The Stanley Cup returned to Hockeytown on Thursday, but only as a brief visitor for the Detroit Red Wings’ 25th anniversary celebration of their 1997 championship.
For a while there in those heady days of the late 1990s and 2000s, when the Wings claimed four Cups from ’97 to 2008, Stanley practically lived in Detroit, or at least had summer home here.
Stanley was back, front and center on the ice at Little Caesars Arena surrounded by the coaches and players who had first passed him around a quarter-century ago: Scotty Bowman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, Joe Kocur, Mike Vernon, Darren McCarty, Vladimir Konstantinov.
And Steve Yzerman.
The Captain himself, who once drove Stanley home in the back of his Porsche and jet-skied with him on Lake St. Clair, sat front and center during the lengthy ceremony on a red carpet at center ice. He spoke with Shanahan, who was sat next to him, but mostly he stole glances at his phone. Because beyond being the iconic leader and lynchpin who ushered in a new era of glory for a storied team 25 years ago, he also happens to be in charge of trying to usher in another new era of glory as the Wings’ general manager.
And Yzerman knows glory doesn’t come without grinding. Kris Draper, now Yzerman’s main assistant, could speak to the unchanged nature of his former teammate and current boss.
“It’s funny,” Draper said before Thursday’s 3-1 win against the Washington Capitals. “I got a call today from him and I thought it was going to be about, you know, tonight and the weekend and it was work.”
It wound up being a 20-minute conversation.
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“Not what I thought it was gonna be,” Draper said, “but it was still, you know, that’s just how it is. It’s always going he’s always thinking, he’s always challenging you. He did that as a player. And you know, now as a boss, he does the same thing.”
Yzerman easily could have stolen the spotlight and scored brownie points by speaking to the fans during the ceremony. Instead, he stayed in his seat and ceded that honor to Bowman, who at 89 years old remains so sharp that he sounds like he could coach tomorrow.
“The team is on the rise,” Bowman told the crowd but added, “it takes time.”
That was the message from the best hockey coach who ever lived. Yzerman knows it’s his job to deliver a different message these days by adding more young talent, incrementally, until the early hope he’s building in Hockeytown through Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond and Elmer Söderblom turns into heightened expectations.
The Wings aren’t there yet. After 10 games this season, the early barometer tells us this team has skill and promise but lacks consistency, especially against the better teams, which was the same problem under a different coach last season.
The Wings are 5-3-2 with 12 points. They split two games with an excellent New Jersey Devils team and rallied to beat a good Minnesota Wild team, 2-1. But against the top two teams in the Atlantic Division, they were outscored, 13-4 when they were beat down in Boston, 5-1, and bushwhacked in Buffalo, 8-3.
Coach Derek Lalonde is pounding the idea of puck management into players by playing responsibly with the puck in both zones, and the results are encouraging early. Before Thursday, the Wings were better in four key categories compared to last season.
Goals for per game: 3.11 compared to 2.77.
Goals against per game: 3.56 compared to 3.78.
Power play: 18.8% compared to 16.3%.
Penalty kill: 80% compared to 73.8%.
After the slap-down by the Sabres, the Wings played a much better game Thursday night at home in front of their distinguished guests. No, the game didn’t have a Wings-Avalanche intensity and several key players were missed the game with injuries on both sides.
But the Wings played a decidedly more controlled style a day after Lalonde emphasized the need to limit the turnovers and improve the coming out of the defensive zone.
“We’d like a little poise, a little patience, a little more help, everybody kind of wanting pucks,” he said Wednesday. “Even through some of our success early on, those D-zone breakouts were a little above league average, so it’s a point of emphasis to continue to work on.”
Lidstrom knows plenty about defensive-zone breakouts. He knows it’s about discipline and patience. Sort of the same thing he sees now as the Wings’ vice president of hockey operations and from his boss and former teammate.
“His determination of wanting to get there again wanting to have a championship team or real good team again,” Lidstrom said Thursday, “you see that work ethic I saw in him whether it was in practice or in the gym or during games.
“I see that now in a different way but it’s the same kind of work ethic you see in him as a GM now knowing the way he’s still grinding as he did as a player, you know? He’s grinding to find ways to be successful again, and I’ve seen that from him as a player and I see that as a GM now.”
If you looked close enough and took your eyes off the brilliance of the Stanley Cup long enough Thursday night, you could see a little of what Lidstrom was talking about in the gentle glow emanating from the phone the Wings GM subtly held in his hands.
Contact Carlos Monarrez: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.