EDMONTON — The best way to describe Ken Holland’s skills as a Hockey Hall of Fame builder is to compare him to the mechanic who has spent a lifetime under the hood. Or the carpenter with 30 years of building houses under his tool belt.
Twenty-two seasons as the Detroit Red Wings general manager. Four years as an assistant GM. Five years as Detroit’s amateur scouting director. Five years as an area scout. A year trying to find the answer to hockey’s second biggest conundrum, after Buffalo.
Holland recognizes a problem by the sound of the knock, because he’s heard every whine and squeal that an engine can make. He sees a finishing issue at the framing stage, because he’s made — or watched someone else make — every mistake that a builder can be made.
His experience tells him what the next issue will be the moment he sees the first one.
It doesn’t mean Holland can snap his fingers and fix every problem in one quick decision. What it means is he doesn’t waste a lot of time on solutions that aren’t real solutions; on going down paths that don’t lead to where he’s trying to go.
Because he’s been down most of those paths, a long time ago. He’s paused at every fork in the road that hockey can provide.
Like the time his mother pointed him towards a post-career job selling vacuums.
“I had played nine years of pro and wasn’t sure what I was going to do and my Mom had suggested getting an Electrolux vacuum cleaner job,” said Holland, a story he told again upon being invited into the Hockey Hall of Fame this week. “A couple days later, Jim Devellano called and offered me a job as scout for the Detroit Red Wings.
“Funny how life goes.”
Does that not define experience? Some luck, some smarts, the brains to not let the successes go to your head, and the humility to get up and dust yourself off when you stumble.
Holland, who has zero ego, has mastered all of those traits.
“I feel incredibly fortunate, but I also know that there were so many people that did all the work in Detroit,” Holland said. “I got to go up to the mic and make some announcements, but there were a lot of people that did all the work.”
The son of a Vernon, B.C., truck driver, today Holland reserves a table in the Edmonton media dining room where he and his staff eat before every home game. There he sits, among the photographers, off-ice officials, the equipment staff grabbing a pre-game bite, and the various media personalities, large and small.
There he is available. To ask a question. To talk hockey. To admire a goal in an early game on one of the TVs. To get clarification, because he knows that an informed media member is of more value to the fan — and his team — than one whose opinion is uninformed.
And it’s not a one-way street. What you notice about Holland is, he listens. Not that he has much to learn from media, but you never know what you can pick up when you listen.
And that includes listening to the fans.
“I understand why I’m here,” he told me shortly after joining the Edmonton Oilers in May of 2019. “I would say, when you make the playoffs once in 13 years, I understand the frustration. I’m coming here to try to make the playoffs now, but to build over time. I want Edmonton to be an elite team. I’d like to see the Edmonton Oilers in the Stanley Cup playoffs next season. I get their frustration.”
You want the School of Hard Knocks? How about a nine-year minor-league career where Holland never once posted a save percentage that started with a nine?
Today, that washed up old goalie is a Hall of Fame GM, with the newest project heading in the right direction as well.
“I’m certainly proud of the things we were able to accomplish (in Detroit) over a long period of time,” Holland said. “There are a few ultimate things you’d like to accomplish in the game, and today was one of those. And then, obviously, winning a Stanley Cup. I was fortunate to be a part of four Cups — three as general manager, one as assistant.
“There’s nothing like starting out in training camp and working together with a group of people over 10 months and partying together and having the Stanley Cup raised and knowing what you have accomplished together as a group.”
When he arrived in Edmonton, Holland immediately recognized that stability was the primary need in Edmonton. He used the word over, and over, and over.
Stability, stability, stability.
It was obvious, after the parade of coaches and GMs before him. But Holland wasn’t afraid of the obvious solution.
He came to Edmonton to fix the problem. Not to appear smarter than everyone else.