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How Ken Holland went from vacuum salesman to Hockey Hall of Fame inductee

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EDMONTON — This is the story of the door-to-door vacuum salesman who almost didn’t make it to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Or, the Hockey Hall of Famer who almost became a vacuum salesman.

Whichever way you view Ken Holland’s favourite story, and whether or not you’ve heard it before, the turning point in Holland’s professional life is a place to drop the puck as we tell the story of a minor-league goalie — a 12th-round draft pick of the Maple Leafs back in 1975 — who enters the Hall in the builder’s category on Hall of Fame weekend.

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“It’s 1985,” begins Holland, setting the scene at age 66. “Our kids are four, two and one. We’ve gone back to Vernon B.C., and Cindi (Holland, a nurse) gets a job at the Vernon hospital. I get the job at the Vernon Liquor store, and we’re in my parents’ basement.

“We’re lookin’ for a place to live. But we’ve got jobs.”

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That’s what nine years as a minor league goalie had bought Holland: Four games in the NHL, and a room in his parents’ basement.

“He’s a humble, humble person,” Steve Yzerman would later explain.

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No kidding…

But Holland is still telling his favourite story.

“One day I come home from the liquor store, and my Mom says to me, ‘Ken, I hear the phone’s been ringing from your agent. How are things going looking for a hockey job?’”

Holland — “Mom, I’m 29 years old. I’m not a prospect anymore. It’s not very good.”

Mom — “What are you going to do if you don’t get a hockey job?”

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Holland — “I have a Grade 12 education. All I know is hockey. Cindi is going to work at the hospital, I’m going to go to Okanagan College for two years, then I’m going to go to UBC and get some kind of a degree.”

Mom — “Ken, you’re 29 years old. You’ve got three kids under the age of four. You’ve got to put food on the table.”

Holland is rolling now.

“She says, ‘Ken, in the Want Ads in the Vernon newspaper, Electrolux is looking for a salesperson in the area. I’ve had an Electrolux vacuum my whole life, it’s the best vacuum on the market. I called the 1-800 number. You get 25 per cent of every sale.

“She says, ‘I’m going to be your first sale. And I talked to Grandma Isbrecht, and she’s going to be your second sale.’ I’m thinking to myself, ‘This is going pretty good.’ So I ask my Mom: “Any idea on the status of Aunt Emma’s vacuum?’ She said, ‘Ken, family takes care of family. I’m sure you’re going to get a sale there.’

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“So, I’d sold three vacuums and I hadn’t even taken the job yet! Now I’ve got to leave 23rd Street and start walking down 39th Avenue. Start banging on doors, though I’m not sure that’s something I really want do…”

This was it. The big moment.

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Vacuums, maybe some part-time at a liquor store in the B.C. interior, and probably some beer league hockey.

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That’s where nearly 30 years on this earth had left Kenneth Mark Holland.

Was this it…?

“By fate, two or three days later the phone rings,” Holland says, wrapping up his tale. “It’s Bill Dineen, my minor league coach with the Adirondack Red Wings, and he’d recommended to (Detroit GM) Jim Devellano and Neil Smith that they hire me as a scout.

“And the rest is history.”

Holland’s history, as it turns out, has been as folksy, approachable — and successful — as any of his peers. He won three Stanley Cups as the Red Wings GM, another as assistant GM, and still hosts a golf tournament in Vernon each summer for friends and colleagues.

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He even trained his replacement in Detroit, working with Steve Yzerman from the time of Yzerman’s retirement to his departure for Tampa Bay, before moving aside when Yzerman returned to run the Red Wings.

“I learned a lot from Kenny, even before I retired,” Yzerman corrected over the phone from Detroit. “Talking about the league, players, signings… I always talked about things with him, and the four years after I retired, we talked about contracts, how he managed situations, how he handled things. The logic behind the decisions that he had to make. It was a tremendous education.

“Kenny was very, very selfless. To this day I talk to him about things. He hasn’t changed a bit. He is very, very humble.”

We’ve met a lot of GMs over the years. Personable ones who will call a scribe back or sit in the seats of a practice rink and kibitz over coffee. And more private ones who keep you at a distance, seeing no value in a relationship with someone that ranks below them on hockey’s off-ice ladder.

Then there is Holland, who will take 82 pre-game suppers at the press meal, an in-arena dinner put on for scouts, media and support staff. In Edmonton, Holland keeps a table for him and his staff. But it is right there among the rest of that night’s game staff and the media. Same food, same folks, watching the same Eastern Conference games on the same TVs as everyone else.

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Where you can go a season or two without ever seeing Oilers owner Daryl Katz, Holland is around every night, as approachable at home as he is on the road.

“You’d have to ask him why he always calls you back or whatever,” Yzerman said. “But I think he goes into the press room to talk hockey with other managers, scouts, media people… At the end of the day he just enjoys talking about what’s going on around the league with other teams and players. It’s why he enjoys managing — he enjoys talking to people about hockey.”

As Holland takes on a new team and one last challenge in Edmonton, there is no sense that he has the job mastered. That those three Cups in Detroit make him a lock for a few more in Edmonton. Like he has the secret sauce.

He can bring the process to Western Canada the same way he’d have lugged an Electrolux up the front walk. He’s got a good product, an honest pitch, and some experience at changing out the odd beater bar.

“What I learned is, you’ve just got to stick with it,” Holland said. “If you want to win a Stanley Cup, you’ve got to be in the playoffs this year, you’ve got to be in the playoffs next year, you’ve got to be in the playoffs the year after… You can’t make the playoffs twice in 10 years and think you’re going to win the Stanley Cup.”

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He focuses down on his current team: “That (playoff) loss to Winnipeg last year, I can’t say it’s going to serve the team, but it’s going to serve somebody that played on that team. We’re going to learn and grow from it — and maybe there are three or four (players who grow from the lesson).

“In Detroit we had multiple disappointments: in ’93 and ’94. Then in ’95 we think we’re over the hump, we go to the Final and get swept by New Jersey. In ’96 we had 62 wins and we lose in the third round. You stick with it, you stick with it… I’m just trying to make the team better this year than it was last year.

“Talking to Jon Cooper, for (Tampa) it was a six or seven-year journey to win back-to-back Stanley Cups.”

Holland will stop in Toronto to be inducted as part of the Class of 2020 this weekend, where he’ll scarcely take a step without running into someone who wants to offer a congratulations.

“Whether it’s someone in another organization, in Europe, with a junior team, media…” said Detroit pro scout Kirk Maltby. “It just seems like everyone loves having a conversation with Ken. He has a wealth of knowledge on his own, but he also has access to a lot of information.

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“Do I think he has a chance to take Edmonton on a long run? Absolutely.”



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