Monday, September 17, 2007

Making the team (MNA Sept. 07)

An interview with Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland
Associate Editor

There are two rituals each September for the Detroit Red Wings — training camp in Traverse City, and golf.
Golf has become one of the preferred off-season activities for many hockey players, and the boys who wear the winged wheel, along with management and staff for the team, are no different.
I had the opportunity to talk with Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland Wednesday at Arcadia Bluffs over a bowl of soup and a Sprite while he waited for his tee time, and he let me in on why golf and hockey have a connection, and why he and other Red Wings players and staff make the trip down to Manistee County.
“I love golf, and Arcadia Bluffs is as good a golf experience as anyone can have,” said Holland. “Between the setting of the golf course on the lake, and the people, that’s why we come here. We know (course manager) Bill Shriver, and all the people, all the staff here, are incredible hosts and hostesses and treat us beyond incredible.
Holland enters his 11th season as general manager and his 25th year with the Red Wings’ organization. He is arguably the most successful general manager in all of professional sports over the last ten years. He was at Arcadia Bluffs enjoyed a day off between the prospect camp which ended Tuesday, and the general camp, which begins today.
Holland explained why players are drawn from the ice to the links. “The motion of shooting the puck is a similar motion, and professional athletes are competitors, that’s how they get where they are. You compete with yourself, you compete with your opponent, you compete with the golf course, so there’s a lot of competitive aspects to golf that hockey players like.
“It’s also an opportunity to build relationships,” said Holland. “You spend four hours on the course. Whether it’s just a friendship, or sometimes you come out and it’s a working environment.”
According to Holland, about half to three quarters of the Wings’ roster play golf, depending on who is currently on the team. And some of them apparently play as well on turf as they do on the ice.
“Who would be the best really depends on the year,” Holland said. “On the current team, we have a lot of guys who are probably nine, ten, eleven handicaps — Osgood, Draper. Brett Hull was a plus one. Ray Whitney was a scratch golfer. Manny Legace was a one or a two handicap. There’s been some good players.
And of course, I couldn’t sit down with the Wings’ GM without asking him about his expectations for training camp, which I’m sure is on his mind as he plays his rounds of golf in Arcadia each September.
“Our record in the prospect (games) was one win and three losses,” he said. “You like to win, but the most important thing at the prospect tournament is to evaluate, and we had four real good games to evaluate. We lost 3-2 to Atlanta, 3-2 to the Rangers, we lost 5-3 at the end, basically 4-3 to St. Louis, and we beat Tampa Bay 3-1. So, all the games were close and competitive.”
Training camp is about looking for new talent, and this year is no different, said Holland. “We were very happy with some of our young defensemen, Jonathan Ericsson played really well, and Jakub Kindl. I think it was a positive first week, with some nice surprises.”
Main camp focuses more on some of the veteran players, so Holland is really looking for a few of the guys to step up and help fill some of the gaps left from the exit of a few big names after last season. “We pretty well know 20 guys on our team,” Holland said. “We know 12 NHL forwards, we know 6 NHL defensemen, we know our two goalies. With Robert Lang and Todd Bertuzzi and Kyle Calder gone, there’s some opportunities for our players who are competing for ice time — what’s their role? Are they going to be a top-six forward, are they going to be in the second power play?
“There’s some opportunities. We’re going to carry 22 players, and we’re anxious to see, how close is Jimmy Howard in goal? How close are some of our young defensemen? Like Jonathan Ericsson, Jakub Kindl, Derek Meech, Kyle Quincey.
“We’re bringing in some veteran defensemen on tryouts. Brent Sopel played in the NHL a number of years, Jassen Cullimore, Brad Ference. One of those guys is probably going to make our team on defense.”
Up front, Holland said they’ll look at Igor Grigorenko of Russia, Matt Ellis, from their Grand Rapids affiliate team, the Griffins, and Aaron Downey from Montreal. “They’re going to be fighting for the last forward spot,” he said.
The rest of camp is about finding some new talent, and cultivating some old, according to Holland. “Everybody knows the Datsyuks, and Zetterbergs. We know those guys are going to be on the team, we know what they can do.” A big question is how the existing players will size up this season, he said. “Can Val Fillipula take a step forward this year? Can Jiri Hudler take a step forward this year? We need some of the younger players to step forward.”
He also said that changes in the collective bargaining agreement have changed the way they put their team together. “You used to go out and have a good team, and add to your team. That doesn’t happen anymore. If you’ve got a good team, you’re hoping just to hang onto it,” said Holland.
“We had a good year, we lost some of our players. Now we need internally for some people to step up, and that’s what we’re looking for. Can Mikael Samuelsson, Dan Cleary, Johan Franzen, can they build off the great playoffs they had for us last year and take a step forward in their career? The opportunity’s there for somebody.”
Wing’s front office staff will spend the next week trying to answer many of these questions — and it won’t be easy. It never is. But Holland actually hopes that it’s a hard decision, because that means he’ll have a lot of talent to pick from.
“There’s two ways to look at a hard decision: one, nobody steps up and we don’t know what to do, and two, we have a lot of people playing well, and it’s a hard decision because everybody’s playing well. Hopefully it’s the latter.”
And with that, I let the Red Wing’s front office mastermind finish eating his chicken soup so that he could make his tee time.
There are nine exhibition games in the general training portion of camp, and Holland said that all nine of them will be used to evaluate who will be rostered for the 2007-2008 season. For some players who already have cemented their spot on the team, it’ll be a good way to work out the kinks and rustiness that the off-season layoff brings. For others, it’ll be the chance to prove themselves worthy of playing for one of the best franchises in the game.
Cean Burgeson can be reached at:

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