Why Ken Holland left the Red Wings for Oilers GM job

Ken Holland became restless sooner than expected, and that restlessness led him to Edmonton.

Holland was introduced as the new general manager of the Oilers on Tuesday, 18 days after he’d sat next to Steve Yzerman as Yzerman replaced him as the new general manager of the Detroit Red Wings. At the time, Wings owner Chris Ilitch announced Holland had received a contract extension and a promotion to senior vice president.

It was near the end of the news conference at Rogers Arena on Tuesday when Holland admitted he didn’t think he’d ever be sitting in front of another team’s logo, that he’d ever leave the Wings.

“I have a great relationship with Steve,” Holland told media at the presser. “We’re friends. We worked together. After he retired, he worked in the front office with us for four years and then went to Tampa Bay. The Ilitches offered me a very, very incredible offer to remain with the organization as senior vice president. My thinking at that point in time was that I was going to be a Red Wing for life and work with Steve and support him.”

A trip overseas changed Holland’s outlook. While in Sweden in April scouting the U18 World Championship, Holland, 63, said it took less than a week before “I was itchy.”

Then the Oilers called, offering five years, $25 million to have full autonomy of a team that boasts arguably the best player in hockey in Connor McDavid and a chance to right a club that has missed the playoffs 12 of the last 13 seasons despite picking first overall four times between 2010-15.

It’s also an opportunity to be closer to family —Holland and his wife have family in Calgary and his hometown of Vernon, British Columbia.

“I think there is an opportunity here for me to try to make a real positive impact on this franchise,” Holland said. “There’s a great start. I’ve got to continue to build, to grow.

“I thought I would be there for life, but I also wasn’t sure if I was going to get restless. I told that to Chris Ilitch. I got restless sooner than I thought.”

Holland spent 22 years as manager of the Wings, 36 in the organization overall after starting out as a minor-league goaltender and scout. Holland thanked Wings senior vice president Jimmy Devellano for being “my role model and mentor when I got into the business. … He recommended to Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch in 1997 that they hire me as general manager of the Detroit Red Wings.”

The Wings won three Cups under Holland, whose drafting, trades and free-agent signings helped forge a playoff streak that lasted a historic 25 seasons.

“He knows how to build a culture of winning,” Oilers owner Daryl Katz said. “When it comes to hiring someone with the experience and authority to make an immediate impact, which is what we need, nobody else comes close.

“We didn’t hire Ken just for what he has done in the past. We hired him for what he can do for the Oilers right now and in the years ahead.”

Yzerman and Ilitch released statements congratulating Holland as the news became official.

“Ken Holland has been a friend of mine since I was drafted in 1983,” Yzerman said. “We were teammates, he held various executive roles during my playing career and he served as a mentor to me as I transitioned into management. There are very few General Managers in the history of the National Hockey League who have accomplished what he has, and I consider it a privilege to have been able to learn from him both in Detroit and during our time together with Hockey Canada.

“I was hopeful that Ken would stay with the Red Wings and was excited to once again work alongside him, but I understand that Ken is a true competitor who loves being a general manager, and that he still has a burning desire to contend for Stanley Cup championships as the person in charge. I look forward to competing against him and, as a close friend, sincerely wish him the best of luck in his new role with the Oilers.”

Ilitch thanked Holland for more than three decades of service to the Wings, ending the statement with saying, “Ken is a first-class person and a top-notch hockey man. We’re ecstatic about the future of the Red Wings with Steve in charge, and on behalf of Marian Ilitch and the entire Red Wings family, we would like to thank Ken for 36 wonderful seasons and wish him, his wife Cindi, and the rest of the Holland family all the best going forward.”

Holland’s immediate task is finding a head coach to replace Ken Hitchcock, then catch up on the Oilers’ farm system heading into next month’s draft. That’s the type of daily grind Holland loves —scouting, evaluating, meeting with his front-office personnel to discuss ways to make a team better. It’s little wonder he lasted less than three weeks in an advisory role, even as ideal as that role was.

When Yzerman signaled last September he would not stay with the Lightning past the year left on his contract, the only fitting outcome was a return to the Red Wings.

Ultimately that led to a change of address for Holland.

“One of the things that I’ve asked my people, the players through the years, is to sacrifice,” Holland said. “Go to the minors. Spend extra time in the minors. Take a little bit less. It’s about sacrifice. If you’re going to win, everyone has to sacrifice a little bit.

“When Steve Yzerman stepped down in Tampa Bay. I realized it was my time to make that sacrifice. I worked with Chris Ilitch and ultimately I’m thrilled that the last move that I made as general manager of the Detroit Red Wings was to step aside and hand the keys to Steve Yzerman.”

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