Sunday, February 15, 2009

Yzerman At Peace; Skates Don't Beckon Him

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Red Wings legend retires, gets kicked upstairs to the front office. Becomes a team vice president, but has no real job description.

It’s still happening in Detroit, but this time all’s well.

The Red Wings – most notably owner Bruce Norris and GM Ned Harkness – levied such obscene behavior on Gordie Howe, once upon a time. Actually, I have years for you: 1971 and ’72. That’s when Gordie hung up the skates, started wearing a suit and tie, and went to his office inside Olympia Stadium to watch the paint dry.

“They gave me the mushroom treatment,” Howe said in an oft-repeated line. “They kept me in the dark and every once in a while they opened the door and dumped (manure) on me.”

Only, Gordie didn’t say manure.

The Red Wings, on the surface, seem to be doing it again, this time to Steve Yzerman.

“I still have no specific job description with the Red Wings,” Yzerman was telling us media types via phone the other day. He’s an Executive Vice President now, Steve Yzerman is, and that’s been his title ever since he announced his retirement as a player back in July 2006. And though his words indicate that the Red Wings don’t have anything for him to do, a la Mr. Hockey, rest easy.

“I hang around the team a lot,” Yzerman said, clarifying his previous statement. “I’m trying to learn both the business side and the personnel side. I travel with the team sometimes. I spend a lot of time watching hockey.

“Between the Internet and TV, you hear a lot. I get forwarded a lot of e-mails.”

What Yzerman is hearing “a lot” about these days, from the Net and TV, is the Olympics. And with good reason. For Yzerman, you see, is the Executive Director of Team Canada for the 2010 Winter Games. That means he’s in charge, basically, of putting together the team, from top to bottom, that will compete in Vancouver for his native country. He was named to the post last October.

So that’s taking up the bulk of his time – but not as a distraction from any sort of “mushroom treatment” that the Red Wings are heaping on him. Yzerman is content to be the learning VP – functioning as a sponge among the team’s vaunted brain trust of GM Ken Holland, Senior VP Jimmy Devellano, and assistant GM Jim Nill. It’s a tact that Yzerman says he’s using with Team Canada’s management team, which includes current and former GMs like Holland, Doug Armstrong, and Kevin Lowe. Oh, and there’s one more hockey person that Yzerman leans on for advice.

“Wayne Gretzky told me that he’s always available,” Yzerman said of The Great One, who is functioning as a senior adviser for Team Canada, having once performed the job that Yzerman currently has. “Wayne was one of the first people I talked to [after getting the Team Canada job]. Having Kenny (Holland) around is invaluable.”

Is there a danger, I asked, of getting too much advice?

“Yeah, I think so,” Yzerman said. “But at the end of the day, I have to make the decisions. I like talking to people, listening to people. But I’m the one who makes the decisions.”

Howe made no real decisions with the Red Wings. The shameful treatment he received was a big reason why No. 9 retired from retirement and joined his sons in the fledgling World Hockey Association in 1973.

But if you’re wondering, as I had been, if Yzerman is tempted to put the skates back on and slap the puck around, wonder no longer. I hit him cold with the question.

Does this Olympic process, being so close to players and pursuing Gold, give you the itch to compete at the ultimate level – that of player?

“I don’t miss playing at all,” Yzerman told me. “The only time I thought about playing was when I was watching the World Junior Championships [in Moscow]. I was watching those kids play and I got kind of envious. But the more I’m exposed to the management side, the less I miss playing.”

So there you have it. The skates don’t beckon him, not one bit, save that moment of weakness in Russia. The suit and tie fit him nicely, thank you.

Yzerman: He's gotten used to this look

It’s all about trying to win Gold for Team Canada, and the more you hear Yzerman talk about that, the more he sounds like an executive, and not just someone who plays one on TV.

“I want a well-balanced team,” he said of his vision for Team Canada. “One that’s solid defensively. Balanced teams win, whether it’s the Stanley Cup or in the Olympics,” Yzerman, who should know, added. “We want to attack and defend. We want to play with the puck. Because once you lose it at this level, it’s so hard to get it back.”

So, a team like the Red Wings, basically?

“Well, the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup last year,” Yzerman said, as if we needed reminding.

For the record, Yzerman says he and his team of suits will name a coaching staff shortly after the Stanley Cup Finals in June. He talked of wanting to know strengths and weaknesses and personalities of coaching candidates before rendering a decision.

“Just like how we’re watching players, we’re also watching coaches,” Yzerman said, sounding very executive-ish.

The playing days are three years in the rearview mirror now, and fading fast. Steve Yzerman is at peace, very much so.

“It’s been a great transition,” he said, “from being a player to being in management.”

So that’s one thing The Captain has on Mr. Hockey. By far.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I do think Yzerman has been treated the same way as Gordie and I don't believe for 1 second that he's at peace with it either. Why is he talking about leaving the Wings if he is so happy with his job and the way he is being treated? The only difference between the Howe situation and the Yzerman situation is that Yzerman has kept quiet about it.