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Thursday, February 17, 2011
Steve Yzerman and Bolts face Red Wings ... yeah, it's a little strange

By Pierre LeBrun

TAMPA, Fla. -- There may just be that awkward little moment or two Thursday night, when the professor and the pupil cross paths as they sit down, at different tables, for their pregame meal at the St. Pete Times Forum.

Oh sure, they had dinner together the night before, just like good pals do, but the friendship will be on hold Thursday.

"It's going to be strange to see him in the press room maybe before the game, knowing that we're on opposite sides," Detroit GM Ken Holland told this week. "But other than Thursday night, I'm rooting for his team the rest of the year. I'm a big Stevie Y fan."

Steve Yzerman is on the opposing side against the Red Wings for the first time in his life. It's just weird.

Ken Holland and Steve Yzerman
After retiring in 2006, Steve Yzerman, right, worked closely with GM Ken Holland in the Wings' front office for four years.

"Personally, I just want to get the game over with," the Tampa Bay Lightning GM said this week. "It's not about me. This isn't Steve against the Red Wings by any means."

Good luck trying to spin that one, Mr. Yzerman. You were an 18-year-old rookie with the Winged Wheel in the fall of 1983 and spent your entire NHL career in Detroit. After retiring in 2006, you spent the next few years in the Wings' front office learning your current trade. All you've known until this season is Hockeytown, USA.

So Thursday night's game is a big deal.

"It would be different if I was a player or standing behind the bench as a coach," Yzerman insisted. "But I look at this game for our club as getting a chance to play against one of the better teams in the league, against some of the best players and see how our players and our system can hold up against them."

Fittingly enough, their teams both have 74 points and sit in second place of their respective conferences.

"It's an important game for us in the standings," Yzerman said.

How quickly the student has figured things out given his impressive work in Tampa Bay this season. Stevie Y went to Red Wings U and got his four-year Holland degree.

"Get good players and keep them," Yzerman said with a smile, when asked what he learned working alongside Holland, assistant GM Jim Nill and senior vice president Jimmy Devellano. "Every day, I would go in and mostly listen. I watched how Kenny ran the organization, how he went about making the decisions he made, how he interacted with his coaching staff. Every part of it I found interesting."

Good pupil?

"He came to work every day. He put his time in, both in terms of years and in terms of commitment," Holland said. "And I think his time managing Canada at the World Championships and the Olympics -- those were tremendous experiences to help prepare him to be an everyday manager in Tampa."

And what didn't go unnoticed? Yzerman didn't muscle his way to the top in Detroit. He certainly had the power to do so if he wanted.

"Most people of his stature, either right off the bat or in short order, they come in and they're the boss," Holland said. "He accepted his role. He was comfortable coming in and working with Jimmy D, Jimmy Nill and myself."

Yzerman also left Detroit to chase his dream of becoming a GM. He had too much respect for Holland to do otherwise. Instead, Yzerman came to Tampa to cut his teeth in the GM profession.

"In a real short time in Tampa, I think he's put a tremendous stamp on that franchise and that organization," Holland said. "I just think in time, he's going to build a very, very strong organization that the people in Tampa are going to be very proud of. He's a fierce competitor and a hard worker."

Home is now Tampa, but Yzerman will never forget his NHL roots.

"I came there as an 18-year-old, as a kid. I grew up there," Yzerman said. "Throughout my entire career there, we had a passionate fan base which lived and died through it all with me. We went through it all together, as a city and a state. It'll be the same with Nicklas Lidstrom. ... You're tied to the city."

Holland went one step further.

"You think about the Detroit Red Wings, we've been around 90 years or so, I think of three players: Gordie Howe, Steve Yzerman and Nick Lidstrom," Holland said. "We had other, great, great players, but I think those three are the head of the class. Steve has meant so much to our organization and to the city of Detroit, it's going to be strange [Thursday night], no question."