Have Wings Fans Been Able To “Quit” Yzerman?

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Photo Credit: Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes it’s difficult to move on. Getting past that first car you had isn’t so difficult, assuming there’s a second car that starts a little more reliably and doesn’t spit out your cassette tapes (not the last 1980s reference in this piece of work, I’m afraid…).  

Moving on from your “first love” isn’t terribly difficult either, as long as there isn’t a lengthy drought akin to, say, the Edmonton Oilers’ current decade of haplessness before one finds that special “second love” in your life.

When things have gone well, though, like they have for the Detroit Red Wings, is parting with an iconic captain and a valued front office member really such bitter sorrow?

Are Red Wings fans really “over” the fact that Steve Yzerman left their team, hasn’t looked back, and if anything has become more calculated and driven and private than he was during his Red Wings’ front office education?

Nearly six years on, it’s still very hard to tell. Every time the Tampa Bay Lightning and Detroit Red Wings meet, though, as they do on Tuesday Red Wings fans and media can easily recognize the awkwardness of the encounter, and it was on display for all to see in a very back-and-forth first-round Eastern Conference playoff series last year. 

It ended in a 2-0 Lightning win on home ice in Game 7. A game which would see the inevitable (if you were listening to the right voices and reading the tea leaves) end of Mike Babcock’s tenure behind the bench for the Red Wings. A game which would propel Steve Yzerman back to a very familiar place five weeks later — the Stanley Cup Final, his sixth while being paid by a professional hockey team, but his first away from Detroit.  

There he tasted Final defeat for the first time since 1995 when, as a 30-year old, his Red Wings were swept convincingly by the underdog New Jersey Devils.

I talked to enough Red Wings observers and followers during that playoff run for the Lightning to know one thing unequivocally — there’s still an emptiness about his departure.

It starts with how iconic Yzerman is in Detroit.  Drafted by a moribund franchise with no concept of how to win and no idea of where to initiate the process. He then spends his entire career with that one team.  He goes through trials and tribulations.  Did we mention there was still lots of losing his first four seasons? Then a brief period of winning playoff rounds in 1987 and 1988 as underdogs.  Then the early 1990s sees tons of playoff series where the Wings are heavy favourites….and they blow it.  Up 3-1 against the Blues in 1991?  They gag. Up 2-0 against the Leafs in 1993?  They do the same.  The Sharks the next season? The Wings had 100 points; the Sharks had 82.  No need to even play the games.  Yzerman’s the captain who can’t get it done, the leader of the team who never gets it done. Until they do. And do again. And even again.  

That’s iconic. Hey, I like Doug Gilmour. Love how he played. Deservedly in the Hockey Hall Of Fame. A great guy who’s always been generous to me in my broadcasting life. Beloved as a Maple Leaf, right?

Doug Gilmour played less than 27 percent of his NHL games in a Maple Leafs jersey. He played 17.5 percent of his PLAYOFF games as a Maple Leaf. He put together maybe the best two-season span of Leaf greatness I’ve seen in my lifetime (born in ’71), and I bring this up not to deter from the “iconic” status he has as a Maple Leaf, but to note the magnitude what Yzerman means to Red Wings fans. The two can’t be compared.

With Yzerman as captain of the Red Wings, walls were climbed, mountains were scaled, and reputations of choking were shed with Cup wins in 1997 and 1998. Yzerman captained the last team to repeat as Cup Champions. For 18 straight seasons, the defending Cup champion has succumbed at some point. More remarkably, before the Wings’ double-dip, in the prior 22 seasons, the defending champ had re-captured the Cup a total of 10 times. Yes, I agree, that’s incredible. They’d win again in 2002 when it looked like they were going to gag the first round away after going down 2-0 to Vancouver with dreadful home losses, and even two rounds later against the hated Avalanche when they needed to win Game 6 there. They survived.

But after retiring and after becoming a trusted member of the Red Wings deep and knowledgeable front office, the winning didn’t stop. In Yzerman’s second and third seasons as a VP, the Red Wings won in 2008 and lost a Game 7 at home to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009 — again, the closest a team has come to repeating as champs since the same franchise did it.  

Unfortunately, in the spring of 2010, with no bitterness, but simply as a result of an opportunity somewhere else to be an NHL general manager, Yzerman bolted for the Lightning.  He attempted to take Red Wings current assistant GM Ryan Martin with him, but the Red Wings kept him locked up, and paid and promoted him, something they’d done a few times with current Stars general manager Jim Nill. 

Ken Holland had the job Steve Yzerman wanted and ironically, much as Yzerman’s iconic status, it cannot be disputed, comes as a result of playoff triumphs by a Red Wings roster fortified and often strengthen by transactions made by Holland, with such successes in mind.

