40 years ago today, Detroit Red Wings changed history by drafting Steve Yzerman

Detroit Free Press

June 8, 1983, marked a franchise-altering time in Detroit Red Wings history: It was the day they drafted Steve Yzerman, selecting him with the fourth overall pick. In celebration of the 40th anniversary of that event, here is an excerpt from the chapter Captain Consolation from “On the Clock: Behind the Scenes with the Detroit Red Wings at the NHL Draft” by Helene St. James. The book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail.

Steve Yzerman was 16 years old the first time Jimmy Devellano scouted him. It was clear Yzerman had a great deal of ability, that he was a very good skater and possessed tremendous hockey sense. But the coach he played for tended to divide playing time fairly equally, so Yzerman’s statistics weren’t as astronomical as some of his contemporaries.

In June 1983, Mike Ilitch had owned the Detroit Red Wings for one year. He was determined to distance them from the “Dead Wings” era of the 1970s, to restore the franchise to glory. He wanted the team to be the buzz of the city and he wanted fans crammed in the stands.

Salvation presented itself in the form of a winsome local hockey prodigy by the name of Pat LaFontaine. He was as good-looking as he was gifted, as grounded as he was genial. LaFontaine had gone to Canada to play junior hockey but had grown up in Waterford Township, just outside Detroit. Devellano, whom Ilitch had hired in July 1982 to be the general manager, openly coveted LaFontaine. By the time the draft neared, nobody in hockey was unaware how much the Wings wanted LaFontaine.

“He would have been a superb marketing tool,” Devellano said in 2021. “We had 2,100 season ticket holders in 1983, and had missed the playoffs for the (fifth) year in a row. We needed someone special.”

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The Wings were bad, but not bad enough to guarantee LaFontaine would be theirs. They finished 18th out of 21 teams, giving them the fourth pick. The order was: the Minnesota North Stars (with Pittsburgh’s pick), the Hartford Whalers, the New York Islanders (with New Jersey’s pick), and the Red Wings.

Knowing Devellano’s situation, North Stars general manager Lou Nanne tried to take advantage. In May, the two were at the Marriott Hotel in Uniondale, New York. Nanne approached Devellano and suggested the two make a deal. By flipping picks and trading down, Nanne’s plan was to draft goaltender Tom Barrasso. The Wings would get the first pick — and with it, LaFontaine — but Devellano was wary.

“I’m not trading with you; you’ve never made a bad deal,” Devellano told Nanne.

Devellano went into the draft with the hand he was dealt — and with a good deal of anxiety.

“Of the players I had scouted, there were three I would have been satisfied with,” he said in 2021. “That became problematic because we got the fourth pick, and I only liked three. The players I liked, in no order, were Sylvain Turgeon — he was a big, strong kid who could score, who was a good overall player — then there were two young men that were very, very, very similar in how they played, their hockey sense, and their size. One was Pat LaFontaine, the other was a young boy in Peterborough (Ontario) called Steve Yzerman. Of course, at that time, nobody knew who Steve Yzerman was in Detroit. They knew who Pat LaFontaine was, but not Steve Yzerman.

“I had to sweat it out because if the three people I liked went one, two, and three, I felt I would not get a difference-maker at four, which would have been a disaster in trying to turn the Red Wings around. A disaster.”

Disaster was averted as soon as the North Stars selected Brian Lawton. The Whalers grabbed Turgeon, and the Islanders took LaFontaine. Out on the draft floor, Yzerman waited to hear his name.

“Detroit was the only team that I really had a feel for that I might be going to,” Yzerman said in 2021. “Jimmy D was very honest and said they were going to take the highest rated player on their board. The picks were called out really quickly. There wasn’t interviews in between picks like there is now.

“My name was called, and I quickly went down to the table and met Jimmy D., Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch, and some of the scouts. It was a very exciting day for me.”

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Choosing Yzerman turned out to be the best consolation in franchise history.

Yzerman became a beloved player in Detroit, a name as synonymous with the franchise as Gordie Howe’s had been 30 years earlier. The Captain, as Yzerman became known, won three Stanley Cups as a player and a fourth as a member of the front office. His No. 19 was hoisted to the rafters six months after he retired. When he hung up his skates in July 2006, he paced his draft class with 1,755 points. On April 19, 2019, he returned to the franchise as its general manager.

But on June 8, 1983, at the Forum in Montreal, Yzerman wasn’t a name that resonated with the two people who had turned one pizza store into a multimillion-dollar business and who then had turned to reviving the Wings.

“I had invited Mike and Marian Ilitch to the first draft, to sit at the table and observe how we operate,” Devellano said. “They came, a little bit due to my big mouth talking about LaFontaine all previous winter. They wanted him. They wanted Pat LaFontaine.

“Bill Torrey, the Islanders manager, took him at three. While I wasn’t down and disappointed because I knew I was getting the equal or more in Steve Yzerman, it bothered me more for Mike and Marian Ilitch, because they didn’t know Yzerman. Mike Ilitch came over to where I sat at the draft table and said, ‘Jimmy, we need Pat LaFontaine. You go over to Bill Torrey and you give him Yzerman and $1 million for Pat LaFontaine.’ That’s when Mrs. Ilitch tapped her husband on the shoulder and said, ‘Mike, you hired Jimmy to run the draft, let the man do his work. Let the man do his work.'”

Yzerman had grown up in Nepean, Ontario, moving there when he was still in grade school. His father, Ron, a social worker who was director of welfare services for the Canadian government, said in a 1983 interview in the Detroit Free Press that Yzerman always seemed more mature than his age. When it became clear his hockey ability surpassed that of his older brother, Mike, Yzerman didn’t flaunt it.

