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Yzerman rules: Wings GM applies lessons from 14-year Cup drought

Ex-teammates, front-office personnel and media say Yzerman learned during the Stanley Cup drought from 1983-97 to endure a long and painful rebuild

Detroit Red Wings assistant general manager Doug MacLean went to bed "scared to death," knowing that captain Steve Yzerman was about to be traded the next day.

It was the 1990-91 season, the underachieving Red Wings were struggling after missing the playoffs the year before and MacLean was told by GM Bryan Murray that Yzerman, the face of the franchise and the team's best hope of returning Detroit to the glory years of the Gordie Howe-led dynasty clubs in the 1950s, was headed to the New York Islanders for high-scoring center Pat Lafontaine (Waterford) and another player.

"When I woke up the next day, the deal was off," MacLean said. "Dare I say, I'm glad that trade didn't happen. It could've changed the course of Red Wings history."

The rest, of course, is history.

Red Wings' captain Steve Yzerman holds the Stanley Cup aloft while celebrating with teammates at center ice after sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1997 finals.
Red Wings' captain Steve Yzerman holds the Stanley Cup aloft while celebrating with teammates at center ice after sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1997 finals.
Daniel Mears, Detroit News

Yzerman led the Red Wings to three Stanley Cups in six years, including the team's first championship in 42 years in 1997.

However, that attempted trade, as well as the more-publicized rumored deal for Senators center Alexei Yashin in 1995, highlighted Yzerman's often uncertain future in Detroit during the first 14 years of his Hall of Fame career.

According to more than a dozen ex-teammates, front-office personnel and media members contacted by The Detroit News, the hard lessons Yzerman endured on and off the ice during the Stanley Cup drought from 1983-97 helped prepare the Red Wings' first-year general manager for the long and painful rebuild, which continues Saturday when Detroit opens the season in Nash.

"He's the right man for the job," Toronto Maple Leafs president, former teammate and three-time Stanley Cup champion Brendan Shanahan said. 

"Nobody ever thinks when they're playing, 'These tough lessons will help me when I become a general manager,' but they did. The discipline he learned, his daily approach to work, his humbleness through adversity, his steely resolve. Nobody I've met has more resolve than Steve Yzerman."

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'The team came first'

Yzerman's resolve was tested unlike any other captain's in the NHL.

No player in the 102-year history of the league went through more successive years as captain before winning the Stanley Cup as Yzerman did during those 11 years from 1986-97.

Red Wings coach Jacques Demers gives the Captain's jersey to Steve Yzerman at Oak Park Arena on Oct. 7, 1986.
Red Wings coach Jacques Demers gives the Captain's jersey to Steve Yzerman at Oak Park Arena on Oct. 7, 1986.
William T. Anderson, Detroit News

He was named the youngest captain in Red Wings' history at age 21 on Oct. 7, 1986, three years after he joined the franchise as the fourth overall pick in the NHL draft.

He remained in that role until the day he retired on July 3, 2006, the longest-serving captain in NHL history (19 seasons or 7,209 days) and the longest-serving captain of any team in North American major league sports history.

Alexander Ovechkin was captain for eight years before winning the Cup two years ago in Washington.

The previous records were held by Calgary co-captain Lanny McDonald (six) and Montreal's Butch Bouchard (five), Toronto's George Armstrong (five) and Boston's Zdeno Chara (five).

RELATED LIST | Every Stanley Cup champion captain since 1917

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Former Red Wings assistant coach Don MacAdam said Yzerman was the best player on the team in 1986 and was a natural choice to be the first captain for new head coach Jacques Demers.

"Jacques was the leader and comfortable being in the spotlight," MacAdam said. "Steve didn't have to be the center of attention and could quietly lead by example. 

"The team always came first for Steve Yzerman. Always."

Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman puts on the brakes in front of Blue Jackets Jaroslav Balastik in a 2006 game.
Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman puts on the brakes in front of Blue Jackets Jaroslav Balastik in a 2006 game.
John T. Greilick, Detroit News

Early setbacks

Yzerman's first 11 years as captain in Detroit were marked by high-scoring exploits during the regular season (1,122 points) — surpassed only by Edmonton's Wayne Gretzky (1,368 points) and Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux (1,253 points) — but also by first-round playoff disappointments and underwhelming performances in Game 7s.

In three Game 7s against the St. Louis Blues, Toronto Maple Leafs and San Jose Sharks from 1991-94, Yzerman was a combined minus-6, a stat that reflects a player's positive or negative contributions on the ice when a goal is scored. 

Brendan Shanahan, Toronto Maple Leafs president and former Red Wings teammate
The discipline he learned, his daily approach to work, his humbleness through adversity, his steely resolve. Nobody I've met has more resolve than Steve Yzerman.

The Game 7 loss in the first round against Toronto in 1993 was one of the most disappointing defeats in franchise history. During the regular season, the Wings had the No. 1-ranked power play and scored more goals than any other team (369 goals).

