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Maple Leaf legend Doug Gilmour versus Detroit’s Steve Yzerman: very different roads, even now

Two guys who played in the same era had very different playing styles but both can claim spectacular overall career results: Doug Gilmour and Steve Yzerman.

They both experienced different roads to NHL success, and are now travelling distinctly different paths in their post-NHL career as hockey “executives”.

Yzerman was a top pick of the Red Wings in the early 1980s and was right away considered a potential franchise player. He became, at a very young age, team captain and Detroit’s cornerstone player. Despite personal statistical success, after several years of playoff futility with the Wings, he was very nearly traded in the mid'90s to the then-woeful Ottawa Senators.

Instead, he evolved, and began to play a better all-around game for the demanding Scotty Bowman, and several Stanley Cups followed suit in Detroit.

So he never left the franchise that drafted him, and now works as a senior executive in the Wings deep (some might say bloated, though undeniably smart) hockey department.

He will never be the GM in Detroit, it seems, but he is a legend in the Motor City. Not quite Gordie Howe, but fairly close.

For his part, Gilmour had a rougher road. He was always considered “too small”, despite his heroics while playing for (and winning, if I’m not mistaken) a Memorial Cup with the Cornwall Royals.

A very late draft choice (134th overall) by the Blues, he, unlike Yzerman, was no lock to play immediately in the NHL.  Yet earned his way as a checking center. He had some outstanding playoff series with the Blues. I remember watching him in the mid-late ‘80s earn 5 assists in one playoff game.  Until then I knew precious little about Gilmour as a pro but I always remembered him after that.  Despite his solid play with the Blues, he was nonetheless traded to the Flames.

Never considered a top star in Calgary, he was still a key ingredient in the Flames winning the Cup in 1989 against the Montreal Canadiens.

We all remember that a contract dispute in Calgary led to another trade, this time to Cliff Fletcher's Toronto Maple Leafs. His time in Toronto, where two trips to the final four (and just the tireless way he played the game, as if his feet were always on fire) made him probably the most popular of Leafs in the last 30 years, which is saying something given the lasting popularity of Wendel Clark, a one-time first overall draft choice.

Gilmour had memorable moments in blue and white, but he moved from team to team to play out his career- New Jersey, Buffalo, Chicago, Montreal and back to the Leafs for a few shifts before an injury ended his career.

Statistically, Yzerman scored almost 700 career goals and 1,750 points. Gilmour scored 450 goals and 1,400 points as more of a defensive center through much of his career. Yzerman earned almost a point a game in the playoffs, Gilmour just over. Gilmour was +132 in his career, +27 in the playoffs. Yzerman was +185 in his career, -11 in the playoffs.

Both played hard, and played hurt.

How is it, one wonders, that a heart and soul player like Gilmour ended up with 8 different teams (the Leafs twice), while Yzerman stayed with one club his entire 20-year career?

At his best, Gilmour was a phenomenal player, a leader by example. He was a tough, rough-edged player, and didn’t have the smoothest skating style. Always chippy, for sure, a superb penalty-killer with offensive talent to boot, an individual who could play big minutes—and wanted to. And he was a big-game player.

All this from a guy picked in what nowadays would be the middle of the fourth round.

Yzerman, on the other hand, was the smoothie, picked fourth overall. Not brash, but smart and smooth- on and off the ice.

While he has missed out (or wasn’t interested) on the GM openings in Tampa and Florida, most feel his day will come soon, particularly after his recent success as the architect of the Canadian Olympic team.

For his part, Gilmour started his non-playing hockey career as an advisor with the Leafs, then became an assistant coach with the AHL Marlies. He now coaches the Kingston Canadiens in the Ontario (junior) Hockey League.

One is already in the Hockey Hall-of-Fame, voted in the first time his name was up for consideration. The other, Gilmour, waits for the call.

The road still seems a bit easier, a bit smoother for one than the other.


  1. Nice idea for the article... but a couple of oversights. It was Gilmour's very first shift back in Toronto when he was injured, which caused him to retire. And he's now coaching the Kingston Frontenacs in the Ontario Hockey League.
    But great comparisons and stat searching!

  2. I would have to say it is different leadership roles in the organization helped shape the way Gilmour or Yzerman turned out.

    If Stevie hadn't become the franchise player we know and love or he had been traded when the threat of a trade could have changed his fate.

    You have to ask the organizations which these players worked for. It is them which helped turn them into the players they were and who they won with.

    Stevie didn't always have a winning team and he decided to stay rather than ask for a trade or to explore free agency. Is it an easier rode?

    I think it is part the organization and part personal choice. He may not have taken the GM role in Tampa because his kids are still in high school and he does not want to uproot his kids or it just wasn't a good choice for him at this time.

    Easier rode I don't think so. Business is business and you have to create your own opportunities and sometimes if the person you are working for believes in you and you like the place you are working for there isn't a reason to live.

    Luc Robitalle bounced around to a few teams and he still made it to the Hall of Fame. So I don't think it is a matter of how many teams you play for which gets you inducted into the Hall. Hull played for a few teams too but he is in.

    You make choices when you are an Unrestricted Free Agent and you can leave or you can get traded. Detroit does love Stevie but to say his road was easier I don't think that is fair.

    You can say Detroit is loyal to its players. That would be fair.