Mike Ilitch suggested trading Steve Yzerman on draft night, but the ‘real boss’ stopped it

Had it been up to Mike Ilitch, the Detroit Red Wings would have attempted to trade Steve Yzerman on draft night. Thankfully, the 'real boss' stepped in.

40 years ago today, the Detroit Red Wings changed their history forever when they selected Steve Yzerman with the No. 4 overall pick in the 1983 NHL Draft. But according to former Red Wings GM Jim Devellano, owner Mike Ilitch wanted to trade Yzerman, along with $1 million to get Pat LaFontaine. That's when the ‘real boss' stepped in and saved the day.

Steve Yzerman Detroit Red Wings Mike Ilitch

Key Points

  • The Detroit Red Wings had three players in mind for the 1983 NHL Draft, with Pat LaFontaine being their top choice due to his potential as a marketing tool for the struggling team.
  • Despite their preference for LaFontaine, the Red Wings ended up selecting Steve Yzerman with the No. 4 overall pick, as the first three players on their list were already chosen by other teams.
  • Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch wanted to trade Yzerman and $1 million to the New York Islanders to acquire LaFontaine, but his wife, Marion Ilitch, intervened and reminded him to trust the expertise of former GM Jim Devellano, who believed in Yzerman's potential to be a difference-maker for the team.

The Red Wings had 3 players they loved going into the draft

Heading into the 1983 draft, Devellano said there were 3 players he would have been satisfied with, but it was LaFontaine who he and the Red Wings brass, including Ilitch, coveted.

Note: All quotes via Helene St. James of the Detroit Free Press

“He would have been a superb marketing tool,” Devellano said in 2021. “We had 2,100 season ticket holders in 1983, and had missed the playoffs for the (fifth) year in a row. We needed someone special.”

“Of the players I had scouted, there were three I would have been satisfied with,” he said in 2021. “That became problematic because we got the fourth pick, and I only liked three. The players I liked, in no order, were Sylvain Turgeon — he was a big, strong kid who could score, who was a good overall player — then there were two young men that were very, very, very similar in how they played, their hockey sense, and their size. One was Pat LaFontaine, the other was a young boy in Peterborough (Ontario) called Steve Yzerman. Of course, at that time, nobody knew who Steve Yzerman was in Detroit. They knew who Pat LaFontaine was, but not Steve Yzerman. 

“I had to sweat it out because if the three people I liked went one, two, and three, I felt I would not get a difference-maker at four, which would have been a disaster in trying to turn the Red Wings around. A disaster.”

Mike Ilitch suggested trading Steve Yzerman on draft night

As the draft unfolded, the Minnesota North Stars selected Brian Lawton at No. 1, the Hartford Whalers selected Sylvain Turgeon at No. 2, and the New York Islanders snagged LaFontaine at No. 3, leaving Red Wings with Yzerman, who Devellano happily selected. But Ilitch wanted LaFontaine so badly that he told Devellano to try to trade Yzerman, along with $1 million, to the Islanders to get his guy. Thankfully, Ilitch's wife, Marion Illitch, stepped in to save the day.

“I had invited Mike and Marian Ilitch to the first draft, to sit at the table and observe how we operate,” Devellano said. “They came, a little bit due to my big mouth talking about LaFontaine all previous winter. They wanted him. They wanted Pat LaFontaine. 

“Bill Torrey, the Islanders manager, took him at three. While I wasn’t down and disappointed because I knew I was getting the equal or more in Steve Yzerman, it bothered me more for Mike and Marian Ilitch, because they didn’t know Yzerman. Mike Ilitch came over to where I sat at the draft table and said, ‘Jimmy, we need Pat LaFontaine. You go over to Bill Torrey and you give him Yzerman and $1 million for Pat LaFontaine.’ That’s when Mrs. Ilitch tapped her husband on the shoulder and said, ‘Mike, you hired Jimmy to run the draft, let the man do his work. Let the man do his work.'”

Bottom Line: Thankfully, Yzerman stayed a Red Wing

The Detroit Red Wings' decision to select Steve Yzerman with the No. 4 overall pick in the 1983 NHL Draft altered the course of their history. Despite owner Mike Ilitch's initial desire to trade Yzerman for Pat LaFontaine, former GM Jim Devellano and the “real boss,” Marion Ilitch, intervened to preserve the selection. Yzerman's exceptional career with the Red Wings validated their faith in him, leading to multiple Stanley Cup victories and cementing his legacy as one of the franchise's greatest players. This pivotal moment showcases the importance of trusting the expertise of hockey professionals and highlights the impact that a single draft pick can have on an organization's future.