Paul Holmgren never envisioned himself becoming a professional hockey player. But after decades in the sport as a player, coach, scout and executive, he has earned acclaim as a key figure in the development of hockey in the United States.
That's why Holmgren is one of the recipients of the 2014 Lester Patrick Award for contributions to hockey in the United States. He will be honored along with NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly during the United States Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremony Dec. 4 in Minneapolis.
"It's really a tremendous honor," Holmgren said. "I don't have enough words to express how it feels. I don't have the words other than to say that I'm honored."
It will be a homecoming for Holmgren, 58, who was born on the other side of the Mississippi River in St. Paul.
Holmgren played baseball, football and hockey growing up, and said baseball was his favorite sport. Hockey, however, earned him a scholarship to the University of Minnesota.
He had 10 goals, 31 points and 108 penalty minutes in 37 games as a freshman in 1974-75, and that was enough to earn a contract offer from the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the World Hockey Association, which had acquired his rights. Holmgren wasn't sure about leaving school after one season but his college coach, Herb Brooks, helped him make his decision.
"He knew the contract offer that I had," Holmgren said. "And he said in a nice way, 'Don't let the door hit you in the [rear end] on the way out.'"
Holmgren signed and moved on to professional hockey. He started the 1975-76 season with the Johnstown Jets of the North American Hockey League and was around during the filming of "Slap Shot." Holmgren wasn't in the movie but some of his teammates were.
"Bruce Boudreau was my roommate, Dave Hanson was my roommate, guys that were legendary in the movie," he said. "Dave more than Bruce. It was pretty cool."
Holmgren was in Johnstown for a month when he was recalled to Minnesota. But when the team folded Holmgren signed with the Philadelphia Flyers, who had selected him in the sixth round (No. 108) of the 1975 NHL Draft. The Flyers assigned him to their American Hockey League team, the Richmond Robins. After eight points in six games Holmgren was promoted to the NHL.
His first game, March 25, 1976 against the New York Rangers, nearly was his last. The next day in Boston, assistant coach Barry Ashbee and captain Bobby Clarke noticed Holmgren's eye was badly swollen and took him to a hospital. Doctors found an injury to Holmgren's cornea that was causing fluid to leak into his eye. His vision was in jeopardy and emergency surgery was performed.
During the procedure Holmgren had a severe allergic reaction to the anesthetic.
"I just know what they told me," Holmgren said. "My heart stopped a couple times. They had to get the [defibrillator] paddles out. When I came out of the recovery room my dad told me that. He said we almost lost you. I said, 'What's he talking about?'"
Holmgren survived but sat out the remainder of the season. There were no lasting issues from his eye injury or his near-fatal reaction to the anesthetic, and he went on to play nine seasons with the Flyers and Minnesota North Stars. In 527 NHL games he had 144 goals, 323 points and 1,684 penalty minutes.
"A prototypical power winger of his day who was basically fearless," said Mike Milbury, a frequent opponent. "He was a big guy and he was always willing to engage, whether it was going to the front of the net to battle for turf, or if it came to it, fighting. … He was a good, smart player who took his skills and toughness and made himself a player that people had to be aware of."
Holmgren's best season was 1979-80 with the Flyers, when he had 30 goals, 65 points and 267 penalty minutes, third-most in the League. Philadelphia advanced to the Stanley Cup Final against the New York Islanders, and Holmgren made history in Game 2. His goal at 7:22 of the first period started a four-goal run for Philadelphia. He scored again in the second period, and capped his night with a goal early in the third as the Flyers won 8-3.
The hat trick was the first in the Stanley Cup Final by a U.S.-born player.
"I guess it's kind of cool," Holmgren said. "You hear it every once in a while as a trivia question. I'm sure not too many people are guessing me; in fact probably nobody. All the American-born players that played in the Stanley Cup Final, Joey Mullen, Mike Modano, John LeClair, Tony Amonte, Jeremy Roenick, there's a lot of great players. I guess somebody had to be first."
Late in the 1983-84 season the Flyers traded Holmgren to the North Stars, allowing him to finish his playing career at home. Injuries limited him to 27 games in parts of two seasons and he retired after the 1984-85 season.
