Admit it. You were smiling. Steve Yzerman was back. Storm clouds parted. Rainbows appeared. The Stanley Cup posters in your basement were vibrating. Somewhere, the band who did “Hey, Hey, Hockeytown!” was tuning up.
Steve Yzerman will run the Detroit Red Wings. It’s like Jon Snow in charge of the North. Richie Cunningham taking over Al’s Diner. There was a feel-good aura to this move that spread through the Twitter universe, came down through the red-lighted roof of Little Caesars Arena, and landed in the ground level media room Friday afternoon, where executives, the press, even former teammates like Darren McCarty, Kris Draper, Dino Ciccarelli and Hank Zetterberg, all gathered in nodding approval.
And in walked Marian Ilitch, the 86-year-old matriarch of the famous ownership family, who years ago refused to come out her room to say goodbye to Yzerman when he was leaving Detroit, for fear she would start crying uncontrollably.
“I did have the feeling that one day we’d be together again,” she said, almost crying again.
To say Ilitch loves Yzerman like a son may be an understatement. Sons get on parents’ nerves now and then. When has Yzerman ever done that to anybody?
Well, OK, I’m sure Steve will give you names. But that’s the thing. In the avalanche of love that slid down the Red Wings mountain Friday, the only man who was trying to climb up against it was … guess who?
“I’d caution everyone to temper the excitement,” he said. “This is going to take time.”
And he, of all people, should know.
Want to know where Steve Yzerman was exactly half his lifetime ago? Sitting in the lobby of The Drake hotel in Chicago, waiting for his teammates to go to a baseball game. The Red Wings were down 3-0 in a playoff series they would lose the next night. A glum Yzerman knew it was coming. It would mark the ninth straight year he would finish without a championship. He was coming to be known as a guy who had plenty of skill, but no fortune.
“Just once,“ Yzerman told me that day, “I’d like to win that Cup. Just once I’d like to say I was a champion. I see those pictures, with the players holding the Cup over their heads? That’s all I think about.”
This was shortly before his 27th birthday. On Friday, shortly before his 54th birthday, twice the age, he was named the new general manager of the Wings. In between he got to be the champion he dreamed of, held that Cup over his head three times as a player, won it once with the front office, and won three Olympic gold medals with Canada, one as a player, two as the executive director.
But he never forgets, and is quick to point out, that when he came here, he was a brightly colored starfish on a mud-ugly beach.
And for a while in this new job, he may be the same.
The Wings, with a young Yzerman, exited in the first round of the playoffs five of his first six years.
The Wings, with the older Yzerman, are coming off three years of no playoffs at all.
It’s a good time for the question: Who affects a team more, a star player, or a star general manager?
“I think you have to be pretty tough to do the job he’s taking,” Zetterberg said, watching Yzerman move through a phalanx of reporters. “You have to set aside friendships, you have to divide the business part and the friends part, and at the same time, you have to come to the right spot, and be lucky in the drafting. All of a sudden, you get an (Auston) Matthews or you don’t get a Matthews. And that can turn your franchise around.”
The Wings were hoping for a No. 1 pick this year, but the lottery left them at No. 6. How critical is foresight in a selection this high?
Consider this: Yzerman was the No. 4 draft pick in the 1983 draft. The No. 1 pick? Brian Lawton, an American prospect with all the right accolades. But he had a journeyman career, never made an All-Star team, and was gone from the league before Yzerman won his first Cup.
Lawton eventually tried the front office, and did two years as GM for the Tampa Bay Lightning. He was fired and replaced by … guess who again?
Choosing wisely is a big deal.
Getting it right
So is luck. The right trade. The right contract. Yzerman welcomes luck, but relies on hard work.
I’ve known him since his second season here, and he’s never changed. His good looks and “Aw, shucks” personality made him a heartthrob for a long time in Detroit, but he shrugged it all off. He’s quite serious. You ask him a question, more often than not he’ll furrow his brow and search for the right words. He thinks things through. During Friday’s press conference, he apologized for going on too long on some answers. But it’s part of the same fabric that got him back on the ice as a player, time after time, after going down with everything from a puck-fractured orbital bone to a knee that shattered against a goalpost. He wants to get it right. Desperately. He’ll drag himself to the right conclusion.
