The Hockey Hall of Famer did it as one the game's great leaders, helping Detroit end a 42-year championship drought with the first of three Stanley Cup celebrations of his playing tenure in Detroit.
Now, he has a shot to do it as general manager.
The Captain is coming home, a move that fired up a fan base and drew emotional responses from ownership. Perhaps in vain, Yzerman tried to pump the brakes on all the excitement.
"This is going to take time," Yzerman said repeatedly Friday as he made a plea for patience.
Yzerman provides hope and a jolt of energy for a franchise that desperately needs both after going three straight years without a playoff appearance. His return means Ken Holland's run as GM is over after 22 years, but he isn't going far: He starts his new job as senior vice president with a multiyear contract, replacing his GM deal that had only one season remaining.
Chris Ilitch, the president and chief executive of Ilitch Holdings, which owns the Red Wings, said Holland encouraged him to hire Yzerman to replace him after the Tampa Bay Lightning gave the Red Wings permission to talk to him about the job in March.
"He said, 'Steve should be the next general manager of the Red Wings,'" Ilitch recalled.
Marian Ilitch, the founder of Ilitch Holdings, appeared to get choked up during Yzerman's news conference and couldn't stop smiling afterward as she celebrated the return of a man she refers to as one of her boys.
"I did have a feeling that someday we would be together again," she said.
Detroit drafted Yzerman No. 4 overall in 1983 and he helped turn around the franchise. His No. 19 jersey hangs in the rafters alongside those of Gordie Howe and other greats along with the franchise's 11 Stanley Cup banners. He retired in 2006 and left four years later to lead the Lightning.
And now the man adored by fans and affectionately known in the Motor City as The Captain is back.
Yzerman is taking the reins of a team that is enduring its worst stretch since the early 1980s when the team was known locally as the "Dead Wings" and needed to give away a car at each home game to get people to attend games.
"There's a lot of work to be done," Yzerman said. "We've been through this before."
The Red Wings have been rebuilding under Holland, who has created salary cap space, stockpiled draft picks and developed a core of young promising young players such as 22-year-old center Dylan Larkin. Yzerman said he will retain coach Jeff Blashill, who was signed to a two-year contract extension toward the end of the regular season.
"Kenny Holland has done a real good job setting up so when the general manager came in, he's ready to go contract-wise, draft-pick wise," said Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, who coached Yzerman in his final NHL season and worked with him when he led the Red Wings to the 2008 Stanley Cup and Canada to Olympic gold in 2010 and 2014. "He's set up and ready to go. They're good friends, they'll work well together."
Yzerman went into management immediately after retiring and Holland was his mentor in the front office. He began his post-playing career as vice president of hockey operations under Holland in Detroit and was part of the organization during that '08 championship.
Yzerman stepped down as general manager in Tampa Bay last year just two days before training camp, triggering talk he would come back to run the Red Wings. Yzerman's contract with the Lightning expired when they were eliminated in the first round of the NHL playoffs earlier this week. He built Tampa Bay into a perennial contender in eight seasons as general manager, making three trips to the conference final and an advancing to the 2015 Stanley Cup Final where the Lightning lost to Chicago.
"It's a real exciting day for me to see Steve Yzerman back where he belongs," Holland said.
Yzerman spent his entire playing career with the Red Wings. He developed into a two-way center under Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman after breaking into the league as a skinny, 18-year-old kid from Cranbrook, British Columbia, who was talented enough to score 39 goals and have 87 points as a rookie.
His body broke down over time and his 22-season career ended with his retirement in 2006 after leading the Red Wings to titles in 1997, 1998 and 2002. His career ended with 1,755 regular-season points, a total that led all active players when he retired and trailed just five in NHL history.
"I knew he would want to get back home," Bowman told The Associated Press. "It has been nine years. It's time. Home is home."
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