Maybe the weird and awkward feelings for Wings’ faithful has developed over the past six years.  Much of the playoff winning has stopped.  Oh sure, there’s a streak continuing where the Red Wings MAKE the playoffs (24 and counting), and for the organization, that’s potentially a source of pride. But fans at the Joe are getting used to booking babysitters for playoff games in April, and knowing they’ll be home watching other teams play once May gets rolling.  The Wings have lost 19 of their past 31 playoff games and have emerged from the first round just once in the previous four seasons, and as it stands, they’ll certainly have to win a couple of road games in the first round to prevent the same fate, if they’re even to qualify.

Having Yzerman’s Lightning oust the Red Wings last season was painful enough, but has Yzerman done a better job running his club over the past six seasons than Holland has done with his?  It’s a complicated argument.

The Lightning missed the postseason in the springs of 2012 and 2013 and were the first team eliminated in a lopsided and ugly sweep to the Montreal Canadiens in 2014, but 2011 and 2015 brought more winning than DRW fans have seen in their past six years of playoffs.

                         Playoff Record     Rounds Won    SCF Appearances    Conf Final Appearances

Tampa Bay              25-23                     5                           1                                 2

Detroit                     19-23                     2                           0                                 0

Now, Ken Holland is no stranger to praise for all his accomplishments, and there are many, but there still are many trotting out the broken record that he’s the “best general manager in the sport”.  I do think he’s fighting obstacles now given the Wings can’t simply throw money around and paper over their bad signings and trades, and, yes, EVERY general manager makes them. You also ask around and you know players have decided they don’t want to make their professional home at creaky, dilapidated Joe Louis Arena unless they have very limited options in free agency. 

Not only is 2008 Marian Hossa not walking through that door offering to play for only one season, but he isn’t even returning text messages, nor are most players of that calibre.  Does it change with the new arena? Maybe so.  

Now please don’t think I’m making the argument there wouldn’t have been some declining results for the Wings had Yzerman stayed, or even if they’d shuffled Holland into a Devallano-esque upstairs office and Yzerman pulled the triggers on their transactions.  We can’t know that.  

The Lightning and Wings have had very equitable budgets for player salaries.  Going back to 2010-11, the Red Wings outspent the Lightning three of the past seasons, and visa versa. NHLNumbers.com lists the Lightning as having a Total Cap Hit at almost exactly $75M, while the Red Wings are just below that at 74.24M.  Naturally, this summer what the Lightning do (or don’t) with Steven Stamkos will impact opinions on the job Yzerman is doing and has done, and yet, when the big chess pieces move in this league, it takes a long time for judgements to crystallize. 

Look, there was no solution to keep Yzerman from departing, and we know that. I had dinner with a very well-connected hockey personality who was in pretty tight contact with Jeff Vinik during his search process for a general manager. Yzerman had rejected the overtures, if not flatly, certainly with some vigour at least twice in the process. That person was sure Yzerman wouldn’t take the job, but Vinik kept sweetening the pot. He did it by promising Yzerman all the power and making sure he wouldn’t be bothered, be it with ownership opinions or endless media requests. Leaving for Tampa wasn’t about any sort of leverage given Yzerman didn’t want nor need more money from the Red Wings — he wanted more responsibility and power.  It wasn’t available.  

Also, and I’m betting some folks reading this are already aware of this, Yzerman did the legwork in the Red Wings front office. He’d drive to OHL games and CCHA games to check out games, not just for potential future draftees, but to have a visit with an obscure 5th round pick the Red Wings may have taken in the prior year or two. That mattered to him, being out there. 

While broadcasting in the OHL, I saw it with my own two eyes regularly, and so many executives and scouts were utterly impressed that he, like Ron Francis in Carolina, didn’t attempt to fast-track their way into a hockey front office.

Yzerman has been sensitive to being accused of gaining stature simply because the name “Yzerman” is on his business card.  He’s put in the work, and none of this takes into account the ultimate stress of running Team Canada at the Olympics in Vancouver and Sochi. That alone took it’s toll on Wayne Gretzky, and it did on Yzerman as well.  You’ll never see him in management in international hockey again in best-on-best competition. It wore him out, especially given his own NHL team missed the playoffs in the two springs prior to Sochi taking place.

Knowing Yzerman left the organization, and knowing equally, that it was the only logical result of him wanting to do more in terms of running a team is one thing to handle. It’s quite another to wonder if he’s created a better, younger, more attractive foundation for players to thrive in, than the one he left six seasons ago.

  • ubermiguel

    If we tank now and become officially the worst team in the NHL, this gives us a 20% chance of winning the lottery for 1st overall pick. If we do win the lottery, we will only have to find 19 more players to build a team around Matthews. That should be the easy part.

    If we miss the lottery then we can tank again next year. Nolan Patrick, C/RW, Brandon Wheat Kings (WHL) is the early favourite to go first overall in 2017.

    What a farce this team is.