EDMONTON — Ken Holland is a gatherer of opinions, who tends to listen more than he speaks. He approaches people from every level of the hockey world as an equal — not an employee, or someone who requires instruction from on high.
So, as the Edmonton Oilers begin a new era with Holland after the failed regime of the private, seldom seen Peter Chiarelli, we spent an afternoon on the phone, talking to people who have worked with, for and around Holland since the day he became the Detroit Red Wings general manager, on July 18, 1997.
That top point is what stood out as a common theme, and one we can personally vouch for. Here’s an example:
Before games, they hold what is commonly called a ‘press meal.’ The media, the off-ice officials, the visiting scouts, often the two clubs’ training staffs who have worked all day and are hungry, we all pay the $10 or $15 and have a nice pre-game meal.
Some general managers avoid those situations. They have a dressing room attendant get them a plate, and bring it to the privacy of the dressing room so they can eat in peace.
Ken Holland sits at a table and breaks bread with… Whomever. And by the time you walk away from that table, and load into the elevator to get upstairs, you’ve learned a lot about the game and he’s always learned a little. Because there’s always something to be learned from anyone, if you just keep your ears open.
“He values opinions. Incredibly so,” said one scout who has worked for Holland. “He’s a great communicator among his staff.”
I meet scouts from time to time who file a negative report on a player, then come to find out their team has acquired that player without even a phonecall from the GM. That does not happen in Detroit.
The knock on Holland, coming almost exclusively from people who haven’t been lucky enough to get to know the man, is that his last few seasons in Detroit are proof that the game has passed him by. So let’s take that on.
Mistake No. 1: There was a lot of loyalty in Detroit to those who helped win four Stanley Cups between 1997 and 2008. In 2013-14 — the last year Johan Franzen was an NHL force; with Nicklas Lidstrom and Tomas Holmstrom having retired — the Red Wings should have begun their rebuild.
They did not, because as long as Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk were there, Holland felt a responsibility to compete for the playoffs. He shouldn’t have, but that loyalty is what gives the Red Wings one of the top cultures among NHL franchises.
“He treats people right, treats people with respect,” said a Red Wings employee of more than 20 years. “Those players he had signed, he wasn’t just going to move on from them.”
In a perfect world Holland trades Datsyuk and Zetterberg for youth and draft picks. In a perfect world the Blackhawks trade Brent Seabrook, and Boston moves on from Zdeno Chara. The NHL is not a perfect world.
Mistake No. 2: In September of 2014 they broke ground on Little Caesar’s Arena in downtown Detroit. At that time, again, Holland should have gone to his owners, the Illitch family, and told them it was time to rebuild. But the Illitchs had always given Holland everything he needed to compete, and now they were at the tail end of a 25-year run of making the playoffs, and had a new arena on the way.
Every owner in every sport wants a competitive team in their new arena. Holland acquiesced and made some moves that look bad now. The arena opened for the 2016-17 season. The Wings missed the playoffs. It happens, in an organization that was used to winning. They don’t take the concept of rebuilding well.
Today the Red Wings have a few good young players, and 10 picks inside the top three rounds of the draft, this year and next. It is not scorched earth, and the rebuild has finally begun.
Holland will have sat down with Oilers CEO Bob Nicholson, and not minced any words.
“He’s as honest as the day is long. He doesn’t bullshit people,” said another hockey voice who has known Holland for many years. “You know where you stand at all times.”
There is much fear in Edmonton, among current employees, that Holland will use that honesty as he cleans house. That, with incoming Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman moving his people into Detroit, so too will Holland bring his familiar employees from Detroit to Edmonton.
At 63, some would say Holland is too old. GMing a hockey team is a cerebral job, however, that requires decision-making based on experience, trust and relationships.
George McPhee is 60, and recently constructed the Vegas Golden Knights. Lou Lamoriello is 76, and put together an Islanders lineup that improved by 23 points this season. Jim Rutherford was 65 when he took the GM job in Pittsburgh, where he has since collected two Stanley Cups.
Holland is neither old nor finished.
You’d know that, if you ever had a chance to meet the man.