Yzerman, Like Ilitch, Took the Path of Greater ResistanceBy
The home of Michael Ilitch has become an historic landmark for high-profile departures.
It was almost 20 years ago—June, 1990—when Ilitch, the Red Wings owner, placed a phone call he dreaded making.
On the other end of the line, Jacques Demers was summoned to the Ilitch pad.
Shortly after Demers arrived, two grown men had a good cry.
Ilitch had bad news for Demers, who had then just completed his fourth season as Red Wings coach.
They call it the “ziggy” in Detroit. Our word for canning a coach. You can thank the old Lions coach, Joe Schmidt, for its creation.
Schmidt rendered a self-ziggy in January, 1973—the loser of a power struggle in the Lions’ front office with GM Russ Thomas.
Inside Ilitch’s home on that June day in 1990, the ziggy wasn’t self-inflicted at all.
Ilitch, ever the gentleman and consummate professional, could have told Demers over the phone that he was being released. He could have delivered the news via his agent. He could have mailed a certified letter—no e-mail or text messaging in those days.
Ilitch would have none of that. He had made a very difficult decision about a man who he adored, and so he was going to break that news in person, mano-a-mano.
Jacques Demers said he’d never forget the courtesy Ilitch gave him, the day the owner fired him as Red Wings coach.
Ilitch had a relationship with Demers that never was replicated with any other Red Wings coach, before or since. Just four years prior to the 1990 meeting at his house, Ilitch and his lieutenants had bent the rules in order to poach Demers from the St. Louis Blues. They’re still crying about it in St. Louie.
But in 1990, two years removed from Final Four status and after having missed the playoffs completely in 1989-90 (still the last time the Red Wings missed the post-season), Ilitch had come to the hardest decision—to that point—he ever made as Red Wings owner.
So he told Demers, in person, that the Red Wings were letting him go. Bryan Murray was pretty much already hired as Jacques’ replacement.
Demers’s respect for Ilitch, already off the charts, grew even greater in the wake of how Demers’s cashiering was handled.
Twenty years after that teary meeting, another took place in the Ilitch home.
Steve Yzerman—Stevie Y, forever a Red Wing—was telling the owner, practically a father figure, that he was accepting the Tampa Bay Lightning’s offer to be their new GM.
It’s a safe bet that the eyes of Mike and Marian Ilitch and Yzerman were far from dry.
But Yzerman, who has learned so much from so many within the Red Wings organization, proved that he learned something from the old man owner.
Yzerman could have taken the less uncomfortable path to deliver his news, just as Ilitch could have, when he fired Jacques Demers.
Yzerman had made a big decision in his own right, and so it would have to be delivered in person—even more impressive considering all the ways people can be gotten ahold of in this digital age.
No e-mails. No texts. No hurried-through calls from a cell phone.
In person. Face-to-face. Man-to-man.
That’s the only way Steve Yzerman would have it. Reports say that Ilitch wasn’t the only one Yzerman met in person, saying goodbye.
Yzerman wasn’t raised by Mike Ilitch or the Detroit Red Wings.
But this is where he became a man.