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Executive Vice President and General Manager, Ken Holland of the Detroit Red Wings address the media during a press conference to announce the retirement from hockey of Kirk Maltby #18 before a NHL game against the Colorado Avalanche at Joe Louis Arena on Friday October 12, 2010 in Detroit, Michigan. (Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)
Executive Vice President and General Manager, Ken Holland of the Detroit Red Wings address the media during a press conference to announce the retirement from hockey of Kirk Maltby #18 before a NHL game against the Colorado Avalanche at Joe Louis Arena on Friday October 12, 2010 in Detroit, Michigan. (Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty Images)

JAMES MIRTLE

Ken Holland bloomed from humble start Add to ...

It certainly didn't feel like it at the time, with pucks whizzing past him into the back of his net every few minutes.

But that cup of coffee helped Ken Holland become one of the league's top executives, supervising the operations of the Detroit Red Wings, a perennial competitor.

Though originally drafted by the Maple Leafs in 1975, Holland never made the NHL with Toronto. His debut came as the Hartford Whalers' goaltender, against the New York Rangers in November of 1980.

"I remember that first intermission, sitting in Madison Square Garden, thinking that I'd finally made the NHL and that's where I belonged," Holland recalled. "Then I can remember the second intermission, sitting in the locker room, thinking, 'I'm never going to see the NHL ever again.' " Holland was so convinced he wouldn't get another chance to play, he set his mind on enjoying every second of the third period, even on the wrong end of a 7-3 blowout. When a shot broke the glass behind him, "I thought 'this is going to add 10 more minutes,' " he said, chuckling. "Everyone gets their time in the sun, their little moment, and this was mine."

Needless to say, things haven't worked out exactly that way.

Holland, 55, of Vernon, B.C., played in only three more NHL games - all with the Red Wings as his career was winding down. But in Detroit, he found a long-term home, first as a scout and for the past 14 seasons as general manager.

The Red Wings finished with at least 100 points for the 11th consecutive season, the total of 104 points good for a Central Division title and third-place finish in the Western Conference. The Wings take on the San Jose Sharks on Friday, in the second round of the playoffs. The Sharks won home advantage by accumulating 105 points.

Holland says the roots of his team-building philosophy trace to his rocky initial taste of the NHL.

"As much as possible, I try to bring our young players along slow, because I lived it," Holland said. "And I think if I could have had another month, I don't know that I would have been great, but I could have played in the NHL.

"I needed a little more time to feel comfortable in that environment."

Under Holland, youngsters get all the time they need, with the organization determined to work in its prospects slowly. The strategy explains, at least in part, how Detroit - regularly the oldest team in the NHL by average age - has been able to maintain success, year after year.

Holland served as a scout for nearly a decade starting in the 1980s and, not coincidentally, his staff has unearthed more late-round gems than any other franchise.

With Holland in charge, Detroit drafted its current top four forwards - Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen and Valtteri Filppula - in the mid- to late rounds between 1998 and 2004.

The giant team depth chart posted in his office at Joe Louis Arena shows 14 homegrown players on the current roster, something Holland points out with pride.

Along the way, Holland has had to adapt, too, including dropping his payroll by $30-million (U.S.) with the introduction of the salary cap. The Wings have also put more emphasis on the draft. After trading first-round picks in the years leading up to the lockout, they've since held onto them.

"Our scouts did an incredible job in finding Zetterberg and Datsyuk in the sixth and seventh round," Holland said. "But there's a real element of luck to it as well. Otherwise, we'd be doing it on a regular basis.

"I don't know that we can wait for that next bit of luck."

What to do without 40-year-old captain Nick Lidstrom, meanwhile, will present his biggest challenge yet.

Holland has joked in recent years that, the day Lidstrom retires, he'll have his own retirement news conference down the hall, simply because of how difficult it will be to replace the six-time Norris Trophy winner.

The reality, however, is Holland has no intention of going anywhere anytime soon.

"You kind of pinch yourself sometimes with the way life has gone," he said.

 

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