Yzerman ready to jump to NHL GM role

May, 25, 2010

With a four-year degree in management from Red Wings University plus a Team Canada elective on his résumé, Steve Yzerman was ready to enter the NHL GM work force.

"He's been out of the game as a player for four to five years, had a great spell with Team Canada, worked with [Wings GM] Kenny Holland and [Wings assistant GM] Jimmy Nill in Detroit. I think it's just about the right time for him to make the move," former Wings teammate and fellow Hockey Hall of Famer Igor Larionov told ESPN.com on Tuesday.

Like a top Manhattan law firm plucking the brightest Harvard law grad, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik got word from within hockey circles that Yzerman was ready to make the jump and made the big sell on the Red Wings' front-office graduate. Cut your GM teeth here, Vinik likely said.

The question around the NHL now is whether the former Wings vice president is up to the task. This humble media hack responds to that with an emphatic yes, having enjoyed enough conversations with Yzerman in the past few years to see his passion and devotion to his second career.

But if you need more convincing, here you go.

"He is certainly ready," Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "I saw huge growth over the three years that he worked with us. He was good when he started, and I think he is now truly ready to take on any of the challenges of an NHL general manager, and he will do very well in Tampa Bay."

Yzerman was at the helm of Team Canada for the 2007 and 2008 men's world championships team, which posted a 17-1 record in those tournaments and won gold and silver, respectively. It was at the 2007 worlds where he gave young prospect Jonathan Toews a chance to play with NHL players on the team, even though the Blackhawks draft pick hadn't turned pro yet. It was a sign of things to come for Yzerman, who again gambled on youth and raised eyebrows Dec. 30 when he put 20-year-old blueliner Drew Doughty on the 2010 Canadian Olympic team.

Although that decision seems obvious now given Doughty's performance, both at the Olympics and in the NHL playoffs for the Kings, it wasn't at the time of Team Canada's selections. It was just one of many calculated decisions Yzerman made while his home country held its breath.

"I think a big part of his growth was with Team Canada," Nill told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "Say what you want, but that was a major role. To see the time he put in, scouting the players and building the staff, that's one of the reasons they had success."

The truth is, however, Yzerman knew before the puck was even dropped in Vancouver that he wanted to make the jump to an NHL GM role. He told us as much on the eve of the tournament. Although Olympic gold was certainly a crowning achievement for Yzerman, it was the work that had gone into the team selection beforehand that really made him realize he was cut out for this kind of work.

"He put so much time and effort into it," Nicholson said. "His attention to detail was tremendous. The other key thing was he was never afraid to ask people their opinion so that he had all the information on the table to make the right decisions."

Yzerman's apprenticeship under Nill and Holland prepared him for the Team Canada task and ultimately the Lightning's GM job.

"He got to be around us, but we probably learned as much from him as he learned from us," Nill said. "We'd sit around and talk about players, and we'd be very open. We'd say something, he'd say something else, and we hadn't thought about that perspective. That open communication will really help him down the road here."

Nill has had a unique perspective on Yzerman.

"I've been very fortunate. I was lucky enough to be able to play with Stevie as a player, to watch his growth as a player and his success," Nill said. "And it has almost mirrored his growth in the management role. He's come in with the same work ethic and passion for the game. It's just going to mean success for him."

Brad Pascall, Hockey Canada's senior director of the men's national teams, said Tuesday that people should realize just how prepared Yzerman is for this job.

"Steve is a unique individual. He's probably watched more games, both at the pro level and junior level and at the international level, than anybody else out there, whether it's through us or with the Red Wings," Pascall said. "He's a well-rounded hockey mind. That's part and parcel of knowing what the job is all about as an NHL GM. I know when I've talked to him recently after the world under-18 championships, he had interesting opinions about some of those players. He has a wealth of player knowledge."

Larionov, now in the player agency business, also believes that Yzerman knows what it takes to win right now.

"He knows what direction the game is going in, with youth and talent and speed. He knows the style of the game [that wins], and he likes smart players," Larionov said. "It's exciting for Tampa to have a guy like that."

We were ready to hang up the phone with Nill on Tuesday when he insisted on adding one thought.

"The one thing people that don't get to know Stevie is that probably his most important trait is he's just a good man," Nill said. "He's a good person, and he treats people right. I think that's a big part of his success."

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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