And he’ll do it again, albeit in a suit this time and not a jersey. “I’m not going to make big splash just so we’re going to be a little bit better next year,” he said. He’s not a patch-the-tire guy. His process will be studied, considered, and careful.
Which doesn’t mean slow.
“If I don’t do a good job here, I understand the business…,” he said, not needing to finish. “It’s a business of winning. And you’re gonna get a period to do that.”
This makes sense
We enter that period now. And before Yzerman scouts a single player, Red Wings fans have leapt into Happy Land. This was such a no-brainer move for the Wings, that it stretches credibility to believe that Christopher Ilitch, Ken Holland and Yzerman only began talking about this last month as they said on Friday. Yzerman, after all, stepped down from the GM duties in Tampa last summer and said he was moving back to Detroit. If I were Ilitch or Holland, I would have been waiting at the airport.
But Yzerman was still in the employ of the Lightning, and protocol needs to be followed, or at least verbally followed. And all three men are loyal people.
Still, this was as much in the cards as a guy named Hank Williams Jr. becoming a singer. Not only is Yzerman a Detroit icon on the Gordie Howe level, he‘s pretty darn good at the GM role.
This isn’t Wayne Gretkzy jumping into the front office (where he was a shadow of his on-ice excellence). Yzerman was named best GM in the business in 2015. He got the Lightning to the playoffs five of his eight seasons as GM, four Conference Finals, one Stanley Cup Final, and a team this year (that he constructed) that tied the record for most regular season wins in NHL history, 62, last achieved by a 1995-96 Red Wings team that had, ahem, Yzerman as its captain.
I mean, who wouldn’t hire this guy?
The Captain is back … in a suit
Still, the way Yzerman tells it, he didn’t see this coming. “Honestly, when I left, I thought Kenny’s gonna be the manager for X years, Jim Nill’s gonna take over for Kenny, and I’m gonna be 100 before I get to be the manager of the Red Wings.”
He held out his right hand and wobbled it. “Quite frankly, I feel 100 right about now.”
Funny, because everyone else feels like a teenager.
Yzerman is back. Be patient. Be realistic. But be excited. This is a good move, a smart move, and it salvages Holland, a good man, in an advisory role that will be more than perfunctory; Yzerman and Holland are friends, colleagues, former co-workers, one-time roommates (at the Sochi Olympics) and even former teammates in Yzerman’s first season. (Holland, a goalie, remembered Yzerman as the guy with “all these letters” on the back of his jersey.)
Now they wear gray suits and red ties. And, as Yzerman said many times Friday, “What I did as a player is done. I can’t do anymore, good or bad. It has no bearing on whether I’m a good GM or not.”
But it does have a bearing on how people feel about the Wings, the patience they will show them, the confidence they will have when Yzerman makes a move or an announcement. If you don’t think that’s important in how a team fares during lean years, go ask the Pistons. Or Matt Millen.
You know what the Tampa Bay Times used as a headline when Yzerman took this job?
If that doesn’t tell you how much he’s respected, nothing will.
About the only part of Friday I had trouble believing was when Yzerman said that, over the last year here in Detroit, not that many people recognized him when he went out, and not too many asked if he was coming back. Really?
“You’d be surprised,” Yzerman said, laughing. “Either they don’t know, or maybe they just don’t care anymore.”
Hardly. Windows flew open. People shouted “Hallelujah!” Joe Louis Arena was seen doing a dance. Woodward Avenue curved into a smile. The Captain is back in the fold, and at the very least, one senior citizen is delirious.
“What do you think Mike would say about this?” I asked Marian Ilitch.
“Oh my God,” she said of her beloved, departed husband. “I’ve been talking to him. He hasn’t answered me yet.”
Probably too busy smiling.
Contact Mitch Albom: email@example.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.