EDMONTON — Ken Holland has had plenty of meetings with plenty of unhappy players over the years. But unhappiness — whether it be with ice time, linemates, or which dressing stall one is assigned — are not the types of complaints we’re talking about in hockey these days.
"I’ve had (as head coaches) Scotty Bowman, Dave Lewis, Mike Babcock, Jeff Blashill, and now Tipp (Dave Tippett)," began Holland, who faced the microphones in Edmonton on Wednesday in wake of accusations of mental abuse by head coach Mike Babcock that occurred under Holland’s watch when he was the general manager in Detroit. "At the end of the year, I do exit interviews. So, do players not like their role? Not like the coach? Not like who they’re playing with? Yeah, I hear that all the time."
No one has levied accusations of physical abuse at Babcock. Several players – including former Red Wing Johan Franzen — have accused Babcock of being mentally abusive.
"It was verbal attacks. He said horrible things," Franzen told the Swedish newspaper Expressen. "From 2011 on, I was terrified of being at the rink. That’s when he got on me the first time. I just focused on getting out of bed every morning from that moment. Last year I could sleep naturally from the first time since then.
"The nightmares keep coming back. It was just his attacks, playing in my head each and every day."
Without directly referencing his conversations with Franzen, Holland said on Wednesday that he held exit interviews with every player every season, along with some meetings over the course of a season. No one ever spelled out the level of mental abuse that Franzen has alleged, Holland said.
Franzen’s issues with Babcock seemed to peak during the 2012 playoffs in Nashville. By the time Holland was aware there were serious problems between Franzen and Babcock, that season was over.
"That game we got eliminated was Game 5. When I came down after the game, I had a number of people tell me that there was a heated exchange on the bench," Holland said. "We were eliminated. Whenever we’re eliminated, we’ve had a day off the next day. I addressed the team as a group, and then I do exit interviews."
Nothing came out of those exit interviews that caused Holland any concern about Babcock’s coaching methods. Sure, some players didn’t like Babcock. But that alone did not set the former Maple Leafs coach apart from many of his colleagues, all of whom are charged with getting players out of their comfort zone to perform at a higher level.
"There’s that fine line between trying to push people to make us better individually, (or) to make us better as a group," Holland said. "I think the most important thing is respect. We’re all trying to find managers and coaches and players to make sure that there’s a respect. It is the most important thing in our game."
When Babcock wanted to healthy scratch Chris Chelios for the 2009 Winter Classic in Chicago, Chelios’s hometown, Holland voiced his displeasure. Babcock played Chelios — for one shift. It was a power play by the coach, one that Holland would not have liked.
When Babcock scratched Mike Modano for a late-season game in his final NHL season, ensuring that Modano would fall one game shy of 1,500 in his career, Holland asked him to reconsider. Babcock did not.
Modano finished his career at 1,499 games played, and when you talk to Holland about that, you get the feeling that he’s not real happy about how that all went down.
But he is the manager, and the coach is the coach.
"I want the players to know that the coach is the boss," Holland said.
He’ll always let his coach be the coach. But like any GM in today’s NHL, Holland will take stock on what kinds of motivational tactics are being used under his watch, and if those are acceptable today, as 2020 nears.
He has spoken to his staff in Edmonton about the movement that is sweeping the hockey world, and Holland — who may be an old dog as a 23-year GM — seems ready to learn whatever new tricks must be learned.
"It’s a time for introspection," Holland said. "When you look at yourself, and we look at ourselves as an industry to make sure that we were learning something and we can come up it better because of it."