Maclean's Interview: Steve Yzerman

Hockey great Steve Yzerman on how to choose an Olympic team, who to pick as captain and how scoring stats can fool you

Maclean's Interview: Steve Yzerman

Photography by Fabrizio Constantini/Getty Images

It held no earthmoving surprises, yet the list of 23 names Steve Yzerman produced on New Year’s Eve touched off varying degrees of applause, condemnation and second-guessmanship in bars and on open-line shows across the country. It was an early taste of the scrutiny on Yzerman, the Hall of Fame centre with the Detroit Red Wings who, as executive director of Canada’s men’s Olympic hockey team, chose the squad that will carry the hopes of a nation in Vancouver. As a player, Yzerman had a way of exceeding expectations. As a manager, his challenge may be keeping them in check.

Q: You are managing Canada’s team, in Canada’s sport, at an Olympic Games to be played in Canada. Given the enormity of the event to people in this country, did you have any qualms about taking the job?
A: No, none at all. It’s a very rare opportunity. I’d be amazed—bewildered may be the better word—at anybody who said no.

Q: There’s no denying the stakes, though. If Canada wins gold, you’re a genius. If the team falls anywhere short of gold, it’s considered some sort of failure.
A: That’s certainly the reality of it, and the way it goes in a short tournament. I don’t think that’s necessarily right. Whether somebody is really competent—whether he has a good hockey mind, whether he’s a good person to lead a hockey club—is something determined over a long period of time, not one tournament. If we do well, it’s certainly not because I’m any smarter than anybody else. It’ll be because we have good players and good coaches.

Q: Do you think our all-or-nothing mentality when it comes to big international tournaments is unreasonable?
A: It’s true that in Canada we pride ourselves on the game and we like to think we’re the dominant hockey nation in the world. But from my experience as a player, I can tell you these tournaments are very, very difficult to win. We have a great deal of talent in Canada. We certainly have the passion and the skill level. But other countries do as well, and I think the players and the people in the game understand and respect these other countries. We go into these tournaments with confidence. But we’re fully aware that we’ve got to play our best and get a little bit of luck for it to go well.

Q: You were considered one of hockey’s great on-ice leaders. At what point did you think you might want to be a manager?
A: I pretty much always knew I wanted to stay in the game after I finished playing, and even at a relatively young age I was intrigued by the idea of running a hockey team one day. So when Bob Nicholson, the head of Hockey Canada, asked me back in 2007 if I wanted to manage the Canadian team at the world championship, I was excited. After that tournament, in ’08 in Halifax, Wayne [Gretzky] decided it was time to let somebody else run the Olympic team, and Bob asked me if I wanted to do it. I was glad to be given the chance.

Q: In selecting your team, what were the toughest choices you had to make?
A: There are certain players that are pretty much automatic—you know from day one they’re going to be on the team. Then you get some who are playing so well that you just can’t leave them off. What really got difficult is when we were finalizing the roster. It’s not as if we were down to choosing the seventh defenceman or the 13th forward or the third goalie. Because, really, we don’t know which of those players will fall into those roles until the tournament begins to unfold. When we were filling what you might think of as the final forward spot, we were actually debating between really, really good players.

Q: Sounds agonizing.
A: You can take a couple of different views. One is, well, just pick one, it doesn’t matter, you can’t really go wrong. The other is, my God, we want to make sure we get this right; let’s talk it out. Either way, when you’re finished and you get your list of 13 forwards, you’re left sitting there thinking, “Wow, I can’t believe we left that guy off.”

Q: How deeply did you dig into the history of Canadian sides sent to international tournaments, and the reasons for their success or failure?
A: I have my own recollections going right back to the 1976 Canada Cup, followed by the Challenge Cup in ’79, and the ’81 and ’84 Canada Cups. I also had my own experiences playing in world championships and the Olympics. I played for the ’98 and ’02 Olympic teams, so I made sure to talk to Wayne and [assistant manager] Kevin Lowe about what worked and what didn’t, what sort of player performs well.

Q: With the inclusion of character players like Brenden Morrow and Mike Richards, your picks speak to me more of an attention to team chemistry than to pure statistics. Is that the main lesson you derived from these past tournaments?
A: You have to be careful not to just pick up the paper, look at the stats and say, okay, there’s our four centremen right there among the top NHL scorers. A guy on a really good NHL team, for example, should have a much better plus-minus than a guy on a bad team. You have to consider that. You also have to think about where guys would fit in on an Olympic team, which is not necessarily the same as where they fit on their NHL team. The right guy may be someone whose numbers are lower, and that was the case a few times for us. A lot more goes into being a good player than just putting up points.

