In the winter of 1985-86 my family moved into a house we built from the ground up in rural south central Michigan. Our little pond froze over before Christmas and I received my first pair of ice skates. We were fortunate to have good ice until early March and during that span I learned the basics of skating forwards and backwards. My dad made our first crude sticks out of leftover lumber and we used our boots for goal posts. As the light began to fade each evening, I would often be the last person on the pond and when I was out skating alone I'd imagine I was that young slick forward Steve Yzerman skating down and making a couple of nifty moves and beating the goalie.
Twenty-five years later, I live in Atlanta Georgia and play hockey on two teams in artificial rinks. I write about NHL hockey in Atlanta. My pond hockey idol had a glorious career winning multiple Stanley Cups and a playoff MVP award and then retired. Now he's moving south (like I did) and is now the GM of division rival Tampa Bay Lightning.
I have mixed emotions about this move. On the one hand, I'm happy to see him get his shot at running a franchise. On the other hand, I hope he's not too successful at doing so. For many years, I could root for the hometown Thrashers during the regular season and when Atlanta failed to reach the playoffs turn my attention back to the Red Wings. Having Yzerman move in next door presents more of a problem.
What sort of GM will Yzerman be? That is a hard question to answer. His only clear cut management success his turn as GM of Team Canada. Whomever selects Team Canada has an embarrassment of riches problem. The question isn't "who will score" but "which star will be left off" the roster. In Tampa Bay, Yzerman will not have that luxury.
On the plus side he is a bright guy and he has been watching how the Red Wings operate for the last four years--presumably he has some idea how to run a franchise. On the other hand, the Red Wings have acquired a lot of talented people in their front office--in social science we call this 'human capital'--and Yzerman will likely find it a challenge to recreate that human capital quickly in Tampa Bay.
Another key factor will be the financial resources. The Red Wings were able to afford a scout in every European country and scouts for every junior league and college conference. Very few teams spend that much on their scouting departments.
The Red Wings ownership is also willing to spend to the cap max every season, but so do many other NHL teams. One key element of Detroit's strength in a salary cap league is that the Red Wings can often get players to sign for less money because of their reputation as a perennial contender. Numerous players have signed below-market-value contracts to come to Detroit or stay there in order to have a shot at winning the Cup. In reality, the Red Wings operate with a distinctive advantage when players sign cheaply. Yzerman will not have the advantage of a "winner's discount" come contract time this July.
A final hurdle will be the "superstar's curse" where players who were very successful in their sport struggle to repeat that success as management or as coach. In hockey Wayne Gretzky, Ken Dryden, and Phil Esposito all has fairly pedestrian years as NHL coaches and executives. In basketball Isiah Thomas was a poor coach and Micheal Jordan an ordinary owner. Often the best coaches and managers were marginal players who had to scratch and claw for every advantage--the ability to identify and exploit small advantages is often crucial in building success.
Yzerman is a very determined person, but he certainly faces some still odds in his new role as GM.