Forgetting about the lurking threat in the Detroit Red Wings dressing room was perilously easy because it was often holed up in a quiet corner, obscured by a newspaper. In the sometimes-languid stints pro hockey players spend half-dressed before and after practice, Steve Yzerman’s attention often seemed centred on a crossword puzzle. The man, however, has never had any trouble doing two things at once.
Yzerman would conduct his careful search for words without ever losing track of the ones spoken around him. At a certain point, perhaps just as some wise-cracker forgot about the captain’s sharp tongue, the face of the franchise would open his mouth. “He would just sometimes look up and make one comment that cut through all the bullshit and had the whole room in stitches,” says former teammate Brendan Shanahan, noting Yzerman himself was always fair game, too. “His humour, which comes across in a really witty sarcasm, was pretty legendary and earned him the nickname ‘Cutthroat.’”
If somebody used that moniker in reference to Yzerman today, you’d assume it had nothing to do with jokes and everything to do with his unflinching behavior during contract negotiations or trade talks. As the highly successful GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning, resolve is just one of the traits that have served Yzerman well. Talk of his Hall of Fame playing days usually focuses on grand things, like his outrageous talent or a romanticized mid-career style shift—a narrative that Shanahan would tell you is overblown, because Yzerman was actually always strong on the defensive side of the puck. Parse things more finely, though, and the sketch of a person with equally enormous off-ice potential starts to form. His determination was always easy to spot, but Yzerman’s true game-changing quality is a curious nature that’s enabled him to understand all facets of hockey and enriched his life—and the lives of those around him—outside the sport, too.
On the occasions that Yzerman has been tasked with putting together Team Canada, be it for the Olympics or World Championships, he’s been maniacal about every roster selection. In a country where you can’t really go wrong, he’ll make 30 to 40 phone calls on the 13th forward. That’s what happens when you abhor leaving anything to chance. Even as a highly touted teenager with the OHL’s Peterborough Petes, Yzerman did everything he could to minimize risk. During his 1982-83 draft-eligible season, Yzerman racked up 91 points in 56 games. But when NHL Central Scouting came through town, he had the mentality of a cunning grinder, doing whatever he could to sneak into the show.
“We’d stick a little weight in our pants and we’d stick Styrofoam under our feet,” says a chuckling Bob Errey, Yzerman’s linemate with the Petes. “I did it so I could get to five-10 and he probably did it so he could get to five-11 or six feet. We were trying every way to beat the system.”
Yzerman, who was an enormous Bruce Springsteen fan in those days, actually looked the part of a rebel when the Petes drafted him. “Steve used to have really long hair,” says former Peterborough roommate Mike Posavad. “I mean really long hair.” That was supposed to change when Petes coach Dave Dryden mandated a trip to the barber. Ever the company man, Yzerman obliged, but apparently his idea of a trim didn’t quite match the vision of his bench boss. “Dryden said, ‘I thought I told you to get your hair cut?’” Posavad recalls. “And [Yzerman] said, ‘I did.’ It was still down to his shoulders.”
The long locks were a distant memory by the time Yzerman was drafted fourth overall by the Red Wings in the hopes he could resurrect a franchise trying to shed its “Dead Things” label. Getting Detroit properly directed, though, was going to take more than skill and Yzerman had already demonstrated an ability to dig in before leaving major junior. The early 1980s were still very much the hairy heyday of the Petes’ rivalry with the Oshawa Generals. Just getting off the Peterborough bus and walking into Oshawa’s arena took a little something back then. Once action started on the ice, not much could be ruled out.
“He got stuck in the lip and half his lip is hanging off,” Errey recalls of one heated playoff contest. “I can still picture that lip. He just fought through things.”
Some of the battles Detroit was waging turned into victories upon Yzerman’s arrival in Michigan. During his first season, the Wings made the playoffs for just the third time in 18 years. The start of Yzerman’s career coincided with the final playing days of Detroit defenceman Colin Campbell. With a young family about two hours away in the Southern Ontario town of Tillsonburg, Campbell did a fair amount of commuting and kept an apartment in Windsor, where Yzerman and Wings forward Lane Lambert also lived for a stretch. The bond struck by Campbell and Yzerman carried over when Campbell became an assistant coach with the team in 1985-86. The former could go to the latter with the coaching staff’s concerns, while the players’ collective voice funnelled through Yzerman. That type of open dialogue is now a hallmark of Yzerman’s regime in Tampa, where every voice is valued and considered.
