The first time I encountered Steve Yzerman the hockey executive was at the 2007 IIHF World Hockey Championship in Moscow. He was taking his first stab at building Team Canada about 10 months after retiring as a player and did something unexpected during that notoriously long tournament.
He quietly made the not-insignificant trek from Russia home to Detroit to join his family for a milestone event.
And then he got straight back on a plane a day or two later and was inside Khodynka Arena when Rick Nash, Shane Doan, Shea Weber, Jonathan Toews, Colby Armstrong and the rest of his Canadian team won gold.
The jet lag has not eased up any in the decade since. Yzerman put together another world championship team and built two Olympic champions. He jumped straight from a front-office apprenticeship with the Detroit Red Wings to becoming general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning and quickly shaped that organization into one of the NHL’s best.
In recent years, it became common to hear a colleague or scout mention that they crossed paths with Yzerman while flying between Tampa and Detroit – a reflection of the transient lifestyle he endured with an employer based in one city and his family home remaining some 2,000 kilometres away.
So when Yzerman sent a shock through the hockey world on Tuesday afternoon – and there was legitimate shock when news emerged he was handing the keys to Julien BriseBois and stepping into a lower-key role as Tampa’s senior advisor – I immediately thought back to that long-ago tournament in Russia and his decision to spend 30 hours above the clouds in order to claim a few more with his wife and three daughters.
It’s something any partner or parent who logs heavy miles can easily identify with.
The number of times Yzerman felt divided between work and family during his eight years running the Lighting must be far too numerous to recount. He was the rare star athlete who went on to an executive career that almost made you forget about his Hall of Fame playing accomplishments – something that can only happen with next-level commitment and serious intellect.
Yzerman was certainly smart enough to recognize the potential storm brewing in Tampa when he met with Jeff Vinik this summer to start discussing the future. With only one year left on his deal, the Lightning owner wanted to extend him to a new contract. But the more Yzerman thought about it the more he felt like the time was right to change directions entirely.
For starters, Tampa already had a smooth succession opportunity in place with BriseBois having spent eight years as his apprentice. It wasn’t lost on either Yzerman or Vinik that the organization was fortunate he hadn’t already been scooped up by someone else.
Then there was the timing.
Making the switch immediately, rather than next July 1 when Yzerman’s contract expires, spared everyone months of speculation. There’s no reason to invite a potential distraction to a Lightning team that has won seven playoff series over the last four years but is still reaching for the big one.
Finally, the role change immediately lowers the demands on Yzerman. The 53-year-old will spend less time on planes this season and is leaving himself open to a world of opportunity next summer – assuming, of course, he chooses not to stay on in Tampa.
He can virtually name the terms of his next role. Given what he’s said about wanting to spend more time in Detroit, there will be persistent rumours about it coming with the Red Wings. But other teams are bound to come calling in July 2019 as well.
In the here and now, Yzerman can feel good about how he’s left the house in order with the Lightning. They are built to contend well beyond this season and have one of the more progressive thinkers in the game now at the helm in BriseBois.
“[I believe in] doing what I think is the right thing,” Yzerman told reporters on Tuesday. “I believe I’ve done that. In that sense it made it an easier decision. It’s what’s right for the Tampa Bay Lightning and what’s right for me personally and professionally.”
The only thing he failed to deliver Tampa is the Stanley Cup and there’s still time to do it. They’ve got as good a shot as anyone in 2018-19. The Lightning lost Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final on three separate occasions during Yzerman’s tenure and were beaten by Chicago in a six-game Stanley Cup Final in 2015.
The GM and the organization have travelled a long road together – spanning the trade requests from former captain Martin St. Louis and former top prospect Jonathan Drouin, to Steven Stamkos’s run of significant injuries and flirtation with free agency, to the never-ending limbo they’ve danced with the salary cap while fighting to remain a top contender.
As an executive, Yzerman developed a reputation for being able to hold his nerve, navigate sticky situations and make tough decisions.
His own future was next in the line of those.
It said something that BriseBois looked Yzerman’s way during Tuesday’s press conference and pointed to the friendship he forged with his former boss as the most rewarding part of his eight years with the organization. Vinik, the owner, gushed as well.
They have every reason to believe the prosperous times will continue in Tampa even though Yzerman now has other flights to catch.
“Bittersweet day,” said Vinik. “But more sweet than anything.”