Ken Holland comes from a world where the TV announcers say, “He’d probably like to have that one back.”
He comes from a world where, when you make a mistake, they turn a red light on and 15,000 zealots with leather lungs might try to boo you out of the building.
It’s a world where you’re assailed with dozens of vulcanized rubber discs every night as the last line of defense. And when Holland played goalie for the Red Wings, he was often the only line of defense.
It was 25 years ago this summer, when the goaltender Holland became the scout Holland. The Red Wings assigned him to Western Canada, mainly because that’s where he was born and reared.
Then it was 12 more years of working his way up in the organization, this time wearing a suit instead of the tools of ignorance.
Holland bided his time, learning how to put a hockey team together, as the apprentice of Scotty Bowman, no less.
The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in 1997 and it was determined that Bowman would no longer hold the dual titles of coach and general manager. Holland was promoted.
Almost immediately, the naysayers were out.
Keith Gave, mostly right than wrong as Red Wings beat writer in those days, pegged it badly.
No way, Gave wrote, could the Red Wings stay on top with a rookie GM.
Gave fretted over the return of Bowman to strictly coaching duties.
Holland then went out and made some astute trades—several at the March deadline—and the Red Wings repeated as Cup champs, despite the loss of Vladimir Konstantinov to a tragic car accident.
It was following that Cup when Holland returned to his goaltender days and made a move that I believe he wished he could have back.
He didn’t name it specifically, but I hit Holland with the question late in the 2005-06 season.
Go back into goaltender mode, I said into the phone, and tell me what trade or signing you’d like to have back, looking back on your almost-nine years as Red Wings GM.
He acknowledged there was one, for sure, that made him wince.
He wouldn’t tell me what it was, for fear of embarrassing the individual involved.
I submit that the soft goal he let in was the signing of defenseman Uwe Krupp in the summer of 1998.
Krupp was a hulking man who, on skates, could almost have looked over the glass without even stretching. He wasn’t a hockey player, he was a building on blades.
The German-born Krupp was signed from the hated Colorado Avalanche, where he had scored the Cup-winning goal for them in overtime in 1996. He wasn’t known for being extraordinarily physical, given his size, but how physical does have a building have to be? You’re still going to bounce off it.
Krupp came to the Red Wings, his wallet stuffed and before long, his back got creaky.
Krupp dressed for only 22 games during the 1998-99 season. He wasn’t heard from the next season, or the season after that, his back too painful.
Then it was discovered that Krupp, while he was supposedly too hurt to play hockey, was participating in dog sledding.
That made the Red Wings mad.
It got ugly and into the courts. In 2001, Krupp said he was healthy and wanted to come back to the Red Wings. The Red Wings told him to stick it in his five hole.
Showing more fight in the courtroom than he had shown on and off the ice for the Red Wings before and after his injury, Krupp finally won the right to play for the Red Wings, after all.
He suited up for eight games in the 2001-02 season, Bowman not thrilled with him at all.
Bowman gave Krupp a shot in the playoffs, putting him into the lineup for Games 1 and 2 of the first round against Vancouver, in Detroit. The Red Wings lost both, and Krupp was minus five.
Bowman yanked Krupp and declared privately that the tall German building would never play another game for the Red Wings. And Krupp didn’t.
Holland threw a ton of money at Uwe Krupp, when the Red Wings really didn’t need another defenseman, despite Konstantinov’s loss the year prior. The ’98 Red Wings won the Stanley Cup, but Holland, in the pre-salary cap world of the time, couldn’t keep from tweaking.
I believe it was the signing of Krupp to which Holland referred as being his “mulligan”—Holland’s word to me in 2006.
Holland hasn’t had too many mulligans in his 13 years of managing the hockey club in Detroit.
There are those who fear he might be on the verge of another one, if he’s able to entice 40-year-old Mike Modano to play this season, and do so as a Red Wing.
The signing of Modano doesn’t look as olly-olly-oxen free as it did a couple weeks ago. Where the Red Wings looked to be Modano’s only suitors then, other teams have been mentioned lately as sniffing around the Westland native; the Minnesota Wild and San Jose Sharks are the two late entries.
There might not be enough money, when all is said and done, at Holland’s avail to sign Modano, when put up against what the Wild and/or Sharks could possibly offer.
If that’s the case, then the hand-wringers who worry about adding a 40-year-old center to the Red Wings roster need not fret.
The worry warts would have more credibility, to me, if Holland’s track record with aging veterans was pocked with cautionary tales.
Instead, it’s the polar opposite.
“We feel Mike Modano can help us,” Holland told the papers. “We feel like he has some hockey left in him.”
Those might have been the exact words Holland spoke in the late summer of 2001, when the Red Wings brought Brett Hull in when the interest in the veteran sniper was less than overwhelming.
Hull wasn’t exactly fending off teams with a hockey stick when the Red Wings called. He was 37, and even though he had just scored 39 goals for the Dallas Stars, teams were put off by Hull’s run-ins with coaches and his loud mouth.
Holland took a swing with Hull, and that swing didn’t result in the need of a mulligan.
Hull scored 30 goals and the Red Wings won another Stanley Cup.
The worry warts think the Red Wings need to get younger, and the last thing they need now is a 40-year-old Mike Modano clogging the pipeline for players like Darren Helm and Val Filppula.
I’ve written it before: they do something funny with the water that flows from the Detroit River and into Joe Louis Arena. Somewhere in the bowels of JLA lies a fountain of youth.
Dominik Hasek. Luc Robitaille. Chris Chelios. Dallas Drake. Joey Kocur.
Shall I go on? I can, you know—for quite some time.
The Red Wings are more successful than other NHL teams with aging players because those players are brought in to play specific roles; they’re not asked to do what they did when they were 10 years younger.
Compare that to the Detroit Lions, who all but embarrassed DBs Todd Lyght and Eric Davis during the Matt Millen administration, because the Lions wanted Lyght and Davis to be the players of their mid-to-late 20s, not their early-to-mid 30s.
There were times when I actually felt sorry for Lyght, especially, who was asked to cover, with his 33-year-old legs, receivers nearly ten years his junior. The results weren’t pretty.
That kind of nonsense doesn’t go on with the Red Wings. With the exception of Hasek, who was brought in at age 36 to be the starting goalie, the Red Wings make sure the aging guys are signed only if there are enough other pieces surrounding them to camouflage their deficiencies.
Mike Modano might not be a Red Wing, after all. The longer he takes to decide might mean the decision doesn’t bode well for the Red Wings.
Doesn’t mean it wouldn’t have worked.
Kenny Holland feels Modano can help the Red Wings.
That’s good enough for me, and ought to be good enough for everyone else.
Holland is a man of few mulligans, after all.