“Steve hired myself and our staff to do a job and he lets us do that,” says Bolts coach Jon Cooper. “There’s constant communication, but there’s never, ever somebody stepping over bounds [to say] you gotta do this or you gotta do that. It’s, ‘What can we do together?’”
The relationship between Campbell and Yzerman has now lasted 30-plus years. Once Yzerman started a family of his own—he has three daughters with his wife, Lisa—his crew and the Campbell clan would sometimes vacation together. The trips provided Campbell further insight into the mind of a man with a wide array of interests, including architecture. But hockey was never off the brain of either man for too long. In 1997, when Campbell was coach of a New York Rangers squad that got dumped by the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference Final, Yzerman peppered him with questions about what the Wings might do to get a better result with the Stanley Cup on the line. (It worked, as Detroit pumped Philly in four straight.) More recently, Campbell has been working for the league office while Yzerman has spent the past decade apprenticing with Detroit’s management team and then running the show in Tampa. In that span, as part of committees convened to discuss subjects ranging from head shots to goalie equipment, Campbell has heard Yzerman frequently throw out one word: Why?
“He doesn’t like to accept the norm,” Campbell says.
Even better, if Yzerman doesn’t understand something, he makes it a point to change that fact. When Shanahan was with the Wings and the team went out for dinner, the boys would take turns holding the wine list and squinting at it like bewildered middle school students examining a museum exhibit their teacher said was important.
“None of us really knew what we were looking for,” says Shanahan. “Steve went out and bought a book that looked like the Yellow Pages on French red wine. By the next season, he was telling you what the good years were, what the bad years were, what the bargains were, what the overpriced stuff was. He was somebody who studied things. When there was a subject that interested him, he made himself an expert.”
Today, when Yzerman decides the worth of something, the issue is more or less settled. Agents will tell you he’s fair and somewhat malleable in negotiations, but also staunchly faithful to the economic blueprint he has in mind for a championship team. That’s why he was willing to go down to the wire with potential free agent Steven Stamkos last June before the No. 1 centre inked an eight-year deal to stay with the club at a very palatable $8.5-million annual cap hit. When Allan Walsh, agent for 2013 third-overall pick Jonathan Drouin, publicly demanded a trade for his client roughly 12 months ago, Yzerman refused to move Drouin for anything less than the right price. Eventually, the disgruntled winger was worked fairly seamlessly back into the fold. And don’t forget how, while assembling Canada’s 2014 Olympic entry, Yzerman originally left Lightning legend Martin St. Louis off the roster, a decision that most believe eventually led to St. Louis asking for a one-way ticket out of town. Whatever the player’s reasons, Yzerman—under duress—struck a deal with the Rangers that ultimately landed him Ryan Callahan and two first-round picks. Handling those hot situations required a conviction rooted in a quiet confidence that Errey spotted in Yzerman straight away.
“Mario had it. Stevie had it,” says Errey, who won a pair of Cups beside Mario Lemieux with the Pittsburgh Penguins. “You don’t necessarily have to say a lot, you take in a lot of things. There’s a lot of learning and assessing that goes on with people like that. You can tell people who are brilliant, smart hockey people who just get it. He just gets it.”
More than most players of his ilk, Yzerman also understands what it’s like to be humbled. He had the experience at a few different points during his career, whether it was being cut from Canada Cup entries or facing the very real possibility he could be traded from Detroit when the team consistently came up short of its title aspirations in the first half of the 1990s. Then, while a newbie suit with the Wings, Yzerman came to the rink every day as low man on the totem pole, despite the fact his jersey hung high above the ice. Shanahan recalls a conversation with Yzerman from that time, when the former was also getting his post-playing career started at the NHL office.
“We were both real junior people,” says Shanahan, now president of the Toronto Maple Leafs. “And both of us were sort of laughing at how, if we didn’t show up to work that day, nobody would really miss us.”
There’s no missing Yzerman at 51 years old. As Campbell notes, the GM really hasn’t followed any one trend in building a Tampa Bay squad that could conceivably win the Cup in any of the next handful of years. If that happens, Yzerman would slip past the likes of Serge Savard and Bob Gainey on the list of men who had extraordinary playing careers and then did sparkling work as managers. Combine the heft of what he’s already achieved with a demeanour that skews stern and you have the makings of a man some suggest flat-out intimidates people, even in a field populated by strong personalities.
“I have had people tell me that,” says Errey. “Because of the way he carries himself and conducts himself; he’s got that darn serious look on his face every time you see him. I think he is always thinking.”
So maybe the fear is justified, because even if he isn’t focused on getting the better of you in business, who knows what one-liner is running through his mind?
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