Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Chelios's New Role Par for the Red Wings' Course

The Detroit Red Wings do a lot of things well—win hockey games, take care of their players, represent the Original Six with aplomb. They show up to the playoffs every year and it’s never as an afterthought, like someone slipping into an elevator just before the doors close.

Four Stanley Cups since 1997, plus some close calls that could have brought that number to five or six.

Now the Red Wings are becoming a feeder program for team and league executives.

Brendan Shanahan, an NHL Vice President.

Steve Yzerman, GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

And now Chris Chelios, the newest Red Wings front office man.

It’s not likely to end there.

What might defenseman Nick Lidstrom be asked to do, when he hangs up his skates—assuming he returns to Sweden? The NHL could use Lidstrom in their hierarchy, perhaps as an ambassador or liaison to hockey in Sweden or elsewhere.

You think Kris Draper will just fade away? I can see him as a coach or in the front office in Grand Rapids, a few years hence.

I can just picture Chris Osgood traipsing to Traverse City every September to work with the team’s young goalies.

The Red Wings aren’t just a hockey team, they are a hockey institution, literally. It’s where you go to be educated about the game and contribute to hockey society after your playing days are done.

Joe Louis Arena may as well add some ivy onto its old brick walls and a build a campus bookstore and student lounge inside. Players shouldn’t get a playbook, they should get a syllabus.

Look at GM Ken Holland.

Holland was a struggling minor league goalie when the Red Wings secured him from the Hartford Whalers organ-EYE-zay-shun (this is hockey; gotta pronounce it correctly). In 1985, Holland finished his brief NHL career with the Red Wings, who saw something in his intuition for the game and groomed him as a scout, starting in his home turf of Western Canada.

One thing led to another, and before long Holland was back in Detroit, learning how to be a hockey manager (hockey people don’t say GM) under Scotty Bowman, no less.

After Bowman had held the dual roles of coach and manager from 1994-97, it was decided that Holland was ready to take over the managing.

The transition was seamless; the Red Wings won another Cup in 1998, Holland’s first year as manager.

Look at assistant GM Jim Nill.

Nill was acquired as a player late in his career, and when he retired, the Wings again saw something and made Nill an offer to stay in the organ-EYE-zay-shun.

Before long, after also going the scouting route, Nill ended up as Holland’s right hand man and as the Red Wings’ draft specialist.

Look at advanced scouting director Mark Howe.

Howe joined the Red Wings in 1992 as a 37-year-old geezer looking for another kick at the can, after two failed Finals appearances with the Flyers.

The Red Wings made the Finals in Howe’s last year as a player (1995) but were swept by the Devils.

No matter. Howe wasn’t allowed to fade away, either. The Red Wings made him a scout, too (see a pattern here?), and true to form, Howe was eventually promoted to advanced scouting director, which means he’s in charge of scouting upcoming Red Wings opponents in the regular season and playoffs.

Howe, thanks to the initial post-playing job offer, wears four championship rings, albeit all gained in Armani instead of on skates.

Look at advanced scout Pat Verbeek.

Howe was Verbeek’s boss, essentially. Patty Verbeek, known as The Little Ball of Hate as a player, was in the Red Wings’ scouting department ever since retiring from the NHL several years ago, until Yzerman hired him away to work for the Lightning.

The highest-profile examples of this Red Wings-as-an-institution of higher hockey learning thing of course are Shanahan, who’s doing marvelous work for the NHL, and Yzerman, who’s gaining his footing as the Lightning’s new man in charge.

Tuesday, Chelios officially retired as a player and joined the Red Wings front office. His role is still being defined, as Yzerman’s was when he retired in 2006. But Holland said Chelios will advise Holland, will advise coach Mike Babcock, and will work with the team’s defenseman prospects. For now.

Holland is still a relatively young guy—not in his 60s yet. He won’t budge from Detroit anytime soon, but the Red Wings are starting to send former players from the ice to the executive washrooms of their own team, other teams and even the NHL itself.

It’s yet another affirmation of the Red Wings’ place as a beacon of hockey smarts and its status as the best organ-EYE-zay-shun in the NHL, by far.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Greg! And it's so true - for years, the Wings have been looked at as the model franchise for the NHL (maybe all of team sports) because of the way the organization is run from top to bottom. I mean, all they do is WIN. And now, they are training up-and-coming league execs, too. The Wings are just a class organization (there's that word again!).

One minor error in your post, though - Pat Verbeek now works for Stevie in Tampa. :)

Greg Eno said...

Good catch, Nancy!! Thanks!! I changed that paragraph.

Kevin said...

I couldn't agree more, Holland is still a relatively young guy.
It will all work out hopefully.