Where do you belong? For more than two decades, Steve Yzerman belonged here, in Detroit, as a beloved player and eventual captain of the Red Wings. He started his pro career in Detroit. He ended his pro career in Detroit. He won his Stanley Cups in Detroit. He got married and had his kids in Detroit.
But now he works for the Tampa Bay Lightning — which just happens to be facing Detroit in the first round of the playoffs. Yzerman put the Lightning together as the team’s general manager.
“Obviously, we want to win,” he said. “On the other hand, I want the Detroit Red Wings to be successful.”
And there’s the rub. This is the second year in a row that it has happened. “I didn’t enjoy the series last year,” Yzerman said.
And his team won!
But sports is about rooting, and rooting is about connection, and connection is about what team you call yours and what town you call your own. And so Yzerman is torn.
He won’t be the only one today. This afternoon, the Cleveland Cavaliers host the Pistons in the first round of the NBA playoffs. Dan Gilbert is the owner of the Cavaliers. He also happens to live in suburban Detroit, is a major rebuilder of Detroit, and reportedly was interested in owning the Pistons.
Meanwhile, Gilbert’s star player in Cleveland, LeBron James, is the poster child for conflicted loyalty. He left the Cavs for a Miami franchise that called him its own (and that he led to his first NBA title), only to go home again to Ohio where he was born and raised.
This year, Miami and Cleveland could meet in the Eastern Conference finals.
As Yzerman said, expect no enjoyment.
Stevie didn’t plan it this way
Here’s the problem. Team sports is a zero sum equation. One winner, one loser. You can’t pull for both sides.
“When I took the job (in Tampa), I figured Detroit’s in the Western Conference, we’re in the East, we’ll never have to meet in the playoffs unless it’s the Stanley Cup finals,” Yzerman said. “And if we both make the finals, we’ll both be happy.
He laughs. “Four years later, they’re in our division!”
So now, if Yzerman is seen cheering when the Lightning wins (as it has twice in this series), it’s a little dagger in the hearts of Red Wings fans. And if the Wings beat the Lightning in Game 3 tonight, it’s a little stab for Yzerman.
He admits for the first couple of years he was recognized in Tampa only by Michigan people, and even now, they’re the ones who make the biggest fuss.
“I wear a suit and got glasses now, so it’s not the same kind of attention from Tampa fans as when you’re a player,” he said.
He even, at times, gives his tickets at Amalie Arena to people visiting from Michigan. But he has to warn them, “Remember, you can’t wear Red Wings jerseys when you’re sitting in my seats.”
Same for Bettis, Jeter and Smoltz
On the other hand, it’s not the first time this has happened to Yzerman. He was born in British Columbia, and given his success with the Canadian Olympic team (three gold medals, one as a player, two as the team executive), it’s no surprise Western Canada hails him as a hometown hero.
But Yzerman was raised in Ottawa — “and I’m still considered by most people an Ottawa native.” So, people there embrace him as their own.
Which begs the question: Where does your biggest loyalty belong? Where you were born? Raised? Educated? Started your career?
Detroit is famous for never letting go of anyone who grew up here. For all his years as a Pittsburgh Steeler, the local news would refer to Jerome Bettis as “Mackenzie High School’s Jerome Bettis.” Same for “Lansing’s” John Smoltz or “Kalamazoo’s” Derek Jeter, even though, like Bettis, neither played a college or pro game for a Michigan team.
Is it where you are — or where you were?
For Yzerman, it seems to be where he is at any given moment. He still flies to Detroit during the season (his family lives here part-time) and might even take a commercial plane ahead of his team to squeeze in extra hours with his wife and kids.
Does he feel like he’s home where he’s here? Home when he’s there? Home back in Canada — west or east? Do his feet tend to automatically walk to the Wings dressing room tonight — where a huge photo of him lines the wall?
“I’m like a guy with a lot of passports,” he said. Maybe for sports folks like Yzerman, James or Gilbert, home can’t always be where the heart is. Maybe it’s where the feet are.