DeKeyser to Detroit: Soooo… what took so long?

Hockey super agent Don Meehan

Newport Sports is the top hockey player agency in the world, and its office in Mississauga, Ontario, has been the scene of many FBI-like free agent standoffs in recent years.

Brad Richards ran negotiations out of Newport’s office two summers ago.

Last summer, reporters crowded the sidewalk as GMs and other executives filed in to woo Zach Parise.

This week, it was Danny DeKeyser’s turn to bunker down and let his agents work over some of the most esteemed men in hockey and, in the process, commence a week of foreplay that climaxed Friday with the announcement that DeKeyser – as everyone expected – has signed a two-year deal with the Detroit Red Wings.

Which begs many questions:

- Why let the Maple Leafs wine and dine him at the Air Canada Centre earlier this week?
– Why force Nashville head coach Barry Trotz to skip practice with 15 games left and his team struggling for a playoff berth to fly north with Predators brass?
– Why take the calls from Edmonton’s owner, head coach and brightest young defenseman?
– Why allow Flyers owner Ed Snider and his closest hockey advisors to charter a jet to Ontario for a face-to-face meeting?
– Why do any of that if, all along, DeKeyser knew he wanted to be a Red Wing?

Trades and free agent deals are like live coverage of murders the way they play out in the media these days. There’s the initial call or hint something is up. There’s the confirmation that something has happened or is in the works. Then the people who are actually involved shut up while the media stands outside and swirls rumors and analysis while it waits for the blinds to raise and the player to walk out the front door, new contract in pocket.

It’s kind of comical, really.

Still, what took DeKeyser so long?

Like these crime sprees, we likely won’t find out the blow-by-blow recap for a while, if ever. Agents and GMs and players will only talk so much, even after a deal is consummated. After all, they’re always working with the next deal in mind.

Which, to me, probably explains why this took so long.

Don Meehan and Ed Ward and the entire Newport team works for Danny DeKeyser. But they also work for Zach Parise. And dozens of other hockey players at varying stages of their careers and in various contract situations.

There wasn’t much they could negotiate for DeKeyser – the money was the same wherever he signed. And while they could likely negotiate for other things (spot on the roster, depth in the organization, playing time, perhaps even other intangibles), it’s likely DeKeyser’s agents used their fresh faced client for the air time it got them with Ken Holland and Kevin Lowe and Doug Armstrong and a slew of other big fish execs.

“Hey, Doug, while I have you … about that other deal…”

This is not to imply that Meehan or Ward or any other Newport reps acted without integrity. That’s how this business works. And, sure, it’s possible an entirely different reason held this up.

Maybe DeKeyser really wasn’t sure about Detroit. Maybe the nice guy in him wanted to give each of these teams a fair shot. Maybe the fear in him warned to slow down and be cautious with every offer, regardless of how airtight it seemed.

Maybe.

But you can bet this entire thing was orchestrated and played out exactly as the men who represent DeKeyser wanted it. Like a real estate deal or any other negotiation, silence, due diligence and a little gamesmanship – for sport – trump time.

Even if it drives the Twittersphere nuts.

In motion

The sleek, sterile chairs of a corporate Toronto office.

Men in tailored suits flanking a boy in his, the collar loose.

Across the table, Sharks and Predators.

Wings and Hawks.

With promises of brightest tomorrow, they stalk.

Since when has anything about Jeff Blashill’s career been normal?

Courtesy MLive.com

Take Paul MacLean, for example.

Paul MacLean played 719 NHL games.  He then coached an International Hockey League team for three years before he got his first crack as an NHL assistant in 1996 — a decade and a half after he started his pro hockey career.

Oh, but wait.

A year later, in 1997, MacLean was back in the IHL for three more years as a head coach, followed by two in the UHL before he finally returned to the NHL for good as an assistant in 2002.  Now, he’s head coach of the Ottawa Senators.

Got that?

A guy who played more than 700 NHL games had to coach eight seasons of minor league hockey, then spend eight more as an NHL assistant before he landed his first NHL head coaching job.

OK, close your eyes for a few seconds.  Now, open them and re-read the news that Jeff Blashill was named head coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins.

*

Extraordinarily talented people do unordinary things.

Like, run a college hockey team for one season … and then get hired by the Detroit Red Wings.

Jeff Blashill is not on a normal coaching career track.

