News & Views » Local News

Is Red Wings GM Ken Holland still the man for the job?

In Holland we trust?

by

comment

Long before he became the successful, respected, and well-liked general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, Ken Holland turned professional as a slightly built goalie during the mid-1970s.

The Philadelphia Flyers dominated the era and tainted hockey's image for decades by fist-fighting their way to two Stanley Cup championships as the "Broad Street Bullies."

Their style was burlesqued in Slap Shot, the 1977 classic about the minor-league version of the sport in small Eastern towns. But Holland did more than watch the movie. He lived it.

He played in Binghamton, N.Y. for the Broome Dusters with Roddy Bloomfield, the guy who skated as Paul Newman's stunt double in the film. Holland wore his hair long, looking like he belonged on the cover of a Bee Gees album or in the cast of the movie itself.

And, once in a while, those luxurious locks got mussed when the Dusters got into some dust-ups.

"Brawls," Holland says. "Lots of brawls."

The one Holland remembers best came in the playoffs against the Mohawk Valley Comets in Utica, N.Y.

"There was a big brouhaha going on," Holland says. "The first five or six rows around the rink was folding chairs. The fans were throwing chairs at us."

Holland skated from his net to the team bench, where he was most needed.

"The fans were trying to come over the glass, and they were trying to hit us with these folding chairs," he says. "And as they'd come over, we'd whack 'em with our sticks to try to keep 'em back because if they got over the glass with these folding chairs they would've socked us good on the head."

That wasn't Holland's first big battle. One of his protégés and friends, Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill, remembers when they were teenage teammates on the Medicine Hat Tigers in the Canadian junior Western Hockey League. One incident gave Nill particular insight into Holland's personality and character.

They went to Vancouver to face the New Westminster Bruins, a tough team coached by a guy nicknamed "Punch." Ernie McLean's team intimidated in the style of the Flyers. "A bunch of big bruisers," Holland says. "They were good. They were tough. They were mean. They knew it."

According to Western Canadian hockey lore, when visiting teams vacated their bus at New West, the empty vehicle would keep trembling for five minutes.

Sure enough, the Bruins were "running us out of the rink" one late-season night, according to Nill. They kept messing with Holland around his net — bumping him, cutting him off — a violation of hockey etiquette and decorum that mars the grace and beauty of this sublime athletic endeavor.

"Finally, with a couple of minutes to go, I snapped and took the law into my own hands," Holland recalls. "And I sort of chopped down Stan Smyl. I hacked him pretty good and down he went. And it was chaos for 15 or 20 minutes. People running around throwing haymakers."

When Clayton Pachal of New Westminster tried to pound the 5-foot-8 Holland, Holland's teammate, Don Murdoch, jumped over the bench boards to protect Holland. Not successfully.

"Basically, they took Don Murdoch off the ice on a stretcher," Holland says. "My best friend took the brunt of my beating."

They lost the game and they lost the fight, but Nill said Holland's willingness to battle taught his Medicine Hat teammates a lesson.

Which was?

"You need to stand up for yourselves," Nill says.

Flash forward 40 years to the Red Wings team the 58-year-old Holland commands. As the regular season nears its April 11 close, the Wings hope to survive a fourth-quarter slump and make the playoffs for the 24th consecutive season, the longest streak in major North American pro sports.

Holland runs a franchise that is not only a bedrock member of its league but also one of the most successful sports brands in North America. Joe Louis Arena consistently sells out more than 20,000 tickets per game, and Forbes magazine recently rated the Wings as ninth in NHL value at $570 million with yearly revenue of $134 million.

In two years, their value will rise when they move to a new arena in the heart of Detroit's reviving downtown.

Among his general manager peers in the four major sports leagues of North America, Holland — named to his job in 1997, after working up from scouting — is seventh in seniority in terms of continuous service as a GM with the same team, according to Detroit statistician and researcher Greg Innis.

Those ahead of Holland are Lou Lamoriello of the NHL's New Jersey Devils, Jerry Jones of the NFL's Dallas Cowboys (who also owns the team), Mike Brown of the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals, Mitch Kupchak of the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers, Brian Sabean of MLB's San Francisco Giants, and David Poile of the NHL's Nashville Predators.

With four championships and six finals appearances since 1995, the Wings have been an elite team for 20 years and their fans — once grateful to just make the playoffs — have become a little spoiled, like New York Yankees baseball fans, disappointed with anything less than a title.

But without a Stanley Cup championship since 2008 and without a finals appearance since 2009, the Wings are an organization rebuilding with young players. This is a transitional season for a team that has won but one playoff series in the last three years. Holland's team was impressive for most of this season and exceeded expectations until several serious problems arose in the last quarter.

Along with injuries to key players and unsteady goaltending, it became obvious that the Red Wings could be knocked around without consequence.

And when you play a smaller, faster, and highly skilled team like the Wings, banging the body is a way to beat them not only in the regular season but especially in the playoffs, when players with "sand" or "sandpaper" win the test of wills.

