Steve Yzerman is recognized as a consummate professional. (Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)
If you’re of a certain generation, you may remember Pro Stars, the cartoon (and breakfast cereal, naturally) that combined the awesome powers of Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky and Bo Jackson as sporting superheroes who helped kids.
Twenty years later, the landscape is shifting dramatically. Jordan is currently the biggest villain of the NBA lockout – a former superstar player-turned-owner who apparently has taken a very hard line on negotiating with his former union. Some current players are even swearing off his famous Air Jordan sneakers as an affront to what they see as hypocrisy from His Airness, who once told Washington owner Abe Pollin to sell his team if he couldn’t make money.
Meanwhile, Gretzky was just called out by retired enforcer Georges Laraque as the “worst coach” he ever played for. The Great One’s tenure as bench boss in Phoenix was certainly dismal and has largely replaced his best post-career moment, his fiery Olympic tirade in 2002, as his current legacy.
Jackson, meanwhile, had the shortest playing career of the three due to injury problems. But he largely stayed out of the limelight afterwards. You’ll see him throw out a ceremonial first pitch here and there, but the two-sport phenom has been more of an investor and entrepreneur since his days on the field ended. When you think of Bo Jackson, it’s pretty much all positive.
And I think there’s an important lesson here. Legacies are so delicate in sports and a very special generation of hockey players is reaching a crucial crossroads. Despite name recognition, starting at the top can be perilous. Once Gretzky bought into the Phoenix Coyotes, he very quickly took over the hockey operations, then the head coaching duties a few years later. He surrounded himself with buddies such as Grant Fuhr, Paul Coffey and Mike Barnett.
Contrast that with Tampa Bay Lightning GM Steve Yzerman, a player who inspired nearly as much adulation as Gretzky – and that’s no small feat. Yzerman’s climb to the top began as a vice president with the Detroit Red Wings, where he spent five years learning from some of the best minds in hockey, such as Ken Holland, Jim Nill and Jim Devellano. Only then did he feel he was ready to take over the lion’s share of duties in Tampa and, thanks in part to a great deal of skill on the Bolts, guided the team to within one goal of the Stanley Cup final as a rookie GM. His right-hand man was Julien BriseBois and his head coach was Guy Boucher. Both were up-and-comers in the hockey world and coveted by other organizations.
On a smaller scale, Doug Gilmour is going through the same pains as Gretzky in Kingston, Ont. The Frontenacs boast a long history in the Ontario League, but have been a painful team for years now. After two and a half ineffective seasons behind the bench, Gilmour was bumped up to the GM’s chair and his team now sits with the OHL’s second-worst record. His coaches include Todd Gill and Curtis Joseph, two fellow former Toronto Maple Leafs with no major junior coaching experience (though Gill’s credentials from Jr. A are excellent). How long will the Gilmour experiment in Kingston last before a full-scale fan revolt, or ‘Dougie’ gets tired of the scrutiny and quits?
Gilmour holds rare clout in Ontario, but goodwill doesn’t last forever and being the bad guy is not something hockey men of his stature are accustomed to. There’s something to be said for paying your dues, even if you come in with Hall of Fame playing credentials.
Ryan Kennedy is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.