First, you must know that the Detroit Red Wings aren’t a team. They aren’t a franchise.
They are, in hockey vernacular, an “organ-EYE-zay-shun.”
That’s your first lesson in hockey speak.
You can’t talk serious hockey unless you call the teams in the NHL organEYEzayshuns.
We Americans have it all wrong. We’re silly that way—using “team” and “franchise,” adorably.
Ken Holland gets it. He uses the right word, pronounces it correctly, with the proper accents on the right syllables.
But that’s just the start of Holland and his hockey-ese.
Holland is the general manager of the Red Wings, but even that isn’t totally accurate. Canadian hockey executives drop the “general” and just call themselves managers.
Holland was at it again Thursday, when interviewed by Fox Sports Detroit after the Nicklas Lidstrom retirement press conference.
“I have been dreading this day ever since I became manager in 1997,” Holland told Larry Murphy and Ryan Field about Lidstrom calling it quits.
Manager Holland has joked that he would retire the same day that Lidstrom did.
Fortunately Holland isn’t going to follow through on that half threat.
The Red Wings are worse off today than they were before Thursday at 11 a.m., when Lidstrom, dressed in Armani instead of Nike, made the announcement that has been feared around Detroit for the past several summers.
Yet this dark cloud has a silver lining, for if there is anyone in hockey who can reanimate the Red Wings into a Stanley Cup contender in the wake of such dreadful news, it’s Kenny Holland.
Holland’s greatness as manager—owner Mike Ilitch called Holland “Number One” in the NHL Thursday—is maybe best defined by the fact that, for the most part, the NHL is filled with organEYEzayshuns who stumble and bumble for years, make a stab at excellence, then bob back below the surface. Some aren’t heard from for decades.
I mean, are the New York Islanders still in the league?
Holland has presided over 15 of the 21 straight years the Red Wings have made the playoffs since 1991. He’s kept the, ahem, team, in serious Stanley Cup contender status for every one of those 15 years. The end result hasn’t always been gratifying or satisfying, but heading into the playoffs, the Red Wings have been in Cup discussions every year since Holland became manager.
He’s done it in the salad days of free spending, sans salary cap, when the Red Wings were the Yankees of hockey and handed out almost as many checks in the offseason as the players did on the ice with their bodies.
And he’s done it in the salary cap era, i.e. from 2005 until now.
A word about the salad days.
There’s a misconception that says that all Holland had to do was beseech Ilitch for another check, fill in the amount, and stuff it into the hand of the free agent du jour. Then Holland could sit back and watch the Red Wings make a serious run for another Cup.
Doesn’t work that way.
The highest payrolls don’t necessarily equate into the best teams. Witness the 2012 Tigers, for goodness sakes.
Yes, free agents made a splash in Detroit hockey. The 2001-02 Cup-winning team had Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille. But it also had Dominik Hasek (trade); Steve Yzerman (draft); Nick Lidstrom (draft); and Chris Chelios (trade).
Holland signs free agents but he also makes trades and has built a scouting department that has eyes like hawks.
Holland was a less-than-spectacular goalie struggling to stay on the rosters of two bad teams in the early-to-mid 1980s: the Hartford Whalers and the Red Wings. He failed in both instances. The Red Wings made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: please stop trying to be a goalie, and scout for us.
Holland hung up the trapper and stick paddle and started scouting, having been assigned to his native Western Canada.
Holland took to scouting like a fish to water—or a hockey player to ice.
For over 10 years, Ken Holland combed small towns in Canada and elsewhere, spending hundreds of hours in dimly lit rinks, looking for the next Gretzky, Lemieux or Yzerman.
But the greatness of Holland and his scouting eye—he kept getting promoted and started supervising other scouts—wasn’t his ability to find the next Gretzky; it was his knack for finding the next second or third line player. The next great grinder. The next penalty killer extraordinaire.
Holland kept scouting, kept hiring other scouts, and was building, behind the scenes, a feeder program for the Red Wings a la Branch Rickey in the 1940s and ’50s for baseball’s Brooklyn Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals.
Suddenly it was the mid-1990s and the Red Wings were becoming hockey titans, under the thumb of coach/manager Scotty Bowman. By this time, Ken Holland was Director of Scouting, overseeing the whole shebang, from Sudbury to Omsk.
Then in the summer of 1997, after the Red Wings finally won the Stanley Cup after a 42-year drought, Bowman abdicated his manager throne. Holland was promoted, realizing his goal of being the manager of the Red Wings.
His ascension wasn’t greeted with very much enthusiasm—mainly because of who Holland was succeeding.
Bowman was a living legend, a seasoned coach AND manager. He coached the Montreal Canadiens to five Cups (four in a row from 1976-79). As a manager he was integral in building the Pittsburgh Penguins teams that won two straight Cups in 1991 and ’92, coaching the latter.
But Scotty wanted to concentrate on coaching, and he and Executive VP Jimmy Devellano, an old friend, felt that the goalie-turned-scout, Holland, was ready to manage.
The rookie manager Holland guided the Red Wings to another Cup in 1998, but despite making a couple of trade deadline moves to seal the deal, he never really got the credit, because many thought the team was really Bowman’s in every way.
The skeptics were silenced as the years went on, and two more Cups followed, in 2002 and 2008. Holland has kept the organEYEzayshun humming along, despite the advent of the salary cap in 2005. His scouting department continues to unearth players that the other 29 teams in the league seem to overlook.
Yet this might be Kenny Holland’s finest hour. The loss of Lidstrom to retirement presents a challenge unlike any Holland has faced before. Hell, unlike any manager has faced, in the history of the NHL.
Holland, the old goalie, has to stand on his head. He has to be the number one star. The future of the organEYEzayshun rests on his 56-year-old shoulders.
Good thing he’s not retiring, after all. At least the Red Wings have a fighting chance now.