Holland was asked if his team has enough grit.

"Where do you get it?" Holland says. "Everybody's looking for what you're talking about. You can't win the Stanley Cup every year. I don't know if it has anything to do with sandpaper."

Holland said highly talented players who can combine a physically robust game with a high skill set are usually taken early in the draft. Because the Wings have been so successful for so long, they haven't drafted in the top 10 in the first round since 1991.

Because of that, and because the payroll cap has limited spending for free agents, the Wings have made the conscious decision to select players with good skating and puck-handling skills over brawny bangers.

"Our enforcer," Holland has said, "is our power play."

On their best nights, the Wings play a bold and entertaining style that borders on artistic. On their worst nights, they look timid and tired, wary and weary, and might lose to Philadelphia, 7-2, as they did on March 14.

But how do they find the missing ingredients to defend their highly skilled talent?

Certainly not with the gang-brawling tactics of the 1970s Flyers, which have been pretty much legislated out of the sport.

Gone too are most of the one-dimensional enforcers like Joe Kocur and Bob Probert, the "Bruise Brothers" of the 1980s Wings, who rode shotgun for highly skilled players like Steve Yzerman to "keep the flies off him."

And you rarely see games anymore like the mythic and bloody vengeance match of March 26, 1997, when the Wings pounded Claude Lemieux and Colorado in every way at the Joe before wresting the Stanley Cup later that spring from the Avalanche.

But even by the tamer standards of the 21st century NHL, Holland's Wings are sometimes meek to the point of turning the other cheek.

Some recent examples:

In Dallas on Feb. 21, Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg was punched in the head at least twice by Jamie Benn, the captain of the Stars. None of Zetterberg's teammates retaliated. Zetterberg missed the next four games with "concussion-like symptoms."

In Boston on March 8, Bruins forward Milan Lucic barged into Detroit goalie Jonas Gustavsson and no Red Wing stuck up for the goalie.

Gustavsson left the game at the next intermission, also with concussion-like symptoms, and has not played since (as of April 6) despite the inconsistency of goalies Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek.

Not all such deeds result in injuries; sometimes it's simply to make a show of bullying. For instance, on March 26, when San Jose visited Joe Louis Arena, Joe Thornton of the Sharks was penalized two minutes for slashing Zetterberg in the groin.

Perhaps irked by Zetterberg's dramatic fall to the ice, Thornton skated over and shoved him. No teammate came to Zetterberg's defense.

And on March 29 at New York, the Islanders targeted Justin Abdelkader, one of the grittiest Wings and, at the time, their hottest scorer. First, Matt Martin charged and boarded Abdelkader. No Wing came to his aid, but Wings TV announcer Mickey Redmond shouted for a penalty that wasn't called.

Next, Cal Clutterbuck shoved Abdelkader through the door at the end of the New York bench. No Wing came to his aid. Later, Detroit's Teemu Pulkkinen skated by the Wings bench with his head down.

Wham! Clutterbuck pasted him into the boards like a bug on a windshield. You couldn't tell on TV if any Wing gave Clutterbuck even a dirty look. Will Holland and his scouts look to draft and/or trade for muscle that fits the 21st century NHL template?

Don't count on it. Holland said the Wings' long-term vision took form in the mid-1990s when coach Scotty Bowman put together a team led by the "Russian Five."

It continued in the following decade under captain Nicklas Lidstrom and several other Swedish players. Their top European scout, Stockholm-based Hakan Andersson, was recently profiled in Sports Illustrated as a master of his craft who is highly influential in selecting the Wings' prospects.

The Wings were one of the progressive teams to invest early in European talent. On many nights, at least half the players in uniform are from Europe.

Holland, in the first year of a new four-year contract, said it is unwise to change team-building philosophies suddenly after so much success.

That's one of the reasons his players like him.

"He doesn't panic," goalie Howard said. "When everyone's thinking the sky is falling, he's cool. He thinks everything through before he makes a decision."

Jimmy Devellano, the Red Wings senior vice president who hired Holland as a scout and promoted him up the ranks, says Holland has the full support of the franchise. (Mike and Marian Ilitch, who own the team, did not respond to a request for comment).

"I'm very, very, very, very proud of Ken," Devellano said. "It's a team being rebuilt on the fly. He's won three Stanley Cups. He's had great stability."

When asked about Holland's cordial relationships with almost everyone in hockey, Devellano replied: "Some people try to get respect at the league level with a lot of mouth and bluster. He's not a gossip. Ken doesn't operate that way."

Nill — a former Wings player who worked as Holland's assistant until 2013 — said Holland "is in control of his emotions. He's analytical. He's learned to come down and listen." Devellano said Holland's "inner sides rumble. He gets nervous. But it doesn't bubble out. That's to his credit."

