Steve Yzerman said he still flies to Detroit regularly to see his family. (Dirk Shadd/St. Petersburg Times)
Tampa, Fla. -- He doesn't want it to be a big deal because in the larger scheme, it isn't. It's just one game. It also happens to be the first time Steve Yzerman's storied past intersects with his burgeoning future.
When the Red Wings visit the Tampa Bay Lightning tonight, Yzerman will face his former team, and he's trying to make the strange event feel as normal as possible.
Yzerman, 45, has jumped quickly into his job as vice president and general manager of the Lightning, and has had an immediate impact. For 27 years he was a Red Wing, 23 as captain. After four years in the front office, he was offered an opportunity too good to pass up.
In an interview with Bob Wojnowski, Yzerman talked about how hard it was to leave Detroit, how much he learned from Ken Holland, and how much he's enjoying constructing his own team.
Wojo: It looks like a great situation here, a new owner, league's leading scorer (Steven Stamkos), and the Lightning are second in the East. You enjoying it as much as you thought you would?
Yzerman: Oh yeah. It's incredibly exciting. The season isn't over and we're not in the playoffs yet, so I'm not taking anything for granted.
I really like the people I'm working with, and it starts with the ownership. It's no coincidence that in Detroit, things turned around in '82 (when Mike Ilitch bought the Wings). The biggest reason I was comfortable going to the Lightning was because of (owner) Jeff Vinik. I believe he's committed, and he's somebody I was prepared to give up everything I had in Detroit to come work for.
Q. Now that you've been in charge, is it totally different than working under Ken Holland in the Wings' front office?
A. Yeah, it's way different. It's really easy to pop in and make suggestions and say, "Oh we need to do this and do that, there ya go Kenny, see you later!" I had all sorts of ideas, but I wasn't the guy making the decision.
Q: Everyone talks about the Red Wings model, but I imagine there are different things you want to do. Did you and Kenny ever have any huge disagreements over a decision?
A. No, never. No. I'd listen. Kenny's pretty common sense. He's been around a long time and knows what's realistic and what's not realistic, and he doesn't waste a lot of time on things he knows can't happen or won't happen. It's like calling the radio station — everybody's got these great trades. I used to have those ideas too and I learned after a while, it's funny.
Q. You still talk to Holland quite a bit. Obviously, you could make a trade with him, but wouldn't it be strange because you can't share everything now?
A. You know what, the brief period I've been a GM, you learn you don't try to pull the wool over anybody's eyes. I get Kenny's opinions on a lot of things, so I'm not gonna deceive him or hide anything.
Q. You acquired a goalie on New Year's Day, Dwayne Roloson, and he's been great. Holland tried to get a goalie, Evgeni Nabokov. Have you crossed paths pursuing players?
A. Not so far. We're in different circumstances, different conferences, so whether they were or weren't interested in Dwayne Roloson, I don't know. I had a lot of cap space, so I could make that move.
Q. You know, the Wings are second in the West. It's not like they miss you or anything.
A. (Laughs.) They don't. Why would they miss me? They don't.
Q. Joking aside, they do keep humming along. What do you think their key to success is, now that you're putting your own team together?
A. From the Ilitches to Jimmy D. (Devellano) to Kenny to Jimmy Nill to their scouting staff, then to Scotty Bowman and now Mike Babcock — there's continuity, they're all on the same page.
They know the type of organization they want, the type of team they want, the type of players they want. They like skilled players, and they go out and find them and keep them. It's just a really good organization of smart people who work hard. And they don't have egos. Not a lot of — for lack of a better word — BS in that organization. It's not simple but it is simple.
Q. While you're immersed in the job here, your family is back in Detroit. Has that been tough at all?
A. It hasn't been bad. We're still trying to figure everything out. There are a lot of flights every day, so if it's a quiet day, I can jump on a plane and get home. And I can get on an early-morning flight and come back.
Q. What do you miss about Detroit, besides the gray skies and the Coneys?
A. I miss it all. I'm torn. I was very happy. I loved it there. It's my home, my family's there, it's a great organization. I had to move on in my career. Detroit's a great place, and I appreciate it more being gone.
Q. Now that you're in Tampa, you golf every day, right?
A. (Laughs.) That hasn't fit in yet. Literally, not once. I finally gave up on my golf game. I had an epiphany one day that I was never gonna be a pro golfer, so I'd better go get a job.
Q. You bought a home five minutes from the arena. But without your family here, let me guess, you've got a freezer full of frozen pizzas for dinner?
A. No, this is pretty much it right here, all my meals at the rink. (Points to his bowl of chicken noodle soup.)
Q. Tampa isn't a traditional hockey place, but do you feel excitement starting to build?
A. Yeah, it's taken some time. I think people are still a little cautious, but our crowds are getting better, there's more enthusiasm in the building.
Q. Do you get recognized much in public?
A. (Smiles.) Only by visitors from Detroit.
Q. Not to belabor Thursday night's game — you've talked about removing emotions. Do you have any idea how you'll feel seeing the Wings as the "other" team? Will it be weird?
A. It was weird in Traverse City at a prospects game (in training camp) when I walked in. So, yeah. It's one game, and hopefully it'll be overtime and we'll get our two points and they'll get their one and we all leave relatively happy.
Q. Are you just eager to get this over with?
A. Yeah, pretty much. I'm not on the ice, I'm not coaching. This isn't about me. It's a chance to see how we match up with one of the best teams in the league.
Q. You've said working in the Wings front office was almost like going to a university. What's the biggest trait you picked up?
A. Patience as a manager. You can't rush young kids to the NHL. Kenny preached patience, patience, move slowly, don't overreact to situations. And I've found so far here, if you're uncertain about something, if it's not the right deal, something better is gonna come along.
Q. You said you watch the Wings regularly. Do they still look like a team that can win it all?
A. Yeah, when they get their guys back. Vancouver's a really good team, and they're battling some injuries now, too. Detroit, with their top guys, still has the best core in the league — defense and forwards.
Q. You're a first-year GM with a pretty good team — you must feel like you know what you're doing now?
A. I still leave here every day thinking, OK, I didn't make any major mistakes, I didn't violate the CBA, it was a good day. I'm still trying not to screw up. But I'm confident in myself.
Q. You must have self-confidence because you went and hired the youngest coach in the NHL (Guy Boucher, 39). A little risky for a first-time GM, wasn't it?
A. I just go with the best guy for the job. I'm not afraid. I really believe he's the right guy, a smart guy. He's young and I'm a young manager, so we'll grow together and figure it out as we go along.
Q. Could you ever have a moment as GM that'd match the thrill of lifting the Cup?
A. Yep. Absolutely. When I retired and I got to sit with Kenny at games and watch the playoffs and how stressful it is, I got a whole new appreciation for the position. And being at the world championships and the Olympics made me understand how rewarding it is to build your own team. I enjoy this as much as I did playing. I really do.
Q. Do you think you'll ever look back and regret you didn't finish your front-office career with one franchise, or have you already reconciled that?
A. Well, I had to make that decision eight months ago. Once I leave, it's never the same, you know? I wanted to look ahead. I didn't want to sit there and be the Captain forever. That doesn't mean I don't appreciate everything that went on there. I appreciated every minute of my career in Detroit.