Holland Wings it

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:59 AM ET

Ken Holland makes a rare visit to the Air Canada Centre press box this afternoon.

There are hopes around the city that he'll love it so much he won't want to leave.

But not even the lure of a comfy chair in the Maple Leafs management suite likely will be enough to pry Holland out of Motown, where he is thriving as the general manager of the Detroit Red Wings.

"I'm very happy in Detroit," said Holland, who will be on hand to watch the Leafs host his Red Wings in a Hockey Day in Canada matinee. "I've been with this organization pretty much my entire post-playing career and I work for tremendous owners in the Ilitches. I'm having fun."

"I don't plan on going anywhere in the near future."

Holland's words likely won't stop him from being on the wish list of the Leafs, or their legions of embittered fans. His credentials make him the perfect fit for the vacant Toronto president/GM post.

Since Holland was promoted from assistant GM in June 1997, the Wings have won a pair of Stanley Cups, are perennial contenders, continue to unearth stars such as Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg in the later rounds of the draft, and have not flopped in the salary cap era as many predicted. Just call them the anti-Leafs.

So how can two franchises located just four hours apart along the 401 be so different?

With the Leafs looking to one day emulate the consistent success of the Red Wings, Sun Media asked Holland to document why the Wings have been so good for so long.

1. OWNERSHIP

SETTING THE BAR HIGH

When Holland needs to make a huge move, there are no boardroom battles or red tape to be waded through, as is the case at Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment Ltd. If ownership approval is needed, a call to pizza magnate Mike Ilitch and his family is all that it takes.

"It's a privilege to work for them," Holland said. "They create a real family atmosphere, not only for us, but for the players, too."

Holland recalled the acquisition of Brett Hull prior to the 2001-02 season as an example. The Wings already had picked up Luc Robitaille and Dominik Hasek, but that didn't stop Holland "from noticing that Hull just kept sitting out there.

"I approached Mr. Ilitch with the idea and he gave me the green light," Holland said. "Four of our players took (pay cuts) so we could fit him in."

The Wings went on to win the Stanley Cup, defeating the Paul Maurice-coached Carolina Hurricanes in the final.

2. BRAINTRUST

A HALL OF FAME BUNCH

Holland is not shy when it comes to picking the brains of his experienced management team.

"Whenever there is a big decision to be made, I get the opinions of all of them," he said. "If you have good people, you have to use them."

Holland credits much of his own success to senior vice-president Jimmy Devellano, who helped build the New York Islanders dynasties of the early 1980s. Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman, now a consultant, speaks with head coach Mike Babcock almost every day.

"Scotty has become kind of a mentor to Mike," said Holland, whose inner circle includes VP Steve Yzerman and assistant GM Jim Nill. He touts both as future NHL GMs, a fact not lost on Leafs fans who have heard those names associated with the Toronto job.

Holland also is willing to delegate responsibility, as evidenced by the fact he lets Nill handle the June entry draft.

"I pretty much have nothing to do with it," he said. "That's Jim's baby. Here's the point: If our scouting directors and scouts watch 110 junior games a year and I've seen 10, who has the better take? If I don't trust these guys, then they shouldn't be in the job in the first place."

3. CONTINUITY

FAMILIAR FACES, FAMILIAR PLACES

When all-world defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom was renegotiating his contract, he took about a $150,000 US per season pay cut to remain a Red Wing.

"If you can create a winning environment and treat people well, hopefully they will want to stay," Holland said.

Unlike the situation with the Leafs, where faces seem to change on the roster and in the front office on a regular basis, the Wings attempt to maintain their core on both fronts. Yzerman smoothly made the transition to the management side while familiar faces like Bowman, Nill and Devellano have lengthy tenures with the organization. Holland himself has been with the Wings since 1985 when he started as a scout in western Canada.

Having said that, how long can he keep Nill and Yzerman, two sought-after commodities throughout the league?

Nill is one of the highest-paid assistant GMs in the league, an indication of how valuable the Wings consider him to be.

"I know one day we won't be together any more," Holland said. "I just hope it's not too soon. If someone wants to leave, my opinion is that you can't hold them back. How productive can they be if they are not happy?"

4. THE DRAFT

SIZE DOESN'T MATTER

Holland chuckles when the subject of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg comes up.

"To be honest, we were a bit lucky with those guys," Holland said, referring to the fact that Datsyuk was selected 171st in his draft year, Zetterberg 210th.

Maybe. But much of that has to do with the Wings philosophy.

"We are not blinded by size," Holland said.

As a result, many skill players on the Red Wings draft board trickle down into their laps because opposing teams are too busy plucking beefier prospects. It is one of the reasons the Wings have enjoyed so much success with late-round picks.

"It says a lot about our scouts," Zetterberg said. "If a guy might not be ready for the NHL in his draft year, they see he'll be a good player down the road."

5. CAP CRAP

LIFE AFTER FREE-SPENDING

Holland heard all of the predictions that his team would be in for a freefall once the salary cap era started. Now, with his Wings vying for first overall in the league, he can have the last laugh.

"Every team in the league has 60-70% of the cap tied up in eight or nine core players," he said. "It was that way before the cap. That makes it even more important to find ways to fill out your roster."

Holland has done a masterful job to that end. Free-agent pickup Daniel Cleary, on pace for a 20-plus goal campaign, has a salary of $650,000 this season. Chris Osgood, who is among the league leaders in goals-against average and save percentage, recently signed an extension for a hometown discount of $1.41 million per season. And ageless Chris Chelios, a priceless team leader, earns an economical $1.15 million.

Bottom line: The Wings look for skill first and foremost.

"It started when Scotty started preaching puck possession in the 1990s," Holland said.

"It's a style we preach every year, no matter what happens in the playoffs."

It's a formula the Leafs might try adopting one of these years.


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