Tom Wilson, a top business-side executive in the Ilitch hierarchy, said Holland is "relentlessly optimistic. I've never seen him get down. People feed off you and so he passes on the energy. He's so creative. He's like a tornado. He's one of those brilliant people who have a way of making complex concepts easy to understand."

Another general manager from the Wings' system — Tampa Bay's Yzerman — recently said he learned a lot by working under Holland before leaving Detroit.

"I learned this from Kenny in Detroit — a general manager has to be a presence, has to be on top of his team, just to be there, has to make sure everything is OK," Yzerman said. "Because there's always something coming up."

Holland can be seen in coach Mike Babcock's office after almost every game, win or lose. The door is usually open, and Holland sits quietly against a table or desk, listening and nodding.

One of Holland's immediate critical issues may be hiring a coach to replace Babcock, who, after 10 seasons in Detroit, will become an unrestricted free agent after the season and has led Team Canada to two Olympic gold medals.

Among the teams thought to be interested are the Toronto Maple Leafs, whose uniform logo resembles the Canadian flag. Babcock, from Saskatoon, is patriotic.

He has refused throughout the season to discuss his coming contract negotiations with Holland.

Although usually quick to respond to any question, Holland recently paused and chose his words carefully when a caller asked him about Babcock on Ron Cameron's Sunday night radio show on 92.7 FM.

Holland's sigh could be heard through his cellphone and the radio signal.

"We're going to give it our best to keep him here," Holland said of Babcock. "I'm hopeful we'll find a way to keep him in Detroit."

If not, Babcock's replacement might come from the same Grand Rapids Griffins farm team that feeds so many drafted players to the Wings. The coach, Jeff Blashill, is finishing his third year there and has coached a major college team at Western Michigan University. He also worked for the Wings as Babcock's assistant.

"Jeff is an NHL coach in the making," Holland said. "We ripped up his contract and gave him a new three-year contract with a nice raise. I think Jeff Blashill is in a great spot."

Holland's player development philosophy — marinate players in the minor leagues — may also apply to Blashill. It's better for young players to stay an extra year or two in the American Hockey League, Holland says, than to rush them to the NHL where their confidence can be shattered if they lose the trust of their coach.

Abdelkader, reflecting on that approach, said Holland refers to those players as "over-ripe," which is better than picking fruit before it is ready.

Another major role for Holland is the legislative movement to change the regular-season's five-minute overtime format from four skaters against four skaters to three against three. (During regulation time, it is five on five).

Jim Rutherford, general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, said Holland has led this push among general managers for years and finally convinced them to support it during their March meetings in Florida.

Holland argued successfully that about 60 percent of overtime games end in shootouts and that the number could be reduced to 40 percent if free-wheeling stars could show off their skills in greater space.

If the players' union and the league owners sign off, it could take effect next season. Just by coincidence, the change would most benefit teams like Detroit, with highly skilled skaters, passers, and snipers like Tomas Tatar of Slovakia, Gustav Nyquist of Sweden, and Pulkkinen of Finland.

Holland's political style blends his franchise's stature with with his longevity and reputation for progressive thinking, according to some of his colleagues.

One is Darcy Regier, the assistant general manager of the Arizona Coyotes, who worked on issues alongside Holland for years when Regier ran the Buffalo Sabres.

"Kenny has input and influence," Regier said. "He tends to look at the big picture, outside the box. He is insightful and forward-thinking."

Another friend and colleague broke it down more simply.

"Everybody knows that goalies are smarter than everybody else," said Rutherford, who, like Holland, is a former Wings goalie but played many more games for Detroit. "And people once thought goalies were crazy."

Jim Lites, another friend formerly with the organization and current president of the Dallas Stars, had the same role with the Wings when he was married to Denise Ilitch, daughter of Mike and Marian.

Lites said Holland charms people by telling good stories and remaining approachable to everyone.

"Some guys have that ability," Lites said. "He loves to laugh. He is witty and self-deprecating. He compliments everybody else."

More available to the news media than most professional general managers (especially in Detroit), Holland says, "I do my wee little part and let our fan base know what we're trying to accomplish."

The Wings have accomplished plenty, but the Red Wings that Holland has built are a far cry, temperamentally, from the brand of hockey that formed his early career.

Back then, it was one for all and all for one with a feeling of family. Holland's wife, Cindi, was visibly pregnant with their son Brad, the eldest of their four children, in 1981 when Ken still played in the minors. Cindi attended a game, her son said, and became enraged when a foe bumped her husband behind the net and got ejected for it.

She rushed downstairs and stood outside the opposing locker room at intermission until an opposing player — noting her condition and wishing to be considerate — said "Can I help you, ma'am?"

Yes, she said. Tell your teammate my husband better not be injured.

Perhaps they could use a little more of that spirit now.

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Detroit Metro Times. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Detroit Metro Times, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at letters@metrotimes.com.

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Detroit Metro Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Metro Times Press Club for as little as $5 a month.