Ken Holland will have 'strange' feelings when his Oilers face Red Wings

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
Edmonton Oilers general manager Ken Holland admits he there will be mixed emotions when his team meets the Red Wings on Friday.

Detroit — Ken Holland doesn’t shy away from it; he doesn’t make it different than it will be.

As general manager of the Edmonton Oilers, yes it’s going to be unusual Friday to face his former employer the Detroit Red Wings.

“Strange, it’s going to be strange,” said Holland, who was general manager of the Wings for 22 years. “I was a Red Wing for 36 years, a part of the organization. I had a Red Wing on my belly. My last years as a (minor league) player were there.

“You just don’t turn it (feelings, relationship) off that quick.”

Friday’s game in Edmonton will be the first of two games between the teams this season. The Oilers will visit Little Caesars Arena Oct. 29 in what should be an even more emotional evening.

Holland’s departure from the organization happened quickly, and came shortly after Steve Yzerman was named Wings’ general manager on April 19.

Owner Chris Ilitch promoted Holland to a senior vice president role and gave him a contract extension upon Yzerman’s arrival.

Then 18 days later Holland, 64, left for the Oilers, realizing he still had the desire and passion to run an NHL team on a day-to-day basis.

Holland signed a five-contract, $25 million contract with the Oilers, excited about the team's potential and the chance for he and wife Cindy to live closer to family and friends in western Canada.

“Chris and Marian Ilitch made me an incredible offer to stay as senior vice president, Steve wanted me to say and I was excited to remain a Red Wing,” Holland said. “We (Yzerman and Holland) went to the under-18 world championships, and obviously Steve was in charge and the scouts were there, and I just felt it was time for it to be Steve’s team.

“When Bob Nicholson (Oilers’ chairman) called, I said to myself it’s a passionate fan base, they have young superstars, I’d like to think I can go in there and over time make a difference.

“I was excited for the opportunity.”

But, heading into Friday’s game, obviously the relationships built over time in Detroit still hold strong.

Yzerman played for, and learned the business of the front office, from Holland. Blashill was hired by Holland. The majority of the Wings’ players were brought in, one way or another, by Holland.

“With Steve Yzerman, with the coach (Blashill), I know all those players, I’ve watched them from the (entry) draft,” Holland said. “You can’t just end 36 years of relationships like that.

“I’m pulling for Steve, pulling for Blash, pulling for the players. There are great, passionate fans, fabulous fans, in Detroit and Cindy and I loved living in the suburbs of Detroit.”

Holland has watched the Wings “a couple of times” thus far this season, and is impressed with what he's seen.

“I know (Dylan) Larkin and (Anthony) Mantha and Bert (Tyler Bertuzzi) are off to a great start, and I know they’re 3-3 (before Thursday’s Calgary game) and they’re in the thick of things,” Holland said. “For the fans and players, I want them to be in the thick of things all year.”

Holland feels the organization is in capable hands with Yzerman, who was a Hall of Fame player with the Wings and transitioned into the front office under Holland, before leaving for Tampa and building a powerhouse Lightning organization.

“If an opportunity never came along, I was thrilled, more than willing and excited, to work with Steve,” Holland said. “My relationship with Steve goes back to 1994. We were roommates at the Olympics in Sochi when we were on the Canadian management team. I hold him in the highest regard.

“He did it on the ice. He and (Nicklas) Lidstrom and the Russian Five  and the Grind Line and (Chris) Osgood, and (Henrik) Zetterberg, I respect those people, they did it on the ice. Steve is one of the key, key people in my career that (has) done it on the ice for me and our team and city.

“The Wings are in very good hands.”

Ken Holland was given a senior vice-president role and a contract extension when Steve Yzerman was hired as general manger in April.

The disappointment over Holland’s final years in Detroit, primarly playoff failures, still bother him.

“I’m fully aware the last eight years in Detroit we won one playoff round,” Holland said. “I’m disappointed we weren’t able to finish off the 1998 series for the Stanley Cup (against Pittsburgh), up 3-2, and the 2013 series against Chicago, up 3-1, and the 2015 series against Tampa, we were up 3-2.

“I just felt it was time for different leadership and when Steve was out there it was time for a change, and that’s when I talked to the owner and made the change. Shortly after, this opportunity came and I jumped.”

Blashill has seen very few difference while coaching under Holland and Yzerman.

“I feel super lucky I’ve had the opportunity to work for Ken and Steve,” said Blashill earlier this season. “Ken is going to be a Hall of Famer, Steve is a Hall of Famer, they’re two of the most respected men in the NHL.

“As a coach, when you work for that level of GM, it’s a great thing. They’re certainly somewhat different in their personalities, but they have similar beliefs in how to build a team, how to win and the long-term approach you have to take.”

Holland’s transition to Edmonton has been highlighted by an impressive 6-1 start to this season, led by superstar forwards Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

Holland has brought in several low-key players (including former Wings Tomas Jurco and Riley Sheahan) and new coach Dave Tippett, and the mixture has worked thus far.

“I’m excited,” Holland said. “We have two young superstars that are just beginning their careers in Draisaitl and McDavid, and I’m excited working with Dave Tippett professionally and personally. It’s a passionate fan base, too.

“I’m excited about the chance to make some noise here.”

Twitter: @tkulfan

Red Wings at Oilers

Faceoff: 9 p.m. Friday, Rogers Place, Edmonton, Alberta.

TV/radio: FSD/97.1

Outlook: The Oilers (6-1) are one of the surprise teams in the NHL…This will end a three-game road trip for the Wings…C Connor McDavid leads the NHL in scoring (17 points in 7 games) and C Leon Draisaitl (15 points) isn’t far behind…LW James Neal (8 goals) has been a pleasant surprise.