Which is why his move to Grand Rapids after one season in Detroit is anything but a demotion:

  • He’s 38 years-old and, aside from last season in Detroit, he has zero pro experience. Zero. Not even as coach of a team called the Quad City Mallards (which MacLean was).
  • This is about career development for Blashill.  Was it unbelievable that Mike Babcock called, seemingly out of nowhere, and offered him a job last summer?  Absolutely.  For many of us, that would be the career mountaintop.
  • But not for Blashill. His goal is to be an NHL head coach. A head job in the AHL is an entirely normal step in the process.  And, lately, it’s become one of the fastest routes to an NHL bench.  Look at Tampa.  Look at Dallas.  Look at Pittsburgh.  For Blashill, coaching the Griffins is the best way to coach the Red Wings.  Or, if they’re smart, the Blackhawks.

This guy isn’t normal.  Which is why it won’t be a surprise when there’s another press conference in Detroit or Chicago or somewhere else in the next few years.

Editor’s note

Actually playing hockey is the only thing that can keep this blog from writing about it, and that’s what we did this weekend at the MLK Day-inspired “I Had a Dream” tournament in Chicago.

We had a blast with friends and a few former Blackhawks at Johnny’s Ice House downtown, despite the fact our “Red Wings” finished dead-last at 0-3-1 and yours truly earned a five-minute major for high-sticking a guy in the mouth.  (And, I must say, it was great timing and a colorful touch on that guy’s part that he just happened to have one of those fake Hollywood blood capsules in his mouth.  Man, those things really gush!)

Thankfully, it wasn’t a former Blackhawk.  Had it been, this post would be brought to you by Rush Memorial Hospital.

A cool sidebar: Greg Holland, son of Red Wings GM Ken Holland, played goal for the “Bruins” — and beat us Saturday to put his team in today’s bronze medal game.  Uh, Greg, did you not notice the logo on our chests?  Where’s the love?

So, anyway, four games in three days and a late return to Kalamazoo on Saturday means no post about the Notre Dame games this weekend.

Then again, a sweep of the country’s third-ranked team sort of speaks for itself, doesn’t it?

But if you were there, please share your thoughts, opinions and impressions in the comments section.

And don’t forget your mouthguard.

Broncos bounce No. 2 Notre Dame in front of, like, the entire NHL

Detroit's Ken Holland and Jim Nill were among the dozens of hockey executives in attendance at Lawson Arena on Tuesday.

Western Michigan 3, Notre Dame 2 F/SO*
  • With 8:37 remaining in the first period and his team down 1-0, WMU coach Andy Murray called his only timeout.  Notre Dame, second-ranked and unbeaten in nine games, had already kicked the Broncos over the cliff with Austin Wuthric’s early goal.  Now, things were about to get ugly.  Like maniacal, giggling villains, the Irish were prying WMU’s cold, almost-dead fingers off the rocky ledge … until Murray pressed pause.
  • We don’t know what he said during the timeout, but his face turned a shade of red only seen on a former NHL coach whose team is about to get boat raced in front of Toronto’s Brian Burke and Detroit’s Ken Holland, the NHL’s two most powerful general managers, and a raft full of their scouting peers.
  • Whatever Murray said, though, it worked: Western escaped the first period with no further damage, then tied the game early in the second on defenseman Dennis Brown’s ripper from the point.  1-1.  Game on.
  • Brown also converted in the shootout on a Marty St. Louis-style skate/spray/stop/tap-in move that borders on illegal, at least in the NHL. Out of habit, the GMs still in attendance (Burke had already headed for the airport) phoned Toronto to complain … until they remembered it was Dennis Brown.
  • This was a game of waves: Notre Dame controlled the first period with insane speed and a strength on the puck rarely seen so deep throughout a lineup.  Western counter-punched in the second period and, although the shots were even (6-6), battled in all areas of the rink to hold off the bigger, faster Irish.
  • Then the true momentum shift: WMU’s J.J. Crew stuffed home a rebound to make it 2-1 midway through the period.  A Notre Dame defender shoved Crew as the puck went in and the senior forward flew through the air parallel to the ice in a scene reminiscent of the famous Bobby Orr goal/flying photo after his 1970 Stanley Cup-clinching tally.  (We couldn’t tell if Crew got up and yelled “WHO DOES NUMBER TWO WORK FOR?” in the Irish players’ faces.)

