Wojo: Steve Yzerman is back where he belongs

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — Over the years, the bond stretched but never broke. How could it? Steve Yzerman was connected to the Red Wings — in lore and in the mind’s eye — even when he was disconnected for nine years in Tampa. There may be no greater bond in sports than the link between the prodigal son, the town he ruled and the team he led.

Steve Yzerman, left, shakes hands with Chris Ilitch after the former Red Wings captain was named GM on Friday.

Yzerman is back, introduced Friday as the Wings’ executive vice president and general manager, capping a celebrated inevitability. The only surprises were the timing, a few days after his former team was eliminated from the playoffs, and the deftness of the transition, as Ken Holland moved to senior vice president.

This was the bolt of energy and flash of hope the Wings needed, and frankly, Detroit sports needed. It’s not a knock on Holland, who won three Stanley Cups in 22 years as GM, then became a convenient lightning rod for criticism, as often happens in a massive rebuild. Holland and Yzerman are good friends, and Holland knew he couldn’t hold off the clamor.

It was a no-brainer for Chris Ilitch, a move that immediately brightens the mood, even if the Wings still sit a couple years from contention. It was a no-brainer too for Yzerman, whose family and home remained here while he basically commuted to Tampa. Nothing illustrates the bond more than this: He left a franchise that just tied an NHL record for regular-season victories — 62, same as the 1995-96 Wings — to take over a franchise well out of the playoffs the past three seasons.

There’s some risk when a playing hero returns in a management capacity, but Yzerman, 53, has the skill and experience to make it work. Tough decision? Silly question.

“I like being the GM, I like being in charge,” Yzerman said. “To come back to the Red Wings, for me it wasn’t a difficult decision. I knew where the organization is, but there are so many positives here, this is an awesome opportunity, personally and professionally. … What I did as a player is irrelevant now, it has no bearing on whether I’m a good GM or not. I have a job to do, and I’m not afraid.” 

'One-time opportunity'

Yzerman built a powerhouse in Tampa but didn’t win a championship in nine seasons, and that gnaws at him. It’s been 13 years since he last skated for the Wings, then served four years in the front office before leaving with his stellar reputation intact. In some ways, his aura grew, from the adored captain to the shrewd GM.

He tried valiantly Friday to downplay the immediate impact of his return, saying people rarely even recognize him anymore in public here. Oh, they’ll recognize him now, and the giddy excitement likely will exceed realistic expectations. As Yzerman talked in his low-key, deliberate manner, exuding confidence but not bluster, Ilitch sat on one side and Holland on the other. In the front row was Marian Ilitch, whose late husband long ago identified Yzerman as a transcendent leader.

“I’m ecstatic,” she said. “I did have a feeling that someday we would be together again.”

And what would Mike Ilitch think right now?

“I’ve been talking to him, he hasn’t answered me yet,” she said. “Yeah, he is smiling. He’s very, very happy. He would’ve probably broke rules trying to get it done.”

The bond with Yzerman was evident in her face, in the glint of a tear or two. It took some delicate maneuvering by Chris Ilitch, who gained permission from Tampa Bay to talk with Yzerman before his contract expired the end of June. It took the agreeable sentiment of Holland, also a cherished member of the organization.

And it took many 7 a.m. flights from Tampa to Detroit, as Yzerman repeatedly flew home to see his family, which wore him out and prompted him to step away from his day-to-day duties with the Lightning last September. The only real hurdle was for the Wings to find the appropriate way to pass the torch, as Jimmy Devellano did for Holland back in 1997.

Before Chris Ilitch would make the move, he wanted Holland and Yzerman to talk, and they did. By the end, Holland, 63, made it easy, signing a multi-year contract to move upstairs.

“I thought of all scenarios,” Ilitch said. “I thought this may work incredibly well, and I also thought, boy, this may not be a comfortable situation. But as time went on, it became very evident that Ken Holland was taking an exceptionally selfless approach to this. I’ve never seen it in my 30 years, where he was more concerned with the franchise’s long-term interest. He came to me and said, ‘I believe Steve should be the next general manager of the Detroit Red Wings.’ Ken loves what he does, but he realized this is a one-time opportunity perhaps to bring Stevie back to Detroit.”

'Time to look forward'

It’s the honorable and accepted way in an organization that’s relentlessly loyal. Holland wasn’t exactly in position to resist, but he’s highly respected in the NHL and reportedly coveted by other teams. He opted to stay, for now, and revisit his role as Yzerman’s mentor.

It could not have been easy for Holland, who has been in charge for a long time. Now as the draft approaches, it will be Yzerman’s call with the No. 6 overall pick. Holland wasn’t asked any questions during Friday’s news conference, but offered a brief statement.

“It’s time to look forward,” Holland said. “Steve is a really good friend. It’s a real exciting day for me to see him come back where he belongs.”

I would guess at least 90 percent of Wings fans feel the same way. The work begins immediately, as Yzerman and Holland will fly to Sweden for next week’s Under-18 World Championships. Then more evaluating and more meetings, including a discussion between Yzerman and coach Jeff Blashill, who recently signed a two-year extension, a move Yzerman fully endorsed.

Obviously, this has been in the works for a while, officially since early March, when the Wings contacted Lightning owner Jeff Vinik. But there was a time when Yzerman wasn’t sure he’d ever be back.

“Honestly, when I left, I thought Kenny is gonna be the manager for X years, and (assistant GM) Jim Nill is gonna take over for Kenny, and I’m gonna be 100 before I get to be the manager of the Red Wings,” Yzerman said. “Quite frankly, I feel 100 right now.”

He elicited chuckles as he dead-panned and downplayed his value, much like he did in 22 seasons as a player. Yzerman might not be as loquacious and open as Holland, and he’s always been more comfortable working in the shadows, even as he cast a significant one.

That’s why he spent a good chunk of his press conference pleading for patience, furthering the message Holland has delivered.

“We’re trying to rebuild, to have a competitive team that’s gonna compete for playoff spots and a Stanley Cup,” Yzerman said. “I’m not looking to roll in here on July 1 and make a big (free-agent) splash just so we’re a little bit better next year. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and you know this takes time. I can’t give you a specific linear timeline but we’re gonna do this the right way. I caution everyone to temper the excitement.”

Good luck with that. In some ways, Yzerman just completed a long-anticipated circuit. In other important ways, he’s just getting started.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski