It’s a game day at Joe Louis Arena and the Red Wings are on the ice for the morning skate, a time-honored ritual for hockey players to break a sweat, get in a light workout, and make final preparations and adjustments for that evening’s opponent. Pavel Datsyuk weaves fluidly through a series of figure-eights, the puck yo-yoing on his stick as he plays a game of maddening keep-away. Johan Franzen maneuvers a puck between his skates, seemingly oblivious to the teammate hovering over his back, chuckling as he shrugs him off and kicks the puck off the boards to a waiting line mate.
While a half-dozen Wings pelt a goalie at the far end of the ice, Tomas Holmström is parked in the blue paint at the opposite net, facing Nicklas Lidström and a handful of other defensemen who rip slap shots toward him as Holmström expertly maneuvers his stick, tipping pucks into the net.
Taking it in from the stands is Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland, who has just been asked how the Wings have managed to be the most consistently successful franchise in the National Hockey League for 25 years. “It’s all about patience,” says Holland, his voice gruff and raspy, watching Holmström angle his stick to redirect another shoulder-high shot into the opposite lower corner of the net. “Because we win, we’ve had the ability, the luxury, to be very patient.”
Since 1987, the Wings have missed the post-season playoffs just twice and won the Stanley Cup four times, an achievement made even more impressive by the fact that their last top-10 pick in the league’s annual entry draft was more than 20 years ago. That means Holland and his staff of scouts and advisers have had no opportunities to even consider picking elite prospects, like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, or Steven Stamkos. Instead, the Wings scour leagues in North America and Europe, searching for unknown or overlooked players with the talent and potential to one day play for the team. But there’s no rush, Holland emphasizes, as is the case with many other NHL franchises.
“When you’re missing the playoffs,” he says, “and your fan base is getting irritated and the media is applying pressure and the owner wants success, as a coach and as a manager, you’re making decisions not based out of patience. You’re trying to rush and hurry the program. But you can’t hurry the development of people.”
To do so is a recipe for futility, frustration, and, ultimately, failure, as Holland knows all too well.
Drafted in the 12th round by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1975, Holland was a goaltender who grew up in British Columbia whose only dream — one shared with so many Canadian boys — was to make it to the NHL. He bounced around the minor leagues for years, undersized at 5-feet-8-inches and barely 160 pounds, he was relentless and indefatigable, determined to get his shot.
“I would say to you in my humble opinion that, in my last three or four years of pro, I was a very, very good minor-league goaltender.” Holland says. “But it took me four or five years to get to that point. I was a late bloomer. I didn’t have a ton of confidence and I had to slowly believe in myself.”
Holland’s moment finally arrived with the Hartford Whalers during the 1980-81 season, on the grandest stage: Madison Square Garden, against the New York Rangers.
“I remember that night like it was yesterday,” Holland says. “The coach asked me how I felt. My heart was going a hundred miles an hour. I’d waited a lifetime for that chance. I said, ‘Yeah, I’m ready to go.’ First period, I think they had 12 shots. We’re losing 1-0, but I felt good. And I remember sitting during the first intermission, saying to myself, ‘I’ve arrived, I can play in this league, I know I belong here.’ ”
Holland shifts in his seat and slowly shakes his head. “In the second period, the Rangers got 21 shots on goal. They scored five more times on me. So now we’re down 6-1.”
He manages a rueful smile, as the memory of a cruel night washes over him — again.
“I remember,” Holland continues, “sitting during the intermission after the second period thinking, I’ve blown my opportunity, I’ve waited my whole life to get here and I’m never going to get back. So I’m really going to enjoy the third period because I’m never going to be back in the NHL ever again.”
He was right — almost. After allowing seven goals that night, Holland slipped backed into the oblivion of the game’s bush leagues for another three years, before getting one last promotion during the 1983-84 season. By that time, he was in the Red Wings system.
“By then, I’m 28, 29 and I know,” Holland says. “I’ve been around pro hockey for so long, my window of opportunity was this big.” He holds up his thumb and forefinger, a fraction apart.
Holland got into parts of just three games for the Wings, allowing 10 goals. In his heart, he knew his playing days were over, but still he wasn’t ready to quit or retire. Then Jim Devellano, the team’s general manager, called to tell him that they weren’t going to re-sign him as a player but there was an opening for a western scout. Was he interested?
“My wife wasn’t crazy about the idea,” Holland says, “because we’d been traveling so much and we had three kids under the age of 5. But I said it’s what I know best.”
He worked his way up, from western scout to head scout to Devellano’s assistant, rubbing elbows every day with Jimmy D and coach Scotty Bowman — ”like going to the Harvard of hockey,” Holland says — before finally succeeding Devellano between the Wings consecutive championships in 1997-98.
Now he’s at the helm of one the greatest franchises in sports, considered the best manager in the game. He’s dapper in tailored suits these days, but Holland is a rink rat at heart, happiest when he settles into a seat high in the stands, watching a practice, a game, or some prospect, evaluating, wondering if the kid has what it takes to make it all the way,never forgetting his own wrenching experience.
“I was that kid,” he says. “I had nine years of aspirations and I got a cup of coffee in the NHL. And I think if somebody had a little more time, maybe I could have made it …”
He lets that thought hang for a beat. “But they didn’t have time,” he says. “That’s why you can’t wait long enough, you know what I mean?”
When the Wings game begins that night, Holland is in his customary spot, at the far end of the press box, a restless and fidgeting mess, keeping one eye on the ice as he checks a constantly jangling BlackBerry, gulps on a water bottle, and flips the remote from one hockey game to another on the two TV screens hanging before him, all the while tapping or spinning an elegant silver ballpoint, his “stress pen,” on the counter. “A bee in a jar,” is how Wings coach Mike Babcock describes him.
The regular season is winding down and Holland is doing his usual delicate dance, obligatory this time every year, trying to decide if he needs to make any moves before the trade deadline to help his team win another cup. The average age of the Wings hovers near 30, oldest in the NHL. Questions abound: Does he make a deal? Is Lidström going to play another year? Does the goaltending need shoring up? Is that kid on the blue line in Grand Rapids ready to move up to the big club? Tinker or sit pat?
The stress pen is a blur. Tap. Tap. Tap. Spin. Spin. Spin. A final, furtive glance at the BlackBerry. One last gulp from the water bottle and it slams down as the final buzzer sounds on yet another Wings victory during their record-setting home winning streak (23 games) this season.
Then he’s gone, bolting down to the bowels of The Joe, through that first hallway adorned with team rosters and photos of Shanny, Stevie Y, Drapes, and so many others. A quick left and down another hallway, this one dark and paneled, under the sign that says “To Whom Much Is Given, Much Is Expected,” and past more plaques and history: Mr. Hockey and Terrible Ted and The Uke and many more icons of the game. He enters the inner sanctum, the locker room, with its photos of 11 Stanley Cups lining one wall, more images of Wing greats covering the others, and those few empty lockers held by names from the glorious past. There’s no celebratory music blaring in here; the only perceptible background noise is the sound of grunts and weights clanging from the adjacent workout room.
“I know when I got traded here, it took me quite a while to figure it out,” says hulking forward Todd Bertuzzi. “Even as a veteran. They do things a lot different here. I think it’s the rink itself; it just smells success and it smells work. And it obviously starts with our ownership and comes down to Kenny and it just leaks down from there.”
Holland chats with Holmström, cornered by reporters at his locker, blood oozing from a bandage on the bridge of his nose, broken yet again on this milestone night — his 1,000th game in a Wings uniform. And there he is with Lidström, who tonight becomes the all-time active leader in games played for the franchise. Only Gordie Howe played more. Holland moves on, working the room with a quick talk, a handshake, a slap on the back.
“He cares, you know?” Holmström says. “He treats everybody really good. It’s like there’s a red thread through the organization, from the ownership to the general manager and all the way down.”
Well past 11 p.m., the locker room has emptied out and Holland heads along the concourse toward his car and home. He bumps into Babcock. Earlier in the day, the coach had emphatically said his boss “doesn’t toot his own horn enough. He doesn’t get as much credit as the best in hockey, bar none. He’s a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer.”
But now it’s time for levity between friends. “You still working on that article?” says Babcock, feigning incredulity with a wink and a grin for the writer who’s been tailing Holland most of the day. “Geez,” he adds, after an impeccably timed beat, “he’s not that f—ing interesting, is he?”
The men guffaw and fall into step with each other. The coach with a bag slung over his shoulder and the manager with his head full of possibilities and options and decisions. It has been a good day, but tomorrow looms, and that silver stress pen is still twisting and turning in Holland’s hand as he and his coach head into the night.