    Boston's Bobby Orr sails through the air after clinching the 1970 Stanley Cup

  • The third period was straight up wild.  ND’s defense left the barn door banging in the breeze all period, which triggered multiple WMU odd-man rushes … that the Broncos failed to convert.  They easily could have won the game in regulation had they a) shot the puck instead of over-passing it; and b) actually hit the net when they pulled the trigger.
  • WMU’s freshman goaltender, Frank Slubowski, should undoubtedly be the team’s number-one.  He made a series of stops in the third period that kept momentum on WMU’s side, including an insane pad-stacking robbery of a sure ND goal with about seven minutes left.  The Irish eventually tied the game on that possession, but the save showed Slubowski clearly is not intimidated.  He was aggressive and challenged shooters all night, yet played with an underlying, steadying calm that no doubt won this game.  He was named first-star.
  • Another seminal moment: WMU’s kill of a 4-on-3 power play in the third period, during which Slubowski looked like he had eight legs. With just a few seconds left on ND’s advantage, all three WMU penalty killers threw themselves into traffic in the crease to keep the puck out of the net. When they finally fired the puck down the ice to safety as penalty time expired, the crowd rose to its feet and let out a roar usually reserved for goals (or, if you’re the Lunatics, Puck Boy pizza pucks).
  • Standing on the concourse an hour before game time was like standing on a sidewalk outside of a Toronto hotel during an NHL Board of Governors meeting.  There was Burke, complete with his red face, tie undone and draped around his neck like a scarf, briefcase on his shoulder, “Movember” ‘stache that he said in a radio interview makes him look like Wilfred Brimley or Captain Kangaroo (he’s right); Flames GM Jay Feaster kept to himself over in section 8; then there were the Red Wings. As in, all of them: Holland, assistant general manager Jim Nill, Kris Draper, Chris Chelios and Director of Player Development Jiri Fischer.

    Brian Burke

  • Everyone was there to scout WMU defenseman Danny DeKeyser (and a few Notre Dame players), although at this point it’s not so much about scouting as it is wooing.  Word is DeKeyser wants to be a Wing, which probably explains why Holland brought everybody and his brother to Kalamazoo.  It’s all about closing the sale. (Hey, where was Blash?)
  • And if you’re DeKeyser, why NOT Detroit?  The history.  The success.  It’s your hometown.  Nick Lidstrom will be around to mentor you, perhaps while still cranking power play slappers from the point at 55 years-old.  Yeah, Tampa is attractive and Steve Yzerman has personally visited, too, but – hey – Stevie Y’s going to end up in Detroit, anyway, once Holland moves to his golf cart, right?
  • Holland and Nill stood along the concourse railing while, eight rows below them, Draper watched Chelios feed his addictions to sunflower seeds and electronic handheld devices.  Seriously, Chelios had his face buried in his iPad the entire game, looking up only to spit shells into an empty water bottle. Draper watched parts of the game, but the former Red Wing greats looked more like two band kids whose parents dragged them to the game.  You half expected Holland to march down there, grab them by their collars and growl, “Boys, I’m NOT going to tell you again…”
  • Finally, get used to series splits in the the CCHA. “It’s so competitive top to bottom this year,” Nill said during the second intermission, shaking his head. “It’s really unbelievable.”  The standings prove it: Ohio State (Ohio State?) is in first-place by virtue of a nine-game unbeaten streak, yet the Buckeyes have lost to Michigan State and Notre Dame this year.  Michigan is Michigan — always tough — yet struggling Miami swept the Wolverines last weekend.  Seven points separate Western and Ohio State.
  • So, yeah, buckle up.  This isn’t going to be as easy as everyone thought when the Broncos were ranked fourth.

* My friend Jamie Weir Baldwin at Michigan State reminded me that the CCHA technically counts last night’s game as a tie.  Which is dumb.

Burke among NHL GMs rumored to be in Kalamazoo Nov. 22

Toronto's Brian Burke is among the GMs hot on defenseman Danny DeKeyser's trail.

Update: Dallas Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk will be bird-doggin’ from the Lawson press box when WMU and Michigan State do battle tonight.

National Hockey League general managers meet next week in Toronto, where they will likely debate division re-alignment, head shots and that staring competition between Tampa and Philly the other night.

Really, though, GMs should hold their meeting at Lawson Arena on Nov. 22, since so many of them will be there for a rare Tuesday night tilt against Notre Dame.

Why?

Broncos’ sophomore defenseman Danny DeKeyser.

Courtesy: Western Herald

Word has it six to eight NHL GMs will be on the Lawson concourse that night, including Toronto’s Brian Burke and Calgary’s Jay Feaster.

It’s one thing for scouts or hockey operations personnel to follow a kid all over hell to places like Schenectady and Marquette.  That’s their job.  It’s entirely something else – in a word: serious – when the GM physically shows up.

Like the time, back in 2008, when Oilers GM Kevin Lowe popped up