“He never said, ‘I’m better, I deserve the better skates,’ that sort of thing,” Ron Yzerman said. “I think it was a conscious decision on his part.”

Lottie Garvey, who housed Yzerman for two years while he played for the Peterborough Petes, described what a thoughtful, well-raised teenager Yzerman was: “He always took his plates to the sink.”

In Detroit, Yzerman was building a new fan base. In mid-November 1983, the Wings led the NHL with an average attendance of 17,752, a 5,904 increase at Joe Louis Arena from the previous autumn.

The NHL recognized Yzerman with its Rookie of the Month award for December, during which he had 10 goals and seven assists. The award came with a video cassette recorder. In January, Yzerman was the only rookie named to the NHL All-Star Game.

April heralded news that Yzerman was a finalist for the Calder Trophy. He lost out to Buffalo’s Tom Barrasso. But while Yzerman wasn’t tops in the eyes of the voting members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, who gave Barrasso the winning numbers, 242–203, Yzerman was No. 1 in Ilitch’s eyes. Minutes before the awards ceremony got underway in Toronto, Ilitch gave Yzerman an envelope with a $25,000 check. Yzerman, Ilitch said, was his rookie of the year.

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In October 1985 — a little more than two years after drafting him — the Wings signed Yzerman to a seven-year contract, the longest in franchise history. It was estimated to be worth around $350,000 a year.

“Steve Yzerman is one of the cornerstones of our building process,” Devellano said, “and we’re very pleased that he’s going to have a long career with the Red Wings.”

When the Wings needed a new captain at the start of the following season, Jacques Demers, who had just been named coach, knew the man he wanted.

“I want to be sure whoever it is, is capable of wearing the C for many years to come,” Demers said in September 1986. “Steve Yzerman seems to fit the bill. He’s our franchise. He’s got it all — looks, money, intelligence, modesty; he’s a superb talent, super person, a kid you trust and respect.”

As much as he was the leader of the team, the dreadful 1985–86 season, when the Wings won just 17 games, worried Yzerman. “People laughed at the Red Wings,” Yzerman said in a February 1987 interview over a meal of clam chowder, a grilled cheese sandwich, french fries, and several glasses of orange juice. “We lost a lot of pride and respect. We had some tough years before that in Detroit, but even though we did bad, we still had some respect. We lost that last year.”

Yzerman himself had played poorly and suffered a broken collarbone in his 51st game. “All summer I worried about it,” he said. “I was on the edge of becoming a run-of-the-mill player. Never a day went by when I didn’t think, Geez, if I’m not careful, in a couple of years I could be out of hockey. It worried me every day.”

That was in 1987. Yzerman was the most famous and most beloved hockey player in Detroit since Gordie Howe. Devellano, the man who had drafted Yzerman, referred to him as “a pure Red Wing.”

It would take 10 more years before Yzerman would realize his dream of winning the Stanley Cup. There were personal joys (marriage, fatherhood), accomplishments (scoring 50 goals in 1987–88, then 65 the next season), and professional trials. During a game in March 1988, Yzerman crashed into a goal post and tore ligaments in his right knee. Yzerman avoided reconstructive surgery, but the knee would trouble him the rest of his career. In the fall of 1993, Yzerman suffered a spinal injury and underwent a procedure to have two cervical disks fused together, requiring him to spend six weeks in a halo-shaped device to immobilize his spine.

It was a trying time for Yzerman in 1995. The Wings advanced to the Stanley Cup Final only to be swept by the New Jersey Devils. For the second time in his career he endured rumors that he might be traded. The first time was in 1992, when there was talk between the Wings and the Buffalo Sabres about swapping Yzerman and LaFontaine. (The Sabres had acquired him from the Islanders in 1991.) Ilitch nixed the trade.

Two years later, Scotty Bowman played mind games with Yzerman, letting it be known publicly that there was talk of trading Yzerman to the Ottawa Senators. As the Wings had wanted with LaFontaine in 1982, Yzerman was a chance for the Senators to market a hometown hockey hero.

Ultimately, Bowman guided Yzerman to become a complete player, to the point he was recognized as the NHL’s top defensive forward in 2000. But the prize Yzerman really wanted finally arrived on June 7, 1997, when The Captain carried the Cup for a lap around the Joe.

Yzerman was 32 years old when he finally hoisted the Cup. He first got on the ice with a stick in his hand when he was five years old. His father had been persuaded to coach his six-year-old son Michael’s team with the understanding that Steve could come along. The kids looked like water bugs on ice, skittering along after a puck. Steve was the one who got to the puck first, and Michael would lie down in front of the net and play goalie.

When Steve was 10 years old, his family moved from Cranbrook, British Columbia, to Nepean, just outside Ottawa. It was there that Yzerman grew into a teenager who would catch the Wings’ attention. When he was 15 — a year before Devellano first scouted him — Yzerman was busted by his parents for forging his father’s signature on a note that allowed him to miss school every Tuesday morning so that he could play hockey.

Yzerman’s parents were with him three years later, on that June day in 1983 when his name was called by the Wings. In a quiet moment, off to the side, Ilitch and Ron Yzerman chatted about being hockey parents. Ron joked about the money it cost. Ilitch turned to Ron and said, “I guess I’ll be taking care of that from now on.”

Yzerman brought life back to the Red Wings, brought pride back to the franchise. He turned out to be the most successful player from the 1983 draft by a landslide, leading the class in goals (692), assists (1,063), and points (1,755 points). Looking back, the man who headed up the Wings’ table in 1983 thought about what might have been. “Sometimes you wonder about the course of history,” Devellano said in 2021. “What if Yzerman had gone to the Islanders? LaFontaine would have come to us. Would we have won three Cups with him? Would Steve have won in New York? We’ll never know.”

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