7 Lessons in Leadership: Steve Yzerman

1. Be humble in your celebrations (but when it is warranted, celebrate big)

Steve Yzerman amassed some 1755 points (692 goals) in his illustrious career, but despite having plenty of reason to celebrate was often pretty mute after putting one in the net unless the goal was a big one. Much in the same vein as Bobby Orr before him, he could almost give off an air of looking more ashamed of humbling the opposing defenceman than being joyous for himself.

Of course, there are times to celebrate, often in unbridled fashion. The aformentioned Orr will forever be remembered flying through the air with his stick up just after his 1970 Stanley Cup winning goal and similarly Yzerman was running on ice with the excitement of a kid living out his playoff fantasy after ripping a slapshot over the shoulder of Jon Casey in double overtime of a game 7 against the Blues in 1996.

2. Do what is best for the team

It’s a well-known narrative in the hockey world that Yzerman was converted from a high scoring, human highlight reel into a two-way playoff warrior, either by Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman (see point 3) or by his own volition. In any case, the Red Wings’ success followed this transformation with Stanley Cups in 1997, 1998, and 2002.

“Keeping the goals against down has been the focus here and a key to doing that has been the ability of players such as Stevie Yzerman to change his style of play,” defenceman Bob Rouse said. “He had to buy into what the coaches were trying to implement and he’s done that, which is a big reason why we’ve been successful.”

3. Deflect praise

Minutes into his retirement speech in 2007 Stevie Y had already thanked the visiting team, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, twice for their cooperation and patience in his long ceremony that evening. He further heaped praise on the long-term owners of the team, the Ilitch family, the 8 NHL coaches he played under during his career, and the incredible players brought in for him to play with. He singled out Scotty Bowman, telling the crowd that the coach hadn’t been thanked properly for the 3 Stanley Cups that he’d won in Detroit and Mr. Bowman received a standing ovation while almost shaking his head in frustration at the altruism from the podium.

“My jersey is going to go up there,” he told the crowd, “and I hope as you watch it go up — and when you come back and you look up there — you give yourself a pat on the back.”

“He led without arrogance or self-indulgence,” owner Mike Ilitch said. “Steve Yzerman, you helped build Hockeytown.

Yzerman begged to differ. He took time out to honor the five other Red Wings greats he joined, three of whom — Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Alex Delvecchio — were seated behind him.

“The only way we could truly honor them,” he said, “was to play the way they did: with pride.”

4. Temper expectations

“If you shoot for the moon you might hit a few stars along the way”. Besides being astronomically incorrect, this is an overused saying and sets one up for disappointment.

Steve was quoted as saying “My first game in Detroit was in October 1983 against the New Jersey Devils and it was a thrill for me just to step on the ice.” Not necessarily aiming to be an All Star or being voted into the Hall of Fame, Yzerman was just happy to be playing the sport he loved at the highest level possible.

5. Play through the pain

“The one word that comes to mind about Steve was responsible: whether we needed a tying or winning goal, or an important faceoff, or a shot to be blocked on a penalty kill, or any kind of a big play, he was generally responsible for it… no player I ever coached could play with a pain threshold like Steve Yzerman” — Scotty Bowman

6. Know when to be serious and when to show a sense of humour

Returning home in the summer months, Yzerman stopped participating in summer shinny outings with many of his childhood friends, insisting they were too enjoyable. “He just explained that hockey was his job and the time had come for him to get serious about it and work harder to make himself better,” Goddard remembered.

Red Wings coach Nick Polano noticed the change when Yzerman returned to training camp. “He really worked on his strength,” Polano said. “He was in that weight room every day and he built up his strength. He became a star in the league at an early age.”

However, Yzerman famously gave a smooch to Martin Lapointe on the Kiss Cam when Brendan Shanahan would show the power winger no love.

7. Be loyal (but know when to move on)

Steve finished his career after 23 years in the winged-wheel of the Red Wings (the last 20 as captain), retiring as the longest-serving captain of any team in North American major league sports history.

He started his office career with the Red Wings, but when there was no sign of supplanting long-time GM Ken Holland, Yzerman moved on to join the Tampa Bay Lightning as General Manager.