TAMPA — The Captain is returning to the ice.
Nearly seven years after he officially hung up his skates, Lightning vice president and general manager Steve Yzerman will play today when alumni from the Detroit Red Wings organization face former Toronto Maple Leafs’ players at Detroit’s Comerica Park for the outdoor Winter Classic Alumni Showdown.
The Hockey Hall of Famer and three-time Stanley Cup champion, who became one of the longest standing captains of any North American sports franchise, is one of four Lightning personnel participating in the game.
Pat Verbeek, the Lightning’s assistant general manager and former Red Wing, will suit up with Yzerman, while Dave Andreychuk, Tampa Bay’s vice president of corporate and community affairs, and Lightning assistant coach Steve Thomas will play for the Maple Leafs.
Yzerman played his entire career in Detroit, where in 22 seasons he had 692 goals and 1,063 assists in 1,514 games.
“I look at it as a celebration of the history of the organization,” Yzerman said. “I look forward to being with the players, the fans and everybody from the organization.”
Squeezing in time for the game between managing the Lightning and being the executive director of Canada’s Olympic team seemed improbable, but Yzerman found a way. The announcement of the Canadian Olympic team has been pushed back a week, which helped.
“I felt it was appropriate to be there,” Yzerman said. “Obviously not skating at all, (I was) a little apprehensive, but I wanted to be there for the event and be around. I’d rather be there in uniform than in street clothes.”
Verbeek played 1,424 games in the NHL, finishing with 522 goals and 541 assists in 20 years. He played two seasons with Detroit from 1999-2001. After retiring in 2002, Verbeek became a television analyst for the Red Wings and later a Detroit scout.
“It’s the first time I’ve really felt like putting the gear back on and getting back to playing again,” Verbeek said.
Playing on an outdoor rink brings back fond memories for Verbeek, who was born in Ontario.
“You kind of revert to your childhood memories when we skated on outdoor rinks,” he said. “We had one in my backyard when I was a kid. The thing I’m not looking forward to is the cold. Hopefully they keep heaters on the bench.”
Thomas got his professional hockey start with Toronto, which signed him as an undrafted free agent in 1984. His career spanned 22 years, which included a second stint with the Maple Leafs from 1998-2001. He also played the 2003-2004 season with Detroit. He retired in 2006.
“The outcome is whatever but I think it’s just a celebration of guys that have had success in the league and they’re going to have a lot of fun doing it,” Thomas said.
Thomas said his story of going undrafted to having longevity in the league is a “feel-good story,” one he’s shared to inspire the Lightning’s younger players, along with his 21-year-old son Christian, now playing in the Montreal Canadiens’ system.
“There’s a lot of kids out there, especially at the minor and midget age that don’t get drafted,” he said. “And it’s not over when you don’t get drafted. That’s kind of the message I send to them.”
For Yzerman and Andreychuk, the alumni showdown marks a 20-year anniversary since Andreychuk and the Maple Leafs beat the top-seeded Red Wings, 4-3, in overtime of Game 7 in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs. Toronto went on to reach the conference finals.
Andreychuk, who was traded to Toronto after 11 seasons with Buffalo three months before that memorable playoff run, finished the 1992-93 season with a career-best 54 goals.
He played his final years in Tampa, helping the Lightning win the 2004 Stanley Cup, and retired in 2006 as the NHL’s all-time leader in power-play goals with 274.