Fearless GM Paul Holmgren eyes Cup
PHILADELPHIA -- Let's start with a story.
A summer hockey league, many years ago. A disturbance in front of one bench. A young Brian Burke stands and calls out one of the opposing players.
"The next thing I know, Paul Holmgren's standing in front of the bench," Burke recalled.
"He says, 'Come on, tough guy.'"
Over the bench goes Burke.
The two start trading punches.
Finally, the linesman steps in and Burke thinks to himself, that's it? That's all the famous tough guy from Minnesota has got?
"Then, boom, he comes with the left and he got me good," Burke said.
His eye swollen shut; the moment provided a lasting memory for the current Toronto general manager.
"I learned a valuable lesson that day and that was not to chirp at Paul Holmgren," Burke said.
When Holmgren is reminded of this story, he betrays little. When we get to the part about how Burke felt he was holding his own, his eyebrows arch slightly as if to say, really, that's what he thought?
This is the Holmgren way.
Burke and Holmgren are long-time friends. Holmgren was among the American general managers whom Burke turned to in assembling the U.S. entry in the 2010 Olympics that would earn a silver medal. They also sometimes go fishing together.
"He's a man of few words," Burke said. "There are lots of long pauses in the conversation."
Indeed, Holmgren is not one for idle chitchat. It is who he is and it is how he does his business.
Right now that business sees Holmgren at the top of his game as perhaps the best GM in the NHL; and if not the best, then certainly the nerviest.
Holmgren did not get a nod for the new GM of the Year Award, but he should have. In fact, it's mind boggling that he did not, given the moves he has made and the bright future he has charted for the Philadelphia Flyers. Not that he has given it a moment's thought. Holmgren is, instead, focused on the pursuit of the trophy -- the Stanley Cup, of course -- that has eluded him his entire career and has eluded his team since 1975.
Leading the New Jersey Devils by one game in their Eastern Conference semifinals, the Flyers are the most potent team left in the playoffs and the level of play they have displayed suggests this might be the best chance at ending the Stanley Cup drought that has left fans parched in Philadelphia.
"I think he's an outstanding judge of talent," Flyers owner Ed Snider told ESPN.com.
Both Snider and president and COO Peter Luukko praised Holmgren for his ability to delegate and to trust his assistants, scouts and coaching staff.
"He listens to them," Snider said. "He's not a lone traveler. But the buck stops with him.
"I really admire that he's willing to take the kinds of risks he did last summer. I think everybody thought maybe he had lost his mind.
"The changes he's made in the Philadelphia Flyers have been absolutely unbelievable. He's a Flyer through and through."
In the past three years, Holmgren has been at the center of some of the biggest deals in the NHL. He acquired Hart and Norris trophies winner Chris Pronger from the Anaheim Ducks at the 2009 draft, and Pronger took the Flyers to the 2010 Stanley Cup finals, the first time the Flyers had advanced that far since 1997.
That was just an appetizer for the feast of moves Holmgren made last summer as he unloaded his captain, Mike Richards, to the Los Angeles Kings and his sniper, Jeff Carter, to the Columbus Blue Jackets in part so he could sign top free-agent netminder Ilya Bryzgalov.
The moves have paid off spectacularly as the young talent Holmgren acquired, Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier, have all made significant contributions to the team's current playoff run and bode well for the future.
Was he nervous?
Holmgren allows a grin.
"Absolutely," he said. "At the end of the day you just hope it works out."
Around the hockey world, Holmgren is known as a GM without fear.
"There's no question, no one can ever dispute that Paul Holmgren has anything but ice water in his veins," Burke said.
Being a GM is a high-wire act at the best of times, but those deals put Holmgren up an additional three or four hundred feet, the Toronto GM said.
"Those are big-[boy] deals," Burke added.
Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero, whose team was dispatched by the Flyers in the first round, first saw Holmgren as a rookie playing for Shero's father, iconic Flyers coach Fred Shero, in the mid-1970s.
"Very good person," Shero said. "Good sense of humor, has done a great job there."
Holmgren played in 527 NHL games with Philadelphia and Minnesota, amassing 1,684 penalty minutes. And he became the first U.S.-born player to score a hat trick in the Stanley Cup finals, in 1980 against the New York Islanders.
Early in his career with the Flyers, Holmgren suffered an eye injury that became so acute during a team meeting that captain Bob Clarke and assistant coach Barry Ashbee took Holmgren to a Boston hospital. At one point, the doctor told them it looked like Holmgren would lose sight in one eye. An allergic reaction to the anesthetic during the operation caused Holmgren's heart to stop and he nearly died.
Clarke later became Holmgren's roommate on the road.
