June 22, 2010

Lightning snap up Yzerman in a flash

By Kevin Dupont

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the June 2010 issue of New England Hockey Journal. Steve Yzerman (photo: Getty)

Jeff Vinik, a Red Sox minority owner and now the new owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning, figured before the playoffs began that he would have a new CEO and GM for the Bolts in place by the upcoming NHL Entry Draft. But as the final days of May ticked down, with less than a month to go before the June 25-26 festivities in Los Angeles, both offices remained empty.

Then came Stevie Y.

Finally, almost 20 years into their existence, the Bolts nailed it with their May 25 hire of Steve Yzerman as their new GM. The move was a surprise only in that Vinik (Weston, Mass.), late of Fidelity's Magellan Fund, said weeks earlier that he would leave the hire to his new CEO.

But with Yzerman available -- ostensibly because Red Wings GM Ken Holland didn't want to move on to a cushier gig for the Winged Wheels -- Vinik pounced on Yzerman faster than Warren Buffett moves on an undervalued blue chip.

''It was clear,'' Vinik said at the Tampa Bay press conference, ''he should be hired right now.''

The remaining question: Who will get the CEO nod? Truth is, from the standpoint of the on-ice hockey product, it doesn't matter. That’s why Vinik played leapfrog over his previously stated hiring plan. Everything about how the Bolts play now will point back to the baby-faced, sharp-eyed Yzerman.

The new CEO can go about shaking hands with sponsors and protecting the franchise's various business interests. The key is, Tampa Bay has finally got a guy in the corner office who can tell the difference between a player and a pretender, a Zanussi and a Zamboni.

Sure, it's weird to think of Yzerman wearing anything other than red and white. But that's just dry goods, folks. He'll quickly begin infusing those black-and-silver Lightning sweaters with his identity -- smart, calculated and committed -- and his tanned, chiseled visage quickly will become the franchise's persona. No doubt about it.

Few in the hockey world felt Yzerman would bolt Detroit. His relationship there goes back nearly 30 years, to when then-new GM Jim Devellano (who is still in Detroit's front office, four Cups later) made him the No. 4 pick overall in the 1983 draft. Wings owner Mike Ilitch wanted Yzerman to stay in the Wings’ front office and eventually ascend to GM, but neither Holland nor assistant GM Jim Nill wanted off the top two jobs.

Ergo, time to go -- and Vinik made it worth the going. Yzerman's deal could be worth upwards of $10 million over five years, slotting him among the game's highest-paid execs.

Keep in mind, Vinik can find any number of capable lawyers and assorted other suits to handle many of the administrative (read: boring) duties connected to both the GM and CEO jobs. Yzerman's new gig, while GM in title, also will carry some of the CEO responsibilities, in the sense that he will craft corporate image and direction.

Yzerman, the executive director of the Team Canada squad that won the gold medal at this year's Olympics, brings a certain profile, respectability and dignity to Tampa that has never existed in the Bolts offices. Vinik, when I talked to him soon after he canned Brian Lawton (Cumberland, R.I.) as GM, said he intended to bring in a ''world-class'' CEO, who in turn would hire a ''world class'' GM. If he had to pay a premium over market rate, said Vinik, that didn't bother him, noting that his experience in business proved time and again that paying for the best people usually brings the best results.

Even when the Lightning won their Stanley Cup in 2004, then-GM Jay Feaster was considered, at best, a mid-pack GM. Phil Esposito's five-year run as the club's first GM yielded little more than heartburn and a plethora of outstanding draft slots. They actually had the right answer when Rick Dudley was put in charge, but ongoing turmoil among ownership soon had Feaster making the decisions.

When Feaster was ditched after a five-year run, Lawton was hired on for what turned into a brief stay (two years that essentially ended as soon as Vinik bought the club from the Len Barrie-Oren Koules comedy duo back in February).

No one else as president or GM could bring better cachet to the job than Yzerman. That's not to say others couldn't have done a decent job, perhaps even built a winner -- especially with such studs in place as Steve Stamkos and Victor Hedman. But Vinik made the right pick.

A new era begins in hockey's sun belt. Now, if Yzerman can just figure out how to trade Martin St. Louis to the Bruins …

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at feedback@hockeyjournal.com.

Home improvement

Kings GM Dean Lombardi figures the NHL Scouting Combine, held late last month in Toronto, is a useful tool for GMs and scouts when it comes to assessing top prospects’ strength and conditioning skills.

However, he is a bigger believer in getting to know players over the full season leading up to their draft year. A recent TSN report had Lombardi “nearly living” with Drew Doughty in the months before the Kings picked the talented defenseman No. 2 overall in the 2008 draft. An exaggeration, Lombardi said, but he did make a point to make a house call to the Doughty family home prior to making the selection. 

“You know, the slam-dunk ended up the trip to the kid’s house,” Lombardi recalled.  “Just solid, solid parents … you could tell in a second, these were people who lived for their son, but not through their son.

“They got the message through loud and clear: ‘Get out there and be confident, Drew, but always remember, it’s not about you.’ I walked out of that house and I told out scouts, ‘OK, we got our guy.’”

Tough enough

The Thrashers are in good hands with Rick Dudley now running the GM’s office. Don Waddell, GM since the franchise even began playing in 1999-2000, has moved exclusively to duties as team president.

Dudley helped turn around NHL franchises in Ottawa, Tampa and — most recently — Chicago, where he departed shortly before Dale Tallon was given the hook. He grew up in a small town some 90 miles east of Toronto and was among Canada’s top young lacrosse players before he made his bones in pro hockey, mostly as a brawling, scoring winger.

“I was a little bit of a whack job in lacrosse,” he recently told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “I was intense. Guys, even on my own team between periods, they would just leave me alone. They didn’t want to talk to me and didn’t want to bother me.”

Count on the Thrashers toughening up under Dudley’s watch. But don’t bet on them making a bid to bring back Ilya Kovalchuk, whom they dished to New Jersey prior to this year’s trade deadline. Kovalchuk’s most likely landing spot remains L.A. — unless he decides to return to Russia with his three career playoff goals.

Ring bearer

Derek Sanderson, who won Stanley Cup rings in Boston in 1970 and ’72, gave both of the rings to his father.

“I’d visit him in the Falls,” recalled Sanderson, who grew up in Niagara Falls, Ontario. “And I’d say to him, ‘You’ve still got the rings, right, dad?’ And then he’d just point to the curtains.”

Harold Sanderson, rather than keep the precious rings in a safety deposit box, sewed them into the bottom of the living room drapes, insuring both a sharp crease to the fabric and safekeeping from would-be bandits.

When the elder Sanderson died two years ago, Derek reacquired the rings and gave one to each of his sons.

“They fight over them now and then,” he said, “because the ’72 ring is fancier, with diamonds and stuff.”

All in the family

CBS announced its new fall lineup in late May and Stefanie Lemelin, 30-year-old daughter of ex-Bruins goalie Reggie Lemelin, will co-star in a comedy series alongside proud Canadian William Shatner.

Stefanie, waiting more than a decade for her big break, will be seen on the new show “