When the Detroit Red Wings selected 18-year old Steve Yzerman with the 4th pick in the 1983 June NHL Entry Draft, one rival hockey executive muttered, “Bad choice.”
Safe to say that guy was flat wrong.
Yzerman played more than 1,500 games for the Wings in a 23-year career in which he established himself as one of the greatest players in the history of the National Hockey League.
But Yzerman, a pimple-faced teen from Ottawa, Canada, was not the first selection in the ’83 Draft, three other players were taken before him. While all three of the players taken ahead of Yzerman also played a long time in the NHL (one of them even went on to the Hall of Fame), Yzerman was the prize of the litter. The #1 pick, Brian Lawton, was an 18-year old media darling from New Jersey, heralded as the Great American Hope. But Minnesota babied Lawton a bit, recognizing some shortcomings in his offensive game. At season’s end, Lawton had 31 points in 58 games. “Stevie Y” had 87 in 80 games, which quickly caused Red Wings’ fans to learn how to pronounce his odd name.
After Wayne Gretyzky stopped dominating the league in the early 1990s, with Mario Lemieaux, Yzerman was the best pure scorer of his generation. He even subjugated his own scoring total to help the team win, becoming one of the best leaders the sport has ever seen.
But Yzerman nearly missed out on wearing the red sweater and the whinged wheel of the Red Wings. Pat LaFontaine, who grew up in Waterford, was considered by many to be the logical fit for the Wings in the ’83 draft. Lawton was a lock to go to Minnesota at #1, but LaFontaine was expected to go next, to Hartford. But the Whalers surprised everyone by selecting Sylvain Turgeon. That left LaFontaine, and the next team on the board, the New York Islanders, pounced on him. Red Wings’ general manager Jimmy Devalano admitted later that the team would have selected the Michigan native had he been available at #4.
“I had approached the three teams ahead of me, asking what it would take to flip-flop picks,” Develano said. But none of the first three teams was interested in dealing. It didn’t take long for the Wings brass to realize they had the right man in Yzerman though, showing poise beyond his years.
“Some kids are 18 going on 14,” said Detroit coach Nick Polano just three weeks into the rookie’s pro career, “Yzerman is 18 going on 23.”
Also, 18 years old, LaFontaine went on to a great career, earning a place in the Hall of Fame, though he never won a Stanley Cup and spent much of his career playing for subpar teams.
Unwittingly, Develano was prophetic in November of 1983 in the pages of The Sporting News just a few weeks into Yzerman’s career, when he said: “We knew Steve had the ability and brains to play, but initially I was concerned about his strength, because of his size (175 pounds) and age. But guys like Gretzky, Savard, and Dionne don’t seem to need strength that much. I’m not putting Steve in their class, but he’s built like them.”
Time would show that Yzerman was in the class with Gretzky and the other legends of the ice. For Detroit, it’s a good thing they ended up with Yzerman instead of someone else.