"We were rocking and rolling that year, and it looked like no one could beat us," said former Red Wings forward Paul Ysebaert, who led the league in 1993 with a plus-44 rating. "Best team I've ever played on. Hands down."

Forced into a seventh and deciding game at Joe Louis Arena with only one penalty called and no power-play time, the Wings failed to hold a third-period lead and lost 4-3 in overtime on a goal by Maple Leafs forward Nikolai Borschevsky.

"We were outcoached, plain and simple," Ysebaert said. "They double-shifted (Doug) Gilmour in the third period while we rolled four lines with Steve watching from the bench. If I'm Steve Yzerman, I want to go head-to-head with Doug Gilmour. He never got that chance."

"He'll never say this publicly," said Ray Sheppard, another high-scoring forward who had 32 goals with the Red Wings in 1993. "But it had to bother him a little bit that Gretzky and Lemieux had their Stanley Cups during that stretch and we didn't win anything. 

"I really believe those years shaped the way he sees things now in management. He knew we needed different parts to be successful, but he wasn't an egotistical captain who felt he had all the answers. Things had to change, piece by piece."

Valuable lessons

Yzerman's lessons about building a championship team were often difficult.

"There were summers I didn't even want to go outside," Yzerman said after winning his first Stanley Cup in 1997. "I didn't want to be recognized. I put on my hat, my sunglasses, I walked around in a shell. You're embarrassed."

In 1996, Yzerman said he ran into two Wings fans during the offseason at a casino.

The fans got up and left the craps table when they saw Yzerman. "Let's go someplace else," Yzerman said, recounting the story. "This table has bad luck."

Things weren't much better on the ice for a team formerly known as the "Dead Wings."

No team has ever won a Stanley Cup with three 30-goal centers, but the Wings tried to buck the trend in the 1991-92 seasons with Yzerman (45 goals), Jimmy Carson (34 goals) and Sergei Fedorov (32 goals).

Most championship-caliber teams prefer to go with a more-balanced mix of offense and defense to be better prepared for the rigors of playoff hockey.

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"We knew the odds of trying to win with three 30-goal centers," MacLean said. "We were concerned, but we thought we were building the team the right way. Steve never told us how to build the team, but he wasn't shy about telling us who wasn't very good."

Yzerman declined to be interviewed for the story, but he did talk about building a winning team in the book "Red Wing Nation," published in 2015.

"I've learned a lot about the game, about leadership, about the things that need to be done to make a team sport successful," he said. "You learn that by experiencing some of the defeats that we had along the way.

"If I could write a script about my Red Wings career, could I have written a better one? Sure, I suppose. I probably wouldn't have written it for me to wait 14 years before I won the Stanley Cup!"

Yzerman's transformation

Yzerman's path to that first Stanley Cup-clinching game against the Philadelphia Flyers at Joe Louis Arena on June 7, 1997, is well-documented.

After a first-round playoff loss against San Jose in Scotty Bowman's first year as head coach in 1994, Bowman took a more active role in the general manager's role and helped form the Russian Five with Igor Larionov, Viacheslav Fetisov, Vyacheslav Kozlov, Vladimir Konstantinov and Fedorov.

Combined with a stronger supporting cast, better goaltending and Yzerman's evolving two-way, 200-foot game, the Red Wings won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1997 and 1998 and again in Bowman's final year in 2002.

"He transformed his game into blocking shots, taking faceoffs, tough things to do when you're an offensive player," Bowman said. "My message to him and the team was, all the goals and points guys get are meaningless in the playoffs.

"As captain for nearly 20 years, he had a big impact on the team. When that game started at 7:10 or 7:40, he was in a zone for a good two-and-a-half hours. When you have that kind of work ethic, it rubs off on everyone."

Coach Mike Babcock didn't arrive in Detroit until Yzerman's final year in 2006, but Babcock won two Olympic medals under Yzerman's tutelage and went on to win more games than any other coach in Red Wings history (458).

"The best players that have been great for many years are great because they never want to give in," Babcock said. "Stevie pulled his groin three times my first year partly because of the lockout and the age of the player. It was hard but he was a pro. He did it right every day. He dug in, he did what the team needed.

"Don't forget he became the dominant two-way center under Scotty. Not the dominant player. The dominant two-way player that, in the end, led them to winning. Until he decided to play without the puck, you weren't going to win."

Red Wings color analyst Mickey Redmond said those hard-earned lessons about building a strong, deep and talented team should serve Yzerman well in his new role as the 12th general manager in the team's 93-year history.

"The moral of the story is Steve wasn't going to win until everyone understood that Darren McCarty, Kris Draper, Joey Kocur and Kirk Maltby were just as important as the superstars and the Russian Five," Redmond said. "As soon as that happened, bingo, back-to-back championships."

'He's paid his dues'

Heading into Saturday's season opener in Nashville, Yzerman's first-year team isn't expected to make the playoffs for a fourth straight season and are a long way from winning the franchise's 12th Stanley Cup.