"I was devastated when I was traded, but to go to the North Stars and back home was beneficial as I think back on it," Holmgren said. "I had a lot of family there, which helped. I wasn't in very good shape then, my one shoulder wasn't very good and I didn't play a lot of games. I regret that."
Holmgren was back in Philadelphia the following season as an assistant coach on Mike Keenan's staff.
"It was an eye-opening experience," Holmgren said. "I spent a lot of time with [assistant coach] E.J. McGuire. I just followed him around that first year or two just to get the hang of it. Mike treated me really well. We had really good success."
After three seasons as an assistant, Holmgren replaced Keenan in 1988. He led the Flyers to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in his first season, but after missing the playoffs the next two seasons, he was fired 24 games into the 1991-92 season.
He spent the next four seasons as coach and general manager with the Hartford Whalers but was fired as coach 12 games into the 1995-96 season.
He scouted and worked as an assistant coach for the United States at the 1996 World Cup, and after the tournament Clarke brought Holmgren back to the Flyers as director of professional scouting. In 1999, Holmgren was promoted to assistant general manager, where most of his work involved overseeing the amateur scouting department. Among the players Holmgren helped scout and draft for the Flyers were Simon Gagne, Justin Williams, Patrick Sharp, Dennis Seidenberg, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards and Claude Giroux.
Holmgren replaced Clarke as GM when Clarke retired early in the 2006-07 season. He inherited a team that fell to 30th in the League standings but earned the confidence of upper management that he could straighten things out quickly.
"Paul was doing such a good job," said Peter Luukko, then the Flyers president. "Even though we were losing at the time you could see we were getting better. He stabilized the shop, was running a very professional organization, and he made a series of moves that turned out very good."
Among those moves were acquiring the rights to impending free agents Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell from the Nashville Predators in June 2007, the first time such a thing had been done since the 2004-05 labor stoppage. Then on the first day of free agency in 2007 he signed each to new contracts, added free agent center Daniel Briere, and acquired forward Joffrey Lupul and defenseman Jason Smith from the Edmonton Oilers.
The moves worked so well the Flyers advanced to the Eastern Conference Final in 2008 and the Stanley Cup Final in 2010.
Holmgren also has helped USA Hockey in various roles over the years. In addition to his work with the 1996 U.S. World Cup team, he was the assistant general manager for the U.S. team at the 2006 Turin Olympics, and he's been a member of the U.S. Men's National Team Advisory Group since 2009.
"To be able to work with the teams, whether it's the Olympics or the World Cup, helping put teams together, it's been another real positive experience for me," Holmgren said. "I'm proud that I'm an American and I'm proud that I'm an American that has been involved in the NHL for a number of years."
And USA Hockey has reaped the benefits of having Holmgren heavily involved.
"He had such a huge respect factor from the players that I think was really recognized by the fellow managers," USA Hockey assistant executive director Jim Johansson said. "There was always honesty, integrity, directness, but in a way that took in the whole big picture. The great part about him is he has an opinion and he'll give you his opinion, even if that's opposite of other guys. … We got input from all the guys, but a lot of guys said, 'I wonder where [Holmgren] is on this guy?' It was always great to hear what he thought about the players."
In June 2014 the Flyers promoted Holmgren to president, where he oversees all facets of the organization.
"I think there's many, many ways we can improve as a team from the business side," Holmgren said. " … I like the business side and there is more I would like to learn about the game from that side."
He'll take a break from those duties for a few days in December to accept the Lester Patrick Award. He's the sixth member of the organization to win it, following Clarke (1980), Ed Snider (1980), Fred Shero (1980), Keith Allen (1988) and Bud Poile (1989).
For Holmgren, joining his close friend (Clarke), his boss for more than two decades (Snider), his first NHL coach (Shero) and the GM who drafted him (Allen) makes winning the award that much more meaningful.
"The bar that they've all set, from Mr. Snider to Keith Allen to Clarkie to Freddie, it's pretty high here in Philly," Holmgren said. "[Joining them] is awesome."