KEITH GAVE: A prodigal son is home where he belongs, but don’t expect miracles
Ken Holland was walking slowly through the dusty bowels of Joe Louis Arena, head down, hands in his pockets, on the way back to his office when I reached out, shook his hand and congratulated him.
The Red Wings’ general manager looked confused and somewhat weary after introducing Jeff Blashill as the team’s new coach. It was mid-afternoon on June 4, 2014.
“For what?” Holland asked.
“Well, you just hired your last coach for this team,” I responded.
“No, seriously,” I said. “If this guy can coach — and by all accounts he can — then he should be here awhile. At some point, you’re going to tire of this gig, or it’ll get old, and when that happens there’s a guy down in Tampa Bay who looks like he’s got this job well figured out. Eventually, he’ll want to return to Detroit, you’ll move up and stand by to counsel him much the same way Jim Devellano has been there for you all these years.”
This is the Red Wings way, after all. They believe in lines of succession. Groom somebody to be ready when an opening comes up. It hasn’t always worked, but that’s how they manage. My hunch is that before that guy left for Tampa Bay, Mike and Marian Ilitch wished him luck and success, and told him that when he’s ready, there will always be a place for him with his Detroit Red Wings.
Holland’s smile disappeared, and as he put both his hands on my right forearm he said, “Keith, I hope you’re right.”
We were all right. Everyone who ever imagined or expected or wished or prayed for this to happen, we were right.
The Captain is coming home.
A Good Friday, indeed, eh?
The guy who needs no introduction was introduced in a news conference that came more than two months before anyone anticipated — thank you, Columbus Blue Jackets.
Steve Yzerman is the 11th general manager of the Red Wings, the team he led for 22 years in a Hall of Fame career that included three Stanley Cup titles as their captain and one more in 2008, while serving as a vice president (in charge of learning how to be a good general manager) and assistant to Holland.
Near the end of his four-year tenure as Holland’s understudy, Yzerman started getting overtures from other clubs around the NHL. That’s when owner Mike Ilitch pulled him aside and gave him some invaluable advice: Don’t pick the team; pick the owner you want to work for.
Yzerman chose Tampa Bay’s Jeff Vinik, the best owner in the league — a reputation he was bestowed only after Feb. 10, 2017, the day Mike Ilitch died. The Wings still boast a great ownership family, but anyone close to the organization in recent years will acknowledge that things are a whole lot different now that son Chris is running things as his mother, Marian, once as active as her husband in running the hockey club, approaches her late 80s.
Not necessarily worse. Just different. There were times when Marian wanted to padlock Mike’s checkbook to restrain the generosity he showered on his sports teams. Chris doesn’t need his mother’s nagging to mind the budget.
Whatever it cost to bring Yzerman back to Detroit — and smart money says it was considerably less than what the New York Rangers were prepared to throw his way — we can be sure of this: Mike Ilitch is surely smiling. His captain has come home.
Good Friday indeed.
It’s just serendipitous that it’s happening on a weekend when families gather to celebrate a holiday on their religious calendars. Yzerman and his wife, Lisa, and their daughters were as much a part of the Ilitch family as their seven children and many grandchildren and great grandchildren.
Marian joined Chris for photos with Yzerman and Holland following Friday’s news conference. She looked very much like a proud mother — the matriarch of an enormous hockey family we’ve all been part of since they bought the club in 1982.
With the first pick in the Ilitch era’s first NHL draft, in 1983, the Wings selected Yzerman fourth overall — to Mike Ilitch’s great disappointment. He desperately wanted that kid from Waterford, Pat Lafontaine. Yzerman made us all soon forget any of the other three who were drafted before him, and Hockeytown adopted him as its own favorite son.
Think about it. Has there been a moment we cherish more in recent memory than when he skated the Stanley Cup around the Joe Louis Arena ice with that beautiful, toothless grin that warm June night in 1997? (OK, OK, seeing Claude Lemieux lying in a pool of blood near the Detroit bench after that melee a few months earlier comes awfully close. And so does Kirk Gibson, turning from home plate toward the Tigers dugout, pumping his fists over his head after that World Series homer in 1984.)
With Yzerman back where he belongs, Holland steps up and aside as senior vice president, precisely the same way Jim Devellano did when Holland took over as GM in June of 1997. That line of succession, remember?
For the record, Yzerman said that when he left for Tampa Bay, he had no illusions about returning to Detroit. “The only thing I thought about was trying to win the Stanley Cup as a manager,” he said. “It’s really hard.”
Besides, he added, at the time Jim Nill was well-ensconced as Holland’s assistant.
“When I left, Ken still had … who knows how many years left, then Jim Nill would take over. I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to be 100 before I become general manager of the Detroit Red Wings,'” Yzerman said Friday. “I feel like I’m 100 right now.”
The Captain is 53 years old. Let that sink in a moment. He might look not a day older than 35, but the rest of us are sure as hell getting old.
On the first day of his new job, one he’s clearly excited about, Red Wings general manager Steve Yzerman (has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it?) pleaded for patience, especially from the legion of Wings fans who have become spoiled with the success of this club over the past three-plus decades.
With some shrewd trades and draft picks, Holland has built a solid, young nucleus and stockpiled draft picks as more building potential building blocks. Yzerman’s first order of business is to head to Europe with Holland to scout the world U-18 tournament full of draft-eligible prospects.
The NHL Entry Draft is June 21. The Wings have the sixth overall selection, which will be Yzerman’s first substantial policy decision as Detroit’s GM. After that, it’ll be a busy late June and July evaluating free agents, crunching salary-cap numbers and trying to flesh out a roster that might at least compete for a playoff spot next spring.
A legitimate Stanley Cup team is several years away. Yzerman knows that, which is why he’s hoping for an extended honeymoon period as he tries to get a grip on his new team.
That might be asking a lot, judging by the mood of Wings fans in recent years. They haven’t been happy with Holland or Blashill in these past three years as a draft-lottery team with no Stanley Cup playoffs. In fact, it was their vitriol splattered around social media that made it easier for Holland to step aside.
He had confessed to being hurt by some of the things he read in the Twittersphere and elsewhere, wondering why Wings fans seemed to have such short memories. Did they forget, so quickly, the 25 straight years of making the playoffs? The four Stanley Cups (three under his watch as GM and the other when he shared front-office duties with Devellano and Scotty Bowman)? Do they not remember those good times? Are they that jaded?
Yep, they are. Which is why I half expect another shoe to drop soon, perhaps shortly after the draft. Holland has other offers. The openings in expansion Seattle and Edmonton are his for the taking, and he’s a Western Canada guy. He loves being a GM, and he’s good at it. Really good at it, despite what fans might think.
But so is the guy taking over these Red Wings. The future feels bright.
The Captain has come home. Good Friday, eh?
No, Great Friday.