Why Dylan Larkin will never forget Steve Yzerman asking him to be Detroit Red Wings’ captain

Detroit Free Press

Helene St. James
| Detroit Free Press

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One of the few bits of advice Steve Yzerman imparted on Dylan Larkin was not to change. The captaincy of the Detroit Red Wings is an honor, but it’s one Larkin earned by being who he is.

In an announcement that has been awaited for a year and a half, Larkin on Wednesday was named the 37th captain in team history; he’ll debut in his new sweater Thursday when the Wings open the 2021 season before empty stands at Little Caesars Arena. Larkin has known of the news since meeting Tuesday with Yzerman, who was captain of the team for two decades and has served as its general manager since April 2019.

“He asked me if I was willing to take on the responsibility and I said absolutely,” Larkin said. “He felt I was ready and I feel I’m ready. It was just a great conversation. It was a great feeling when he asked. We kind of both smiled through the masks.”

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Larkin, 24, was the obvious successor even before Henrik Zetterberg retired in September 2018. The Wings made Larkin their top draft pick in 2014, selecting the Waterford native at No. 15. He made the roster a year later, showing tremendous inner drive and responsibility beyond his age, then 19. As he grew more comfortable in the locker room, he became more vocal, more demonstrative of his leadership attributes.

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“Ultimately who he is, is why he’s the right guy to be the captain of this hockey team,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “I’ve seen it firsthand both here in Detroit and at the World Championships. He’s a great person and a great competitor and the guy that each one of our guys wants to lead him.

“He’s got the ultimate respect of every guy in that room.”

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Luke Glendening and Frans Nielsen will continue to serve as alternate captains. While they did their fair share of talking to reporters as the losses piled up last season — the Wings were 17-49-5 when the season was stopped March 10 — no player spoke more after games than Larkin.

“Dylan comes from a great family and he was raised the right way,” Glendening said. “He’s taken more onus every single year on what happens, not just for himself but for this team. He stood in front of the media last year trying to explain what was going on, and I thought he did it with poise and I thought he did it with grace, and that’s a testament to who he is.”

In addition to talking to media, a captain speaks on behalf of his team to on-ice officials about calls, and serves as a liaison between teammates and coaches/management.

The captain of the Wings used to be someone teammates voted in, but in 1982, Nick Polano started the trend of the coach naming the captain (he named Danny Gare after Reed Larson voluntarily resigned the job). Now it’s a joint decision between management and the head coach.

“Part of being the leader and ultimately a captain is that you … have to answer the tough questions, you have to stand there when things aren’t great,” Blashill said. “It’s easy to lead when everything is rosy. It’s hard to lead when it’s in tough times.

“Dylan certainly answered the questions and ultimately was self-accountable. And sometimes there are times when it’s not, maybe, how it looks and you’re sticking up for yourself and your team and Dylan has the guts to do that as well.”

The announcement was made Wednesday morning via the team’s social media. When Yzerman was appointed captain Oct. 7, 1986, coach Jacques Demers presented Yzerman a Wings sweater bearing the “C” at a news conference after a practice in Oak Park. When it was time to name Yzerman’s successor, Nicklas Lidstrom, he wore his red No. 5 sweater with an “A” on it during warmups before the home opener in 2006, but then stepped onto the ice to a standing ovation when he was introduced as the captain. (Fans cheered again when Yzerman came out for a ceremonial puck drop.)

When Lidstrom retired in 2012, Zetterberg was the obvious successor. A labor dispute delayed the announcement until a news conference during training camp in January.

Former GM Ken Holland had planned to promote Larkin from alternate to captain before the 2019-20 season, but that changed when Yzerman took over the rebuild. He wanted to take his time.

“To know that he waited and got to know me means more that he feels comfortable with me being captain of the team,” Larkin said. “One thing he said to me was, Henrik was different than Nick Lidstrom and Nick was different than himself, and I’m going to be different from those guys, which is a good thing. We all lead in different ways. It meant the world to me coming from him.”

Larkin joins a list that boasts Hockey Hall of Famers in Yzerman, Lidstrom, Gordie Howe, Sid Abel, Red Kelly. Alex Delvecchio and Ted Lindsay.

Larkin grew close to Lindsay, who died in 2019, crediting him with teaching him how to be a good Red Wing.

“You play as hard as you can on the ice,” Larkin said, “and you’re available to the fans and visiting kids and doing what it takes to be a good human being in the community.”

No player had a bigger role in Larkin’s development into the captaincy than Zetterberg. When Larkin grew frustrated last season, he turned to his former teammate.

“Henrik was the ultimate captain to me,” Larkin said. “He did everything the right way. He showed up every day. He kept his emotions in check. Whatever was going on in the locker room, he had his thumb all over it. He knew everything going on with the guys, with everything. He handled it like a captain should — he never really spoke out unless he absolutely had to. He pulled guys aside and had a mature conversation.

“The way he carried himself, all the guys respected him as great as I’ve seen (anyone) respected. Respect is earned, and you have to have time to build, but I hope one day people can respect me like they respected Henrik Zetterberg.”

During the nearly two years Yzerman has been GM, he and Larkin have bonded. The conversation they had Tuesday wasn’t long, but it was memorable for Larkin.

“Steve said he wasn’t big on advice, but he did say to not put too much pressure on myself, to not change who you are just because of your role on the team,” Larkin said. “He said continue being yourself, it got you here. The guys respect you. Just hearing that was great. It meant a lot. He’s one of the best to ever wear a ‘C’ on his jersey. I feel very comfortable with our relationship and how he feels about me as a player and person. I’m very honored that he looks on me as a person who could wear the ‘C’ for the Detroit Red Wings.”

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail. 

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