I’m not sure they expected him to work as much as he worked early on,” said NHL Network analyst Darren Pang, a longtime friend. “He’s a grinder. I know he was a superstar player, but he’s a grinder.”
A dozen years after he played his last game, Yzerman has successfully executed one of the rarest transitions in sports. The list of superstar players whose flash caught an owner’s eye but who failed to grasp the subtleties of management runs long. If you have a free hand, you can count the Hall of Famers who became championship-level executives. After Ozzie Newsome, Jerry West and Yzerman, you may not need a fourth finger — unless you devote one to Mario Lemieux, who owns the Pittsburgh Penguins and has a role in the team’s biggest decisions.
As general manager, Yzerman has built the Tampa Bay Lightning, which trails the Washington Capitals through one game of the Eastern Conference finals, into an annual contender. When he arrived in 2010, Tampa Bay was a financial and competitive mess. Through his shrewd trades, sharp prospect identification and unflinching negotiation, the Lightning has advanced to five conference finals, including three in the past four years.
Yzerman became one of the most highly regarded NHL general managers by utterly rejecting a golden parachute. He works. He is known for his preparation and comprehensive knowledge of the league and the salary cap. In a sport in which financial restrictions have caused immense turnover, Yzerman has managed to replenish his roster around a crucial core.
His current roster reads like a compendium of savvy decisions. Yzerman drafted forward Nikita Kucherov, a future Hart Trophy contender, in the second round in 2011, then signed him to a stunningly team-friendly extension with a salary cap hit of $4.766 million per season. He convinced franchise pillar Steven Stamkos to sign an eight-year extension on the eve of free agency. He turned disgruntled former first-round draft pick Jonathan Drouin into Mikhail Sergachev, who at 19 has become a key defenseman.
“There have been people I’ve dealt with in management working with teams who either don’t have a very good grasp of the players in their own organization, or they know their organization really well and don’t have a very good grasp of players around the league,” longtime NHL agent Allan Walsh said. “He knows the players in his organization really well, including the players in the American [Hockey] League, including the players they’ve drafted. He has great knowledge of the players around the league. Obviously, he’s a legend when he played. And he was known as a player for being incredibly prepared and having this tremendous work ethic. Lots of players who have gone on to either coach or work in management don’t always carry that work ethic with them.”
Most players of Yzerman’s caliber don’t need the challenges or time demands of running a team. They are financially set, and for most, a release from years of devoting themselves to a sport is more inviting than plotting future moves and learning the collective bargaining agreement.
Yzerman is not wired that way. In 2007, the year after Yzerman’s career ended, Pang was on a conference call with Yzerman, part of the group charged with selecting Canada’s team for the world championships. Pang expected the call to last maybe 45 minutes; it was only the first of many. Yzerman had precise, detailed breakdowns of every player. It lasted nearly three hours.
Canada would win the gold medal.
“He didn’t want anything slipping through,” Pang said. “He’s a patient listener. When he asks you a question and there’s quiet at the other end, it’s because he’s listening.”
In Detroit, he became a sponge around General Manager Ken Holland. He spent long hours in the office and on the road to Grand Rapids, always quizzing Holland and other assistants. He felt devoted to the city, the franchise and Ilitch. But he also wanted to be a general manager, and he recognized Holland’s permanence in Detroit.
In 2010, new Tampa Bay owner Jeff Vinik wanted to overhaul the franchise, and he sought a top executive. Yzerman had declined overtures from other teams, but when he met with Vinik, he saw a like-minded person who would allow him to run a hockey team how he wanted.
“Just the time I spent with Steve, how thoughtful he is, how smart he is, how much common sense, how much he knows about hockey, personality, respectfulness — just everything about him,” Vinik told Sports Illustrated this week. “And you talk to references, [and] everyone had tremendous respect for Steve Yzerman. He was my first choice from the moment I met him.”
Before he offered Yzerman the job, Vinik took Scotty Bowman, the legendary Red Wings coach, to lunch. Vinik wanted to quiz Bowman on Yzerman.
“He says he was trying to build an organization and wasn’t looking for an overnight fix,” Bowman said. “He knew he was in it for the long haul. I said, ‘Gee, I don’t think you could get a better guy.’ I just didn’t think he would leave Detroit.”
But Yzerman saw an opportunity. Years later, the Detroit News reported that Ilitch had tried to convince Holland to take a promotion and elevate Yzerman to general manager, but when Holland declined, Ilitch relented. From Yzerman’s perspective, there was no way he would become a GM in Detroit.
Yzerman called the Ilitch household and, over the phone, asked Mike’s wife, Marian, whether Mike was home. He was. Yzerman drove to the Ilitch house, knocked on the front door and told him in person.
“It was a very tough decision,” Bowman said. “He was anxious to prove himself.”
Yzerman quickly established himself as legitimate, not just a figurehead. Tampa Bay reached the conference finals in his first season, and in 2015 the Lightning made the Stanley Cup finals, falling to Chicago in six games. His best work, though, may have come in the past three years, highlighted by his handling of Drouin.
Tampa Bay chose Drouin, a skilled forward, third overall in 2013. In November 2015, when Drouin was 20, he privately requested a trade. As Drouin struggled with injuries, the Lightning sent him to its top minor league affiliate, the Syracuse Crunch, in early January — prompting Walsh, Drouin’s agent, to take the trade demand public.
When Drouin failed to report for a Syracuse game, Yzerman suspended him without pay. Walsh, Drouin’s agent, publicly claimed the Lightning had informed them it was nearing a trade and suggested the team needed to consummate a deal.
Yzerman did not blink. With the turmoil submarining Drouin’s trade value, Yzerman called his own news conference the next day and said the Lightning had not come close to dealing Drouin and had no interest in doing so if it could not acquire fair value.
“There was a perception there was a war going on between me and Steve,” Walsh said. “I certainly may have said some things that made him mad. And he may have said some things I didn’t like at the time. Even at the worst moments of that whole series of events, there wasn’t a day where he and I couldn’t pick up the phone and have a respectful conversation. Steve is a very direct, frank and honest guy.”
Drouin stayed in Syracuse until late in the season, when the most amazing thing happened: The Lightning brought him back, and he became a playoff contributor. Drouin recorded five goals and nine assists in 17 games as the Lightning reached Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals. And then he played the entire 2016-17 season for Tampa Bay.
Only then did Yzerman strike. Two years after Drouin agitated to be traded, Yzerman dealt him to Montreal for Sergachev, also swapping a sixth-round pick for a second-rounder. Sergachev became a key defender on this season’s team and scored the opening goal in the series-clinching victory against New Jersey in the first round of the playoffs.
“No matter what’s going on between Steve and a client, my respect for him never wavers,” Walsh said. “Our relationship even at the worst of times always remained very strong. That’s a testament to the fact Steve understands what players go through because he was there. He’s very sensitive to the needs of a player and putting players in situations where they can succeed. That’s one of the gifts that Steve has.”
Yzerman could have avoided that headache — and so many others — had he just opted for the simple life that his playing greatness afforded. But his aversion to the easy way is what makes the Lightning good and what makes him different. It is what makes him Steve Yzerman.