Long before he became the successful, respected, and well-liked general manager of the Detroit Red Wings, Ken Holland turned professional as a slightly built goalie during the mid-1970s.
The Philadelphia Flyers dominated the era and tainted hockey's image for decades by fist-fighting their way to two Stanley Cup championships as the "Broad Street Bullies."
Their style was burlesqued in Slap Shot, the 1977 classic about the minor-league version of the sport in small Eastern towns. But Holland did more than watch the movie. He lived it.
He played in Binghamton, N.Y. for the Broome Dusters with Roddy Bloomfield, the guy who skated as Paul Newman's stunt double in the film. Holland wore his hair long, looking like he belonged on the cover of a Bee Gees album or in the cast of the movie itself.
And, once in a while, those luxurious locks got mussed when the Dusters got into some dust-ups.
"Brawls," Holland says. "Lots of brawls."
The one Holland remembers best came in the playoffs against the Mohawk Valley Comets in Utica, N.Y.
"There was a big brouhaha going on," Holland says. "The first five or six rows around the rink was folding chairs. The fans were throwing chairs at us."
Holland skated from his net to the team bench, where he was most needed.
"The fans were trying to come over the glass, and they were trying to hit us with these folding chairs," he says. "And as they'd come over, we'd whack 'em with our sticks to try to keep 'em back because if they got over the glass with these folding chairs they would've socked us good on the head."
That wasn't Holland's first big battle. One of his protégés and friends, Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill, remembers when they were teenage teammates on the Medicine Hat Tigers in the Canadian junior Western Hockey League. One incident gave Nill particular insight into Holland's personality and character.
They went to Vancouver to face the New Westminster Bruins, a tough team coached by a guy nicknamed "Punch." Ernie McLean's team intimidated in the style of the Flyers. "A bunch of big bruisers," Holland says. "They were good. They were tough. They were mean. They knew it."
According to Western Canadian hockey lore, when visiting teams vacated their bus at New West, the empty vehicle would keep trembling for five minutes.
Sure enough, the Bruins were "running us out of the rink" one late-season night, according to Nill. They kept messing with Holland around his net — bumping him, cutting him off — a violation of hockey etiquette and decorum that mars the grace and beauty of this sublime athletic endeavor.
"Finally, with a couple of minutes to go, I snapped and took the law into my own hands," Holland recalls. "And I sort of chopped down Stan Smyl. I hacked him pretty good and down he went. And it was chaos for 15 or 20 minutes. People running around throwing haymakers."
When Clayton Pachal of New Westminster tried to pound the 5-foot-8 Holland, Holland's teammate, Don Murdoch, jumped over the bench boards to protect Holland. Not successfully.
"Basically, they took Don Murdoch off the ice on a stretcher," Holland says. "My best friend took the brunt of my beating."
They lost the game and they lost the fight, but Nill said Holland's willingness to battle taught his Medicine Hat teammates a lesson.
"You need to stand up for yourselves," Nill says.
Flash forward 40 years to the Red Wings team the 58-year-old Holland commands. As the regular season nears its April 11 close, the Wings hope to survive a fourth-quarter slump and make the playoffs for the 24th consecutive season, the longest streak in major North American pro sports.
Holland runs a franchise that is not only a bedrock member of its league but also one of the most successful sports brands in North America. Joe Louis Arena consistently sells out more than 20,000 tickets per game, and Forbes magazine recently rated the Wings as ninth in NHL value at $570 million with yearly revenue of $134 million.
In two years, their value will rise when they move to a new arena in the heart of Detroit's reviving downtown.
Among his general manager peers in the four major sports leagues of North America, Holland — named to his job in 1997, after working up from scouting — is seventh in seniority in terms of continuous service as a GM with the same team, according to Detroit statistician and researcher Greg Innis.
Those ahead of Holland are Lou Lamoriello of the NHL's New Jersey Devils, Jerry Jones of the NFL's Dallas Cowboys (who also owns the team), Mike Brown of the NFL's Cincinnati Bengals, Mitch Kupchak of the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers, Brian Sabean of MLB's San Francisco Giants, and David Poile of the NHL's Nashville Predators.
With four championships and six finals appearances since 1995, the Wings have been an elite team for 20 years and their fans — once grateful to just make the playoffs — have become a little spoiled, like New York Yankees baseball fans, disappointed with anything less than a title.
But without a Stanley Cup championship since 2008 and without a finals appearance since 2009, the Wings are an organization rebuilding with young players. This is a transitional season for a team that has won but one playoff series in the last three years. Holland's team was impressive for most of this season and exceeded expectations until several serious problems arose in the last quarter.
Along with injuries to key players and unsteady goaltending, it became obvious that the Red Wings could be knocked around without consequence.
And when you play a smaller, faster, and highly skilled team like the Wings, banging the body is a way to beat them not only in the regular season but especially in the playoffs, when players with "sand" or "sandpaper" win the test of wills.
Holland was asked if his team has enough grit.
"Where do you get it?" Holland says. "Everybody's looking for what you're talking about. You can't win the Stanley Cup every year. I don't know if it has anything to do with sandpaper."
Holland said highly talented players who can combine a physically robust game with a high skill set are usually taken early in the draft. Because the Wings have been so successful for so long, they haven't drafted in the top 10 in the first round since 1991.
Because of that, and because the payroll cap has limited spending for free agents, the Wings have made the conscious decision to select players with good skating and puck-handling skills over brawny bangers.
"Our enforcer," Holland has said, "is our power play."
On their best nights, the Wings play a bold and entertaining style that borders on artistic. On their worst nights, they look timid and tired, wary and weary, and might lose to Philadelphia, 7-2, as they did on March 14.
But how do they find the missing ingredients to defend their highly skilled talent?
Certainly not with the gang-brawling tactics of the 1970s Flyers, which have been pretty much legislated out of the sport.
Gone too are most of the one-dimensional enforcers like Joe Kocur and Bob Probert, the "Bruise Brothers" of the 1980s Wings, who rode shotgun for highly skilled players like Steve Yzerman to "keep the flies off him."
And you rarely see games anymore like the mythic and bloody vengeance match of March 26, 1997, when the Wings pounded Claude Lemieux and Colorado in every way at the Joe before wresting the Stanley Cup later that spring from the Avalanche.
But even by the tamer standards of the 21st century NHL, Holland's Wings are sometimes meek to the point of turning the other cheek.
Some recent examples:
In Dallas on Feb. 21, Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg was punched in the head at least twice by Jamie Benn, the captain of the Stars. None of Zetterberg's teammates retaliated. Zetterberg missed the next four games with "concussion-like symptoms."
In Boston on March 8, Bruins forward Milan Lucic barged into Detroit goalie Jonas Gustavsson and no Red Wing stuck up for the goalie.
Gustavsson left the game at the next intermission, also with concussion-like symptoms, and has not played since (as of April 6) despite the inconsistency of goalies Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.