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The Captain returns to rebuild the team that made him

May 10, 2019

The Detroit Red Wings missed the playoffs again this year – the third year in a row. Not that big of a deal, except the team had just come off a 25-year streak of playoff appearances – the third longest in NHL history. During that streak they won four Stanley Cups. Nobody won more.

Not a bad run – especially when the Wings had to adapt to constantly changing rules, from new interference penalties to new salary caps.

A lot of people contributed to this long run of success, including the Ilitches, who bought the franchise in 1982; Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman; and Jimmy Devellano, the general manager who got the players who started that streak.

But no short list would be complete without Ken Holland, who took over for Devellano as the team’s general manager in 1997, and Steve Yzerman, who started playing for Detroit in 1983.

Holland’s teams won three of those four Stanley Cups. In 2009, Sports Illustrated ranked him North America’s second best executive – in any sport.

That’s worth remembering. When Holland stepped down last month, a lot of commentators focused on his last three seasons in Detroit, all failures, and some of the decisions he made that led to those losses.

But none of that erases Holland’s 19 straight playoff appearances, and three Stanley Cups. Perhaps his best move was his last: putting his ego aside to recruit the legendary Steve Yzerman to replace him.

Yzerman served as the Red Wings’ captain for so long – two decades – that it became his nickname: The Captain, noted for his quiet class. After he retired in 2006, he went to work in Detroit’s front office, mentoring under Holland.

Four years later, Yzerman became the general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning. He was so good at it that the NHL named him General Manager of the Year in 2015. It was no fluke: the squads Yzerman put together for Team Canada in the World Cup and the Olympics won three gold medals. He was that rare man who was just as good off the ice as on it.

While the Lightning were riding high, the Red Wings were laying low, in need of a rebuilding effort.

Ken Holland knew just what to do. In December, a friend of mine saw Holland and Yzerman having breakfast at Oakland Hills Country Club. We now know what they were talking about: Holland stepping aside with his own measure of quiet class so his protégé, Yzerman, could take his spot.

And that’s just what happened – one of the rare decisions in the sports world that was praised by everyone. Yzerman takes over a program that has a few pieces worth keeping, but he’ll have to find the rest. If past is prologue, only a fool would bet against Yzerman. He simply hasn’t failed – at anything.

Don’t feel too bad for Ken Holland, either. This week the Edmonton Oilers announced they have hired him to run their front office for five years, for a cool $25 million. I don’t care if those dollars are American or Canadian – that’s a lot.

But the winners here, for the first time in four years, are the Red Wings – who just made their best pick-up since signing an 18-year old kid back in 1983 named Steve Yzerman.

John U. Bacon is a freelance sports commentator. His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management, or its license holder, the University of Michigan.