01 October 2010

New GM Steve Yzerman gives Lightning a Bolt of Energy

USA Today

When vice president Steve Yzerman left the Detroit Red Wings to become general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Detroit GM Ken Holland lost an icon and a restful night of sleep.

"When I went to bed that night, my head was spinning," Holland recalled. "I was with Steve for 27 years, and as far as I'm concerned, Gordie Howe and Yzerman are the Red Wings."

The Lightning had fallen on hard times since winning the Stanley Cup in 2003-04. They have had three ownership groups in four years and haven't made the playoffs since 2006-07.

Now, Tampa seems like the place to be.

The Lightning's ability to lure Yzerman, 43, from the Red Wings — where he spent his entire 23-year career as a player and won three Stanley Cups — to the struggling franchise in May was the first clue that new owner Jeff Vinik had a distinct vision about how a team should be built. With Yzerman's help, Vinik persuaded Tod Leiweke to leave the NFL's Seattle Seahawks to become Lightning president. Yzerman hired Guy Boucher, who was a hot coaching candidate, and Steve Griggs left the NBA's Orlando Magic to become the Lightning's chief operating officer.

"So many bad articles have been written about us over the last two or three years that it was like a dark cloud was following us," said right wing Martin St. Louis, who was league MVP during the Lightning's championship season. "Since Mr. Vinik came and then Stevie Y, that cloud has been pushed aside. You're proud to wear the jersey again."

Simon Gagne, a two-time 40-goal scorer, used his no-trade clause in July to ensure the Philadelphia Flyers, a team with a salary-cap issue, dealt him to Tampa and nowhere else.

"I saw the changes from the outside, and you could tell that a lot of good things were going to happen," Gagne said.

Yzerman played an NHL-record 20 seasons as captain with Detroit, also winning an Olympic gold medal and appearing in nine All-Star Games. Though he retired as a player in 2006, his arrival has created as much buzz, maybe more, than any other Lightning player has generated. Since leaving the ice, Yzerman spent four years in Holland's managerial cabinet and was executive director of Canada's 2007 world championships and 2010 Olympic teams. Both won gold.

"He asked me in April or May if I thought he was ready (to be a general manager), and I told him I thought he was ready a year or two earlier," Holland said.

Starting in the mid-1990s, Yzerman was promised he'd have a management job with the Red Wings after he retired. Then he essentially began an apprenticeship with Detroit as he learned about running a team.

"Ultimately, we are in the information business, but you have to know how to get the information," Holland said. "Many times we would be out for supper and Steve would ask about people around the league. He would ask, 'What do you think of him?' Not only does he have a managerial philosophy, he has information you need to put together a staff."

The Red Wings didn't want to lose Yzerman, but they didn't want to stand in the way of his ambition.

"I need to work awhile yet," said Holland, 54, who signed a five-year extension in June.

As excited as Yzerman was to be a GM, he had mixed emotions about leaving Detroit.

"I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life in the Red Wings organization," he said. "But I came to the realization that I wanted to run a team and if I was going to run a team I was going to have to leave."

The hardest moments, Yzerman said, were telling Detroit owners Mike and Marian Ilitch, Holland and former Detroit general manager Jim Devellano he was leaving.

"We had been together all of these years, and they had really protected me," he said. "But they were encouraging."

Initially, Yzerman wasn't sure if Tampa Bay was the right opportunity for him. But Vinik had three or four conversations with him that lasted almost two hours.

"Actually, I never dreamed I would be able to get Steve Yzerman or Leiweke, because they are so exceptional," Vinik said. "I pinch myself that I have gotten them to share my vision and work for me."

After Yzerman was aboard, Vinik — who also is a money manager for non-profits and one of the Boston Red Sox's minority owners — asked him to help recruit Leiweke.

"I remember the day the phone rang, I was like, 'Holy smokes, it's Steve Yzerman,' " said Leiweke, who formerly was president of the Minnesota Wild.

Talent in place

Yzerman didn't inherit a bare cupboard. Steven Stamkos, a former No. 1 overall pick, scored 51 goals last season in his second year. St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier are established stars. And Ryan Malone and Steve Downie combine scoring and ruggedness.

Yzerman has traded for Gagne and changed up three of his six defensemen with the signings of free agents Pavel Kubina, Brett Clark and Randy Jones. He signed Dan Ellis to compete for the No. 1 goaltending job with Mike Smith. He upgraded his third and fourth lines by adding Sean Bergenheim and Dominic Moore.

"I have never had a chance to play with players like this," Ellis said. "You look at our top six forwards, and I can't imagine there are many better."

Yzerman also signed St. Louis to a four-year extension, preventing him from become a free agent next summer.

"By signing Marty, they were telling us, 'We aren't here to rebuild — we are here to win,' " Lecavalier said.

St. Louis' signing also meant a key player believed in the new ownership and management after going through two years of the Oren Koules-Len Barrie ownership that was defined by money issues and owner squabbles.

"If there weren't going to be changes, I didn't know whether I was going to still be here," St. Louis said.

Yzerman's hiring of Boucher suggests he will be less old school and more progressive as a GM. Boucher had been coaching in the American Hockey League, where he earned a reputation for thinking outside the box in terms of systems and strategy. He has a master's degree in sports psychology from the University of Montreal and has studied sports psychology, biosystems engineering, environmental biology and history at McGill.

Lightning players say Boucher's systems are totally different from anything they've seen. "I would describe him as innovative, but I don't think it's anything incredibly radical," Yzerman said. Boucher said of the first time he met Yzerman, "I knew in five minutes that our values were in the same place."

Quiet leader

As a player, Yzerman was known as a gritty, two-way center who could help his team with a blocked shot or a big goal. He led more by example than Knute Rockne-style oration. He is articulate but soft-spoken, someone who chews on his words before speaking.

"When he wants to talk to you," Clark said, "you know there is a reason and that it's been thought out."

Yzerman bought a home in Tampa. But he has a daughter in high school in the Detroit area, and his family hasn't joined him.

His arrival has drawn more attention to the Lightning. They'll be on Versus six times this season, up from two last season. NBC has asked the Lightning to hold two dates for possible national games.

That pleases Commissioner Gary Bettman, who said Vinik told him when he bought the team in February that he'd work to make the Lightning a first-class operation.

"His hirings were bold and creative and make clear he is fulfilling his promise," Bettman said.

NBC analyst Pierre McGuire said Yzerman brought instant credibility to the franchise.

That's good news for a team that ranked 21st of 30 in attendance last year, averaging 15,500 at the 19,758-seat St. Pete Times Forum.

The Lightning expect to sell between 9,000 and 10,000 season-ticket equivalents, up more than 30% from last season.

"I think fans understand Yzerman's vision, and there is an excitement here," said Freddy Jenkins, who has been a season ticketholder since the Lightning were founded in 1992.

Roughly 1,300 fans showed up to watch the opening days of training camp in Brandon, Fla. Lightning vice president Bill Wickett, who has been with the team for 11 years, said he had never seen fans standing three to five deep along the glass as they did to watch scrimmages.

Said Leiweke: "There is hope, and hope is a big deal in sports. People want to believe."

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