There’s a lot of the late Gordie Howe in Vernon’s Ken Holland, besides the obvious connection both men have to the National Hockey League’s Detroit Red Wings.
Holland has been the Red Wings’ general manager since 1997. He is in his 33rd year with the organization, having passed on the recommendation of his mom, Lee, to become an Electrolux vacuum salesman in 1985 when his playing days were done.
Holland first met Howe – Mr. Hockey – when he was playing in the American Hockey League with Howe’s son, Marty, in the Hartford Whalers’ system.
“Mr. Howe would come into our dressing room about four or five times a year, and he was incredibly humble,” said Holland, 60, taking time from his vacation at his summer home on Kal Lake to speak at the Kalamalka Rotary luncheon Thursday at the Vernon Atrium Hotel and Conference Centre.
“There was no ego. He treated everyone in that room on the same level. He did that everyday. He treated everybody he met with respect and dignity. That’s what I know about the Howe family.”
Born and raised in Vernon, Holland played minor hockey here and spent a season as a back-up goalie with the B.C. Junior Hockey League’s Vernon Essos before boarding a Greyhound heading east to the Medicine Hat Tigers’ Western Hockey League training camp.
Holland made the squad, “had a cup of coffee” as a player in the NHL with the Whalers, and had a job in Vernon in the off-season he loved at a local liquor store.
The store may have become his full-time occupation, or even selling vacuum cleaners, had his coach in hockey’s minor leagues, Bill Dineen, not called and offer Holland a job as a Western Canada scout in the Red Wings’ organization.
“My last year as a pro, I made $30,000, the highest salary I ever made,” said Holland. “After I retired, I got a call from John Paddock, coaching the Hershey Bears in the American Hockey League, and they were looking for a veteran minor league goalie, offering $35,000. That extra $5,000 is a lot of money, but I thought I should stick with the scouting job.”
Holland worked his way up the Red Wings ladder, winning his first of four Stanley Cups in 1997 as the team’s assistant general manager. A month after winning Lord Stanley, Holland was promoted to full-time general manager.
The Red Wings won the Cup in 1998, 2002 and 2008, and made the final in 2009. Under Holland’s guidance, the Red Wings have made the Stanley Cup playoffs 25 straight years, the longest such streak in North American professional sports.
“I believe in the culture,” said Holland when talking about his and the Red Wings’ successes. “Culture is good people…It’s important to talk to someone in your company whose opinion you respect.”
Once the director of scouting in Detroit, Holland now relies on fellow Kal Lake summer resident Tyler Wright in the position, along with Wright’s assistant – fellow Vernon native and former NHL defenceman Jeff Finley – to help keep the Red Wings’ in the league’s upper echelon.
He stays true to his roots, coming home every summer, and plans to retire to the lake home permanently one day with wife Cindi, and their four kids.
“I love it here, love coming home,” said Holland, who also helps out the Kalamalka Rotary Dream Auction every year, donating a Red Wings’ package.
For his efforts, Kal Rotary bestowed the organization’s Paul Harris Fellow upon Holland Thursday afternoon. It’s a tribute to a person whose life demonstrates a shared purpose with the objective of The Rotary Foundation.
“Ken Holland was designated to receive this recognition as a special expression of appreciation,” said Greg MacKinnon with the Kal Rotary Club.
“Ken and the Detroit Red Wings have supported our annual Dream Auction for close to 20 years. The package that is donated helps our club raise the funds we use to support local and international projects.”
The auction has raised close to $200,000 each of the last three years.
Holland will serve as assistant general manager for Team Canada at next month’s World Cup of Hockey. He melded Canada into Olympic champions in 2010 and 2014 as general manager.