It’s easy to forget who Steve Yzerman is. On a day like yesterday, when the entire hockey world was shocked by Team Canada’s omission of Martin St. Louis to its Olympic roster, it’s easy to look at Yzerman with gaping eyelids and palms upturned, wondering: why? But then again, if you think about Yzerman and his career, both as a player and a GM, you should already know why. This, in a strange way, is just Stevie being Stevie.
For those of you thinking the move was cold, harsh, et cetera: you’re right. It was all of those things. Despite the fact that NHL Insiders are widely reporting that Yzerman wanted St. Louis on this team, the decision still came down to Yzerman. So yes, it was cold, harsh, cruel… you can insert your own favorite adjective. There is no buck-passing. It stops with Yzerman and, regardless of the arguments I’m about to make and the point of view I’m about to express, when you ask: who left Martin St. Louis off Team Canada? The answer is Steve Yzerman. No argument. No two ways about it. But when you think about how gut-wrenching it must have been for Yzerman to not only make what must have been the hardest phone call of his professional career, but also to make such a gut-wrenching phone call even though all he had to do to avoid it was simply put his authoritarian foot down and say, “St. Louis’ is on the team, period,” you can perhaps see the move as something other than cold, harsh, cruel, snake-like. It was also something else: unselfish.
And unselfishness has been Yzerman’s trademark for about the last twenty years – at least since he famously changed his style of play from an explosive offensive superstar to a smart, two-way workhorse under Scotty Bowman.
Let’s not forget, we’re talking about a man who, in 2006, after being named to Team Canada’s Olympic squad, voluntarily withdrew from the team because he didn’t think his play warranted the selection at that point in his career. We’re also talking about a man who heard boos at his own jersey retirement ceremony because, during his speech, he credited his teammates for so much of his, and the Detroit Red Wings‘, success.
And as a GM, this isn’t exactly Yzerman’s first staring contest with controversy. If anything, controversy has been the signature Yzerman leaves on his moves.
I know we Lightning fans are all over the moon about our team’s success this year, but it also wasn’t that long ago that many of us were frothing at the mouth about one, or many, of Yzerman’s decisions in building this team. But when you look at those decisions, you’ll see more of the same: Yzerman sets what might be best for him personally and professionally aside and makes decisions based solely on the merit of the options in front of him. In this case, it appears the choice Yzerman was faced with was whether to overrule the other members of his selection committee when it would make his life in Tampa a lot easier. He didn’t. Instead he did the thing that was hard. He removed his personal agenda from the equation.
And that’s pretty consistent with what Yzerman has done here in Tampa. Time and time again Yzerman has made decisions that were hard on him personally, and risky professionally, for the good of the team.
We’ll start with the firing of Guy Boucher. That one was pretty polarizing. There were many fans, like myself, who felt it was long overdue and faulted Yzerman only in giving Boucher so much rope. Others felt it was Yzerman who should have been fired and Boucher should have been named Tampa Bay’s coach for rest of time. The word “scapegoat” was used a lot.
That was then. Now? Now the Boucher era seems a distant memory and Jon Cooper is hopefully Tampa Bay’s eternal coach. Well, hindsight is 20/20, they say.
And oh how the venom flew when Yzerman traded our beloved Cory Conacher for Ben Bishop. I could pull quotes up from any number of sources about Yzerman and his state of competence, and/or mental stability, but I won’t. And how do you think Anders Lindback felt when Yzerman went out and got a starting goalie? Probably not good. Yzerman did it anyway. Why? Because it was the right move for the team. Whether leaving St. Louis off Team Canada is good for the team is debatable (I would argue “no,” for the record), but Yzerman’s willingness to trust the process he set up, even when it went against his own personal views, and even against his own personal relationships, is pretty much in line with everything else he’s ever done.
How did that move work out for the Lightning, by the way?
But let’s move on.
Perhaps the toughest decision Yzerman ever had to make, perhaps even tougher than yesterday’s, was the decision to buy out Vincent Lecavalier‘s contract. Pretty much anyone who set their emotions aside could see it was the right move for the team, but we’re talking about sports fans here, and it’s not always easy to set one’s emotions aside. Still, it came as a shock to the hockey world when Yzerman pulled the trigger for a lot of reasons, but mostly because of the risk to Yzerman’s public image. And because the decision was hard. He’d just cut ties with the face of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the long-time captain, arguably the most beloved athlete in the city. But he did it. And he did it with the same cold-blooded, analytical approach with which he does everything else in his GM life.
And the team got better.
Finally, there was the decision to sign Valtteri Filppula. And here, I must admit, even my own faith wavered. To me, it looked like a desperation move. Yzerman was over-paying Filppula, I thought, to hopefully keep the Lightning competitive enough to keep the heat off for the Lecavalier axing. And I think my reaction to the Filppula signing reflected most Lightning fans’.
Of course, that’s all a distant memory now. Filppula’s had such a great year that only the most love-blind among us would even consider dealing him for Lecavalier, and most of us think he’s a steal with his current contract.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, here’s the theme of this article: this is who Steve Yzerman is, and it’s who he’s always been. It’s the type of player he was, the type of captain he was, and the type of GM he is and will be. If you want a GM who would’ve pounded the selection committee table and wrote MARTIN ST. LOUIS in large letters across its face, despite the fact that the majority of the committee and, if the reports are true, the coach, didn’t want St. Louis on the team? Well, I hear Mark Messier‘s available for a GM job. But don’t expect Mark to listen to you when he thinks he’s right and you’ve got six guys saying he’s wrong, even if he put you and those six guys in place to help him make choices.
Yzerman set up the system – he made the rules. And he followed them, even when they bit him in the end. Say what you want about the decision to leave St. Louis off Team Canada. It’s unlikely that we’ll ever really know whether or not it was a mistake. But what we know for sure is it took a massive amount of integrity, to say nothing of the set of stones, for Yzerman to allow St. Louis to be held to the same democratic process as every other player, knowing full well that he, not Mike Babcock, not Ken Holland, not Kevin Lowe, was going to have to call Marty and give him the news.
Not exactly an easy spot to be in. You can put Marty on the team, but then, deep down, regardless of how much you truly believe Marty belongs there, you’ll know you played favorites. Even if no one questions it. Even if it’s acceptable to play favorites in this case. You’ll still know you played politics to get your way. Yzerman’s never been that type of leader.
But he’s always acted with integrity. And, when you look at this situation in that light, I hope you can see the staggering amount of personal integrity involved. An amount so staggering that it’s even kind of shocking for someone with Yzerman’s character to display it. I don’t think anything will surprise me at this point. But there’s also no way I’ll ever believe politics have played a role in one of Yzerman’s decisions from here on out. Because if ever there was a case where none of us would’ve blamed him, where we even wanted him to play politics, it was this one. This was the case. And he still didn’t.
But I guess, looking back, that’s just Stevie being Stevie.