BRANDON, Fla. — Steve Yzerman smiled and shrugged his shoulders, his conflict clear. He was asked about the reality of facing the Detroit Red Wings, who enjoyed so many decorated years with him as their star and captain in that familiar No. 19 jersey.
But this time, instead of Yzerman serving as a franchise-shaping figure, he would be a foe. This week as the NHL’s postseason begins, instead of trying to deliver a Stanley Cup to the Motor City, he’d work to see that dream reach a dead end.
"I’d prefer to play other teams," Yzerman said Wednesday.
The Red Wings will forever be part of Yzerman’s memory. Detroit is where he created his sterling legacy on the ice, and it’s where he built a strong enough foundation off it for him to be hired as the Tampa Bay Lightning’s vice president and general manager in May 2010. Detroit is where he spent 27 seasons with the Red Wings as a player and a member of their management staff. Detroit is where he helped deliver four Stanley Cups, three as a player and one as part of its front office.
This week, though, his perspective will be different when the Lightning and Red Wings open their Eastern Conference quarterfinals series. This week, he’ll attempt a delicate balance between honoring personal friendships and advancing professional desires when Tampa Bay and Detroit meet in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the first time.
"I have tremendous respect for the organization from top to bottom," Yzerman said. "They’ve been one of the elite franchises in professional sports for a long time and continue to be and will continue beyond this year. So I have great admiration for them. And I expect this to be good hockey. The teams are similar in the way they play the game. Similar styles, and it should be entertaining hockey."
Yzerman’s gains in his role made this potentially entertaining matchup possible. He has tried to instill the same winning attitude he learned with the Red Wings — Detroit will make its 24th consecutive postseason appearance — into a Tampa Bay franchise that’s trying to rekindle the momentum that led to four consecutive playoff appearances from 2003 to 2007 and its lone Stanley Cup captured in 2004. When Game 1 begins Thursday night at Amalie Arena, the Lightning will appear in their second consecutive Stanley Cup Playoffs and their third postseason berth since the beginning of the 2010-11 campaign.
Yzerman, 49, credits the winning habits he learned with the Red Wings as crucial to his job performance with the Lightning. He said he still has friends in Detroit. Even though the Red Wings no longer employ him, a close attachment to his former home remains strong.
"I learned a lot," he said. "It has greatly influenced how I perform in my job, the decisions I make, how I go about things. It has a tremendous impact. And the vision I have for our team, the way I want our team to play, it has impacted every decision."
There are more decisions from him to come, but past ones have led to positives. The Lightning, in recent years under Yzerman, have moved beyond the Guy Boucher Era and hired Jon Cooper to his first NHL head-coaching stint. They have parted ways with long-time franchise staple Marty St. Louis and welcomed Ryan Callahan, a gritty veteran, in return. They have traded for Ben Bishop and seen Steven Stamkos grow as a captain. They have lured key veterans such as Anton Stralman, Brian Boyle and Jason Garrison into the fold. They have witnessed the emergences of Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman.
The Lightning, under Yzerman’s watch, have evolved into a fast and dynamic goal-scoring threat that uses age in crucial roster spots to complement their ample youth. The 50 victories and 108 points earned in the most recent regular season were both franchise records. They won a league-high 32 games at home.
Yzerman knows his work remains undone. Delivering a Stanley Cup to Tampa, of course, stands as his ultimate goal. But as he reflected on his past meeting his present Wednesday, the start of another postseason upon him, his changed perspective was obvious.
"We have lofty goals," he said. "There are a lot of things we’re hoping to accomplish."