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Vegas odds are at 200-to-1 to win hockey's holy grail, and only one team in more than a century of NHL history has won the Stanley Cup without a captain.

(The Bruins won Cups in 1970 and 1972 with three assistant captains).

(From left) Director of Amateur Scouting Kris Draper, Assistant Director of Player Development Dan Cleary, and General Manager Steve Yzerman chat during the Red Wings training camp at Centre Ice Arena, in Traverse City.  All three were former players.
(From left) Director of Amateur Scouting Kris Draper, Assistant Director of Player Development Dan Cleary, and General Manager Steve Yzerman chat during the Red Wings... (From left) Director of Amateur Scouting Kris Draper, Assistant Director of Player Development Dan Cleary, and General Manager Steve Yzerman chat during the Red Wings training camp at Centre Ice Arena, in Traverse City. All three were former players.
David Guralnick, Detroit News

Yzerman and coach Jeff Blashill elected to go with four assistant captains this year, delaying the probable selection of Dylan Larkin during the rebuild and joining a trend toward multiple assistant captains.

Four other teams (Ottawa, Vancouver, N.Y. Rangers, and Vegas) didn't name a captain either for the NHL's opening night on Wednesday.

"I'm extremely excited to see his (Yzerman's) vision and where he's going to take this team," said defenseman Mike Green, who was in Washington for five of Ovechkin's eight years as captain before Ovechkin finally won the Cup.

"They (Ovechkin and Yzerman) both overcame the hard obstacles and a lot of adversity along the way to finally being rewarded. I'm sure it was worth all the pain and suffering in the past."

It's those lessons that hockey historian Stan Fischler says makes Yzerman's return to Detroit one of the most compelling stories of the season.

"He's paid his dues," said Fischler, who has written nearly 100 hockey books and has watched the NHL since his first game at Madison Square Garden in 1939.

"This is the kind of story that screen writers love. His pain and progress are inseparable. We can talk until the cows come home, but he's going to do it his way, the right way, making hard decisions and there's nothing wrong with that. We'll wait for the results."

'Like a silent assassin' 

Yzerman made a number of difficult decisions during his successful nine-year run as general manager/senior adviser of the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2010-19.

No decisions were bigger than replacing popular captains Vincent Lecavalier and Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis with sharpshooter Steve Stamkos, who has gone six years without winning a Cup despite last year's 62-win regular season, which tied the 1996 Red Wings for most wins in a season.

"Steve (Yzerman) is so humble he'll tell you he was lucky, but he was like a silent assassin in Tampa Bay, and I mean that respectfully," said NHL Network analyst Brian Lawton, who was taken first overall in the same draft as Yzerman in 1983.

"He has that ability to tackle tough problems. He lived it, he learned it, he's accountable. If something doesn't work, he'll admit it and fix it. He doesn't care about job security. All he cares about is, 'How can we win the Stanley Cup?'"

Yzerman, 54, has quietly gone about his business with his low-key, no-nonsense approach since being named the Red Wings' general manager on April 19. 

When he recently made 12 off-ice changes, including not renewing the contracts of chief amateur scouts Tyler Wright and Jeff Finley, the Red Wings made the announcements on the team website with no press release or fanfare.

"We're building," Yzerman said at last month's prospects tournament in Traverse City. "What I'm trying to do is put the most skilled, the most competitive, the most driven, the most intelligent hockey players on the ice.

"We're trying to amass as many of those kinds of players as we can regardless of their age or where they come from. Ultimately, to be a good team."

Steve Yzerman celebrates his first goal of the night during the Wings' 4-0 win over Colorado during NHL playoffs on May 9, 1999.
Steve Yzerman celebrates his first goal of the night during the Wings' 4-0 win over Colorado during NHL playoffs on May 9, 1999.
David Guralnick, Detroit News

In hindsight, after years of trade rumors and unfulfilled expectations, Red Wings senior vice-president Jimmy Devellano says the old adage is true: Sometimes the best trades are the ones you don't make.

"I was never certain why some of the (proposed) trades were cancelled," Devellano said. "I do know that it wasn't Steve Yzerman's fault that we didn't win a Cup for those 14 years. The truth of the matter is, you could've made King Kong the captain of the team in the '80s and we weren't going to win the Stanley Cup.

"Steve knows that you need a few superstars. He's a smart, smart guy who learned by paying attention, by observing, by asking questions, by caring. That's what he developed over 30 years, and that's why he'll do a good job here."

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Meet our new podcast: OctoPulse

Ted Kulfan and Mark Falkner introduce the new Detroit News' podcast, "OctoPulse: Taking the pulse of the Red Wings' rebuild with general manager Steve Yzerman."

Story credits

Ted Kulfan of The Detroit News contributed to this report.

Video: Tom Gromak, Detroit News, with Mark Falkner reporting

Photos: Detroit News file photos and David Guralnick and Daniel Mears

Research: Mark Falkner, Greg Innis

Page layout and design: Tom Gromak

Editor: Andreas Supanich

Producer: Casey Harrison