Part III :: Breakfast, Bedard, and Bucatini

Read Part I here.
Read Part II here.

I was lucky enough to spend nearly two hours with Mr. Holland. We talked about quite a bit: that he nearly became a vacuum salesman, how his son is doing (I went to high school with him), and — obviously — hockey. Any question I had for him — be it about the CBA or individual prospects or working in hockey — he answered honestly, frankly, and brilliantly. It was — by far — the highlight of the weekend.

When asked if he can spot a superstar, he answered, “unless it’s Crosby, not really” and he explained that Johan Franzen went through five drafts before finally being selected by the Wings.

I asked if the players have any idea about the things that are written about them (clearly looking out for my own ass before I had the chance to cross paths with Bertuzzi). His answer was kind of what I suspected… that the players don’t read too much media coverage, and if they do, they put very little stock in it.

I told him about being impressed with Riley Sheahan when I had the opportunity to interview him at the Draft. It sounds like the organization likes him, too, and he explained pretty clearly what Jiri Fischer’s role is with the team.

In a somewhat tangential story arc, you can thank ex-Wing Mark Mowers for the team’s “capologist” (though Mr. Holland is quick to point out that HE’S the capologist, with a smirk). Mowers’ agent’s assistant was Ryan Martin — whom Holland had met prior to the negotiations. Mr. Martin knows the CBA backwards and forwards and reads the legal document the way that you and I read a magazine in the john.

Perhaps most importantly, he explained his hockey philosophy to me, explaining how his career in the AHL helped shaped how he approaches building the best franchise on the planet. Surrounding yourself with successful veterans and earning your way onto a club makes it so that the players are emotionally invested in the team. It’s basically exactly what we’ve known for years, just spoken in a way that’s so simple and frank, it sounded like gospel coming from him.

His recall of players’ stats from years past is startling. I mentioned being impressed with Jiri Hudler when Scuttles played with the Griffins however-many years ago. Mr. Holland (accurately — I looked it up) said “that was the year he had 96 points and was third in the AHL in scoring.”

No point was more poignant than hearing him discuss playing ahead of a young man that The Hockey News considered to be a “goaltender of the future.” His advice to the youngster was “why don’t you worry about being better than me first?”

Brilliant advice for all of us. And even moreso for the players hoping to earn their way onto the Detroit Red Wings.

Like I mentioned on Day 1, there are some things I’d prefer to keep to myself. The conversation was fun, honest, and eye-opening, but some of it was meant just for the table and I’d like to keep it that way. If I was put on a plane back to Detroit immediately following breakfast, I would have been just fine with the weekend. There’s simply no way the trip could be a disappointment even though we weren’t even halfway done yet.

As our conversation was coming to an end, Mr. Holland asked if we intended to check out the morning skate across the street at Bridgestone Arena. Obviously, I hoped to do as much as I could, and asked if he knew where we were supposed to enter the building.

“Just walk over with me.”

Yeah, tough sell. We went in the players’ entrance — but not before Mr. Holland was asked by an autograph-seeker if he should invest in a Patrick Eaves jersey, hoping to hear Eaves will be signed long-term. Shockingly, Mr. Holland didn’t show his cards. We asked him how fans know where they’re staying and when the skate is.

“They know everything always.”

I saw a handful of Red Wings in the underbelly of the arena, taping sticks or being worked on by the trainer. Some of guys (and no, I won’t tell you which ones they were) that haven’t been involved in the injury story had ice packs or heat bands, proving that no one in the League is 100% in February.

Ultimately, only a handful of players skated that day. Jan Mursak, Justin Abdelkader, Drew Miller, and Jakub Kindl ran a few drills with Joey MacDonald taking the bulk of the shots (he was to start that evening) and Jimmy “Fuckin'” Howard providing a breather or two.

Goaltending coach Jim Bedard was the lone coach on the ice with the six Red Wings, and he didn’t take it easy on them. The drills they ran were pretty intense, and did as much good for the shooters as it did for the goalies. Proving exactly why the Red Wings brought him back into the organization this past summer, Joey MacDonald took these drills extremely seriously and was nothing if not a veteran pro.

When all was said and done, the Wings were only on the ice for about 25 minutes before changing and heading back to the hotel for a pre-game meal and a nap.

We bumped into Coach Bedard as we headed over to the meal, and rode the elevator up with him. If Mr. Holland was the most fun I had talking to anyone all weekend, Bedard was a close second. Hilarious dude. When I mentioned that he didn’t take it easy on the boys at the skate, he smiled and shot me a look that confirmed I may not have had the will to play in this League even if I had the skill (which I also didn’t possess).

We walked into the private dining area and most of the players were already seated and digging into a fairly extensive spread of pastas, chicken breasts, salads, and soups. As I grabbed a plate to help myself, I notice Darren Helm getting in line behind me. I tell him he’s gotta go ahead, it’s far more important that he’s fed than I am. For the record, I’ve never seen anyone eat half as much pasta and this kid did. It was literally a three inch stack the whole circumference of the dish.

After loading up with mashed potatoes and chicken, we found a few empty seats at a table occupied by Jakub Kindl, Justin Abdelkader, and Joey MacDonald. Just like the plane, I didn’t want to bug anyone — not to mention, they might be getting into the mindset necessary to play hockey in a few hours. But it didn’t take long for Kindl to pipe up — asking us where we were from and telling us about his family and friends back in the Czech Republic.

Former Islander Joey MacDonald perked up when I mentioned that I lived in New York and tried to get to Wings games when they play at Madison Square Garden or even in Newark, but that “you wouldn’t catch me dead at the shithole in Nassau.” Joey MacDonald seemed to be, in the little time I spent with everyone, the most “regular dude” of the bunch.

But that’s just the thing… they’re just “regular dudes.” I’m sure they’d like you to know that they talk about regular guy stuff — movies they’d seen recently, new car models they like, the upcoming Super Bowl. We may think they’re demi-gods, but at the end of the day, they’re just people. And they’re no different than any of us, and it was very neat to shoot the breeze and not have to act like I was conducting an interview with them.

As the players streamed out to get their rest, Justin Abdelkader still had several pounds of pasta and three chicken breasts to work with, so my dad and I stuck around to keep him company. I asked what it was like to live every Michigan kid’s dream, playing an entire career (save for one season in Cedar Rapids) in his homestate. He absolutely appreciates how special that is, and says his folks try to get to games on the weekends, but it’s tough during the week since they’re both working. But he realizes his situation is special: friends from college can come see him, and his family can make it if the circumstances are right. There are players on the team who don’t get to play in front of some close to them all season. It’s fair to say that Justin Abdelkader is the most likely Red Wing to have a friend or relative in the Joe every night.

One thing that startled me was how quiet and reserved the guys are. They didn’t talk a whole lot — even to each other — but that could have more to do with having a less-than-awesome weekend than anything else. Still, I expected someone to be a bit of a goofball, but everyone was in Business Mode and that was pretty awesome to see.

Everyone except Coach Babcock, of course. As he was walking out of the room, he patted me on the back and told me to “make sure I get seconds.” I told him I’d load up in case he needed another body that night.

It was about 1:30 in the afternoon. In three short hours, the team was heading to the rink.