Q: Is that the explanation for your decision to exclude Mike Green of the Washington Capitals, who is currently the NHL’s top-scoring defenceman?
A: Mike Green’s a hell of a hockey player, a tremendous talent. I just think the defence we put together can generate offence almost to the same level as Mike, and yet be stronger in other areas. We just thought the seven that we chose are a better fit for us. I don’t want to go on at length criticizing Mike Green, but there are parts of his game that we’d need to see improved upon before he’s ready to play in the Olympics. That’s my decision. If we have injuries, Mike will certainly be one of the players in the mix to be a replacement.

Q: Did you break the news personally to some of the players you left at home?
A: I know that Hockey Canada, out of respect, called a few of the guys who have always been good soldiers—who answered the bell when asked to play for their country and were in strong consideration. As for myself, I had a couple of players who have played for me, or with me, who unfortunately didn’t make the final roster who I intend to follow up with over the next few weeks.

Q: What part did the fact that these games will be played on a North American-size ice surface, rather than the wider, international-size rink, play in your choices?
A: There are a couple of people who didn’t make the roster who we might have included if we were playing on a bigger ice surface—we might have needed a better skater in a couple of cases. But the team wouldn’t have been dramatically different.

Q: The teams that countries like Russia and Sweden put on the ice these days seem so much more rugged than they used to be. How did that figure into your preparations?
A: I’d throw the Finns in there, too. In general, I think hockey on the two continents is blending into one style of play. The Europeans have taken the best points of our game, and we’ve taken the best points of theirs. We and the U.S. rely much more on skill than we used to. The result is that the tournaments are more wide open, and there are more teams in the mix to win. We put a team together with the idea to win, not to beat any one or two particular countries. That said, these European teams, they’re big men. You look at those Russian forwards. Ovechkin is I think, 220 lb. Kovalchuk is 220. Malkin, Semin . . . they’re big, strong men, so when you get the chance to add a big, skilled guy who competes, you put him on your team.

Q: You’ve got nine NHL captains on your team, which is an embarrassment of riches in the leadership department. Why did you settle on Scott Niedermayer to wear the “C”?
A: The best thing about Scott is that he’s very calm under pressure. In that respect he’s a lot like [Sweden’s] Nicklas Lidstrom. Whether they’re in a pre-season game or Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals, they don’t change their demeanour. The leadership Scott displays is that he’s accountable in the biggest situations, and that’s most important. You know that when the time comes and everybody’s fired up and it’s a big game, Scott Niedermayer can be relied upon to do things the right way.

Q: You’ve competed for Canada at international tournaments. What has been the biggest change in our approach to the game?
A: There is so much more emphasis on skill. In the past, we thought we were going to win because we wanted to win more, we competed harder and we were just going to out-will the opposition. Well, these other countries maintained their skill level and just got bigger and stronger and played harder. Here in Canada, the skill level of the players had to go up for us to compete, and today I think it’s much higher than it’s ever been. Our good players on the top teams still compete really hard, but they’re as good and better in some cases than a lot of the European clubs. I think the same can be said of U.S.A. Hockey now, as well.

Q: You’re known for being understated, but Wayne Gretzky proved with his famous rant in 2002 that a manager can really set the tone for a team. How do you picture your role unfolding in Vancouver?
A: One thing I remember in ’02 was Wayne Gretzky and Kevin Lowe just being around the locker room. They were really well respected by the players, and to have them just going through the room and talking before and after practices—no lectures, just chatting about what they’d seen on the ice—was very comforting. I think I can contribute in that way, being around the players, getting a feel for what’s working and what’s not.

Q: As a former player, is the idea of standing back and watching difficult for you?
A: Nah, not really. I actually enjoy being upstairs. At the world championship, I did give some input as the tournament was going on to the coaches. And you put a coaching staff together to coach a team. We’ve got four very experienced, very successful coaches to run this team and make those decisions.

Q: Speaking of whom, what input did Mike Babcock and the other coaches have in the players you picked? The last-minute decision to add a right-handed faceoff man [Patrice Bergeron], for example, strikes me as the kind of thing a coach might request.
A: That was actually something we talked about. You want to take the best players. But sometimes certain players fill a need, whether it’s faceoffs, killing penalties or standing in front of the net on the power play. So, yes, we gathered a lot of our information from our coaches about where they saw specific players being used.

Q: Are we going to see Steve Yzerman managing an NHL team someday?
A: [Laughs] That depends on how the Olympics go. You may never see me again! M

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.