"I used to make him watch Tommy Hunter and those shows when we were in Canada. He would get so [ticked] off," Clarke said with a laugh.
One afternoon at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, Bruins tough guy Wayne Cashman tried to gouge Holmgren's eye during a fight. When both of the players went off the ice, an enraged Holmgren went after the Bruin.
"Paul went down the hallway after him. Cash was waiting for him with his stick," Clarke recalled.
Shortly after that melee, a metal gate was installed in the locker room area so that opposing players couldn't come in contact. No word on whether they called it the Holmgren Gate, but it has stayed in place from that point on.
"It was because of that incident they put it in," Clarke said.
Holmgren moved directly from playing to coaching, joining the Flyers' coaching staff in 1985-86 and assuming the head coaching position when Mike Keenan was fired in 1988.
In his first season as head coach, the Flyers advanced to the conference finals against Montreal but missed the playoffs the next two seasons.
Twenty-four games into the 1991-92 season, Holmgren was fired and Burke brought him to Hartford to coach the Whalers the next season. He lasted until the end of the 1995-96 season, then came home to the Flyers first as a scout and then as an assistant to Clarke, who by then was the Flyers' GM.
There remains a kind of lament from Holmgren that his coaching career didn't go better. It was the closest thing to being a player, closest to the game itself, and he wishes he had been better at it.
"That didn't go very well," Holmgren said.
Among his self-admitted failings was a propensity to rely too much on his fourth-line guys, guys who most closely reflected his own qualities as a player.
"Craig Berube used to get a lot of ice time for me," Holmgren said jokingly, referring to one of the toughest players in the game who is now an assistant coach with the Flyers.
Rick Tocchet recalls playing for Holmgren and how the coach used to carry a hockey stick around even off the ice.
"You were scared to have a bad game," Tocchet said, in part because there was an element of menace to Holmgren but also because the respect level was so high. "You didn't want to disappoint him. He was like a father figure or big brother to me."
Clarke said he and Holmgren are like brothers. Their families are close. They share a fierceness, although Clarke said Holmgren has had to change his approach to the game since going down the management track.
"He was fiercely competitive," Clarke said. "On the ice he was bad-tempered. But if you are going to be a coach or a general manager, you have to get rid of that bad temper.
"Paul did that."
Among the qualities Clarke came to admire in Holmgren were his views on the game and players.
"He's an independent thinker," the Hall of Famer said. "Paul's an intelligent man. But lots of smart men couldn't manage a hockey club. Paul's a smart man and he has great hockey intelligence."
As a coach, Holmgren could make players fearful. But as a GM, Berube said he has come to appreciate the calmness Holmgren brings to the table.
"You've got to see the whole picture as a GM and not get too worked up. He's been a calming influence," Berube said. "As a coach, he was a lot more fiery. He could put the fear of God in you."
Holmgren credits Clarke for helping him learn the management end of the business.
"He's always been a good friend to me," Holmgren said of Clarke. "Bob Clarke, more than anyone, is a team-first kind of a guy."
When the legendary Flyers captain stepped down as Philadelphia's general manager in October 2006, the Flyers offered the job to NHL senior executive Colin Campbell. But if there is such a thing as karma, then it came into play in this case as Campbell turned down the job and Holmgren took over first as the interim GM and was then given the job full time in March of that season.
He has held the post ever since.
"I don't know if I would call it seamless," Holmgren said.
You don't take over for one of the most popular sports figure in a sports-mad city like Philadelphia without carrying some baggage.
"Those are big shoes to fill and, more importantly, they were popular shoes to fill," Burke said.
"Obviously, I think very highly of him," Burke said of Holmgren.
Team president Peter Luukko jokes that Holmgren would be annoyed that people were talking about him, especially in such glowing terms.
"That's the kind of guy he is," Luukko said. "Paul just wants to get the job done. He's not looking for any public accolades.
"He runs the hockey department as a business. He uses all of [his] resources. They all have an opinion with Paul. He's made some very bold decisions that maybe some other GMs wouldn't."
Luukko said he was impressed with Holmgren's rapport with the league's GMs. Some GMs have trading partners, guys they deal with on a repeat basis, yet Luukko said Holmgren doesn't let issues of ego or personality interfere with his stated goal: making the team better.
"I think it's important to talk to everyone," Holmgren said. "You never know if there's going to be something that's the right fit for you."
Holmgren does some quick math and figures that, all told, he has been in Philadelphia for 30 years in one capacity or another.
Three decades of chasing the dream in one form or another.
One has to imagine that this team, the one he has so boldly put together, might have as good a chance as any at seeing the dream realized.