May 28, 2009 at 2:52 pm

Lynn Henning

Ken Holland is Red Wings' unsung superstar

Detroit forward Marian Hossa keeps the puck away from Cam Barker of the Blackhawks in the second period. Hossa had seven shots on goal, three hits and was plus-1 through the first three periods. Barker was minus-1 with one shot and one hit. (David Guralnick/The Detroit News)

Detroit

Watching the Stanley Cup playoffs via television, up through the Red Wings' Game 5 clincher Wednesday at Joe Louis Arena, proves again how a city's profile is raised by its hockey team.

I see it when Barry Melrose rhapsodizes in his crisp, breakaway style about some facet of the Red Wings during his ESPN spiels. I see it in Sports Illustrated in a Michael Farber story that explains to a nation at large why something, or someone, has helped make a Red Wings mini-dynasty just that: a professional sports team of annual excellence.

I see it somewhat from a distance, this team that closed out the Chicago Blackhawks to reach the Stanley Cup Finals, just as I see from a detached perch the job done by the team's architect, Ken Holland, the Red Wings general manager.

That's because baseball tends to be my primary spring assignment. It wasn't always that way. I covered a lot of Red Wings hockey earlier this decade. I spoke frequently enough with Holland during those years. I always thought he was eminently sharper than he could let on. It was, in this view, a natural humility intrinsic to a kid, raised sturdily, from western Canada.

But it seems this season, as the Wings prepare for a possible fifth Stanley Cup in 12 seasons, that Holland is, perhaps not underappreciated, but under-publicized. Not locally, but certainly nationally. The general manager of an elite, high-profile NHL team remains low-profile.

Not about ego

It no doubt is his preference. But during a speaking engagement not long ago, with a couple of hundred men seeming to agree with the premise, I submitted that Holland was the best GM in all of professional sports.

He simply doesn't assume the role. His ego does not precede him. And that is a rather refreshing trait when Holland could be forgiven for displaying a loftier, less common-cloth disposition.

He's super-skilled, for sure, in arranging the furniture on a roster now crimped by a salary cap. And, yes, he absolutely works for the right owner, Mike Ilitch. He likewise has the right people in place, whether it's Jimmy Devellano (who hired Holland and who delivered the Wings a Cup in 1997) above him; or Jim Nill or Steve Yzerman beside him; or (drum roll) Hakan Andersson combing the ice rinks of Europe in search of Detroit's next passel of stars.

But make no mistake about Holland's ultimate judgment and accountability. He's in charge, and has been since July of 1997. He would correctly take the flak if the Wings' fortunes were reversed, with all of Hockeytown screaming for his head.

Instead, he maneuvers from year to year, balancing contracts, deciding who to keep and who can be spared, milking the maximum from guys pushing 40 or well beyond it, all while clearing room for the Darren Helms, Jonathan Ericssons, and Mikael Samuelssons of pro hockey to find a neat niche in Detroit.

Simply the best

His coach, Mike Babcock, was asked about Holland's ways following Wednesday morning's workout at Joe Louis Arena. Asking Babcock to critique Holland is probably like asking Michelle Obama who she voted for last November, but Babcock is no more known for fluff than Holland.

And what he said, particularly with regard to Holland's roster designs -- before and after the NHL salary cap -- was compelling.

"Maybe," Babcock said, "he's just better than anyone else."

This isn't easy, winning in professional sports. You have all those franchises, working frantically, often spending similar amounts on contracts, and yet only one team each year can win.

For the past 12 years, the Wings have been either sipping NHL champagne or sniffing it. Holland isn't the only reason. He is part of it. A major part of it, at least during this decade. But ask your average sports fan, even an impassioned one, who runs the Detroit Red Wings, and send me your polling results.

I doubt there will be any surprises.

lynn.henning@detnews.com">lynn.henning@detnews.com

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