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All roads lead to Traverse City

by John McGourty /

Detroit Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland created a tournament in Traverse City, Mich. as a way for clubs to be able to better assess the prospects in their organizations.
Over 150 young NHL prospects will gather in Traverse City, Mich., this week for an eight-team tournament that will help their teams assess their continued development and make decisions about where they should play this year.

The tournament, the brainchild of Detroit Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland, will feature four games a day for five days, starting Friday. The world's top hockey prospects will compete against players who went undrafted in some cases. It was here that the Red Wings discovered Sean Avery and Jason Williams.

"We came up with this idea seven or eight years ago," Holland said. "We thought it would be a good way to get to know our kids, instead of just bringing them to the main training camp. There, they play against veterans, which is tough for kids to do.

"In the beginning, we had four Central Division teams, St. Louis, Chicago and Columbus and the Red Wings. Over time, we lost some teams due to economics and philosophy, but we had eight teams last year and everyone is returning this year."

Joining the Red Wings for the Prospects Tournament are the Columbus Blue Jackets, St. Louis Blues, Minnesota Wild, New York Rangers, Dallas Stars, Tampa Bay Lightning and Atlanta Thrashers.

"We wanted to be able to evaluate our kids versus their peers and found enough interest among the other teams," Holland said.

Holland noticed that his top young prospects -- junior players, Europeans and first-year American Hockey League players -- were awestruck at training camp. Plus, training camp does not provide sufficient time or opportunity to get a good read on kids who might be seventh, eighth or ninth at their position in the team's depth chart.

"The Traverse City tournament gives us an opportunity, prior to the main camp, to spend five days with our young prospects, get to know them and watch them," Holland said. "At the main camp, the veterans get all the attention and that makes sense because we are all caught up with trying to win. The kids get overwhelmed, but with this first look, the kids get more comfortable and we're still watching them at main camp."

Holland said that under the collective-bargaining agreement, the teams get one week in the summer with their young players. He said the Red Wings had about 20 young players in early July learning practice drills, nutrition, weight training, conditioning and flexibility training.

"You can't do a lot in a week, but you can show them what the Red Wings do on and off the ice and give them a week of strength and conditioning. You can't do much so mostly we do education. We show them a Kris Draper's numbers for body fat, repetitions, bench press, press your own weight, pull-ups, Max VO2, all the standard tests. We tell them where they are and where they have to get to for the first day of training camp.

"At this tournament, we can see and feel for what they've accomplished."

Holland said the tournament is somewhat like international tournaments for players this age, better competition than juniors, but below the NHL level.

"This is the cream of juniors," he said. "It's a level below the AHL and a stepping stone to evaluate the kids. Minnesota had 12 players here last year who were all first-, second- or third-round draft picks. Each team is allowed a maximum of four first-year pros. We want kids to know that it's tough to play in the NHL and this is another step along the way. This shows them pros do everything quicker, including hit the gym. Then they get another week at training camp to rub shoulders with the veterans and see how they do it.

The Red Wings Henrik Zetterberg is one of the numerous players that have gone on to star in the NHL after playing in the Traverse City Tournament.
"This is a week in the summer-education process. The winter is another step and kids must keep moving forward. Here's one place where we can educate them on how to keep moving forward."

After winning the 1997 Stanley Cup, longtime Detroit general manager Jim Devallano retired and turned the job over to his assistant, Holland, who has guided the Red Wings to two Stanley Cups.

"We had been holding training camp at Joe Louis Arena," Holland recalled. "We couldn't open the building to the public, so we had about 20 people in Red Wings' jackets watching us scrimmage. It was very expensive. I told Scotty Bowman, our coach then, that I wanted to move training camp out of Detroit, in part because the veterans would just go home after practice.

"I wanted a small rink to get the atmosphere of a jammed rink so we could 'up' the intensity of practices. Players are entertainers and feed off the energy of the fans. Plus, I wanted the players to hang out together for a few days to build chemistry and bonding. So, after the Prospects Tournament, we have our regular training camp here. I think it helps relax the kids and helps me get to know them. We draft these kids and we want them to succeed. This tournament sends a message that they are important to our future, that we'll put a lot of time and effort into them, that we believe in them and that we're educating them.

"Traverse City is a beautiful part of the world," Holland continued. "Pete Correia, a banker, puts the camp together with the help of 200-300 volunteers who take time off from work. They do security and shuttle services. It's a big thing to have the Red Wings in Traverse City for two weeks. The other teams are very impressed with the place.

"We have a golf tournament that helps support the community rink," Holland said. "We want to expand the dressing areas. We get great crowds at the game and a very good atmosphere. We're going to have good competition."

In most cases, you put eight NHL general managers in one building and no player's job is safe. Holland was asked if there's a lot of deal making.

"No, because it's early in the season and everyone is still optimistic," he laughed. "We've all done our maneuvering and have big plans for the kids. No one is thinking trade the first week of training camp.

"But a big part of deals is relationships. When you have seven other general managers, golfing, fishing, watching hockey games, you build relationships. We're also bolstering the chemistry on our own staff. There're only a couple of weeks every year when everyone is together, at the draft and at training camp. This is an opportunity for the scouting staffs, all the different staffs, to bond with coaches and management."

What if a kid wanted one last week to go swimming, play golf and hang out with his friends and girlfriends?

"The whole thing is about finding players," Holland said. "We've had 75-100 players, including Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Dany Heatley, Jiri Fischer, Niklas Kronwall, Rick Nash and Ilya Kovalchuk go on to the NHL since it started. The Prospects Tournament is a big step along the way to the NHL. It's a tremendous opportunity."

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