Steve Yzerman's signature move as a player was to stride down the left-wing side and, as soon as he was in the offensive zone, stop sharply just above the face-off circle and make precise decisions from there. He would step in and shoot if left unchallenged, pass to a late-arriving teammate if the back-checking coverage was lax, or move the puck down low if pressed from low to high. In that comfort zone, Yzerman rarely made a misplay.
Yzerman's "office" has moved upstairs from ice level these days, but he sounds just as comfortable with his decision to take on the role as General Manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning as he ever was as the catalyst of the Detroit Red Wings' offense for more than two decades. That confidence comes honestly, as Yzerman gained valuable management experience the past few years as part of the Red Wings' front office team and as the GM for Team Canada.
Despite his hectic schedule since being named Tampa Bay's GM, Yzerman made time to talk over the weekend. So, why Tampa? Why now? What made this the right opportunity?
"I have always wanted to run my own team," Yzerman asserted. "It's something I've pointed towards for some time. I had several very productive meetings with owner Jeff Vinik. We talked about how an organization needs to be built. We discussed both short-term and long-term expectations. Out of those meetings and discussions, a level of understanding emerged that made the timing right in Tampa."
Not surprisingly, Yzerman as GM has been a work in progress. He put the same thoughtful effort into getting to top-of-class status as a player, where he turned himself from star to superstar through hard work off-ice and matured as a person and player over time in Detroit. He grew up in public and spanned the arc from precocious scorer to revered leader of championship teams. The Ilitch family owned the Red Wings for all of Yzerman's tenure and, as one might expect, influenced his personal and professional life.
"This has been a process," Yzerman says. "Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch have been aware of my goals for some time. They've been very supportive, protective almost. They just wanted to see me in a situation where I had a chance to succeed."
Succeed he has. Last February, Yzerman headed up Team Canada's gold medal-winning effort at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. He called the singular experience "very gratifying" but pointed to his time with Hockey Canada in total as vital to his development in management.
"Going back to 2007 when Bob Nicholson approached me about being part of the World Championship program, I gained so much working for Hockey Canada," he says. "It put me in a position of authority and gave me insight into the decision-making process. I needed those things."
Yzerman realizes that as GM of an NHL team, he'll be in charge of more aspects of the overall operation. In that regard, his time in the Red Wings' front office seemed to have an effect. "Kenny (GM Ken Holland) listened to those around him. He used that input to frame his decisions, but the accountability was ultimately his. He surrounds himself with good people like Jim Nill and lets them do their job. It isn't about consensus as much as it is making informed decisions."
With that as a frame of reference, I asked Yzerman about his style. How hands-on would he be? "Well, I will oversee the Hockey Department in every way," he says. "I will oversee each element, giving the people what they need to succeed. I'll let them do their jobs and the key there is in hiring good people, which is an on-going process."
That includes the recent hiring of coach Guy Boucher. What did Yzerman like about him as his first coach hire, despite Boucher not having any NHL experience?
"First, he is a strong personality," Yzerman replied. "Second, his experience is rooted in winning, both as a head coach and as an assistant. I have no reservations about his ability to translate that at the NHL level. I look at guys like Dave Tippett, Mike Babcock and Todd McLellan, who had similar traits and were immediately successful as NHL coaches."
There's that Red Wings' perspective again, with Babcock and McLellan cited. Understandable. But what about the task at hand? What about his new team now, the Lightning?
"We have Stanley Cup-winning vets in Marty St. Louis and Vinny Lecavalier to go along with young players Steve Stamkos and Victor Hedman," he says. "But we can't get things done in one offseason. We have to take a longer, realistic view of our young players and what we should expect them to contribute."
That statement alone is telling. The Red Wings have long been loathe to rush young players into positions of prominence, and I'm sure that Yzerman brings that developmental sensibility to the Lightning. And that's just one of many differences Yzerman will find in his migration from Hockeytown to Hockey Bay.
Has he pondered life in the NHL outside a proven hockey hotbed?
"We need to bring back the fans that supported this team so well when it was winning," he says. "My focus is on the hockey department and making sure our on-ice product is the best it can be. Jeff Vinik is putting together the business team and there will be co-operation between the two sides. But the biggest contribution I can make is to build a team that wins on the ice."
That will surely take some time, but Steve Yzerman already sounds like a seasoned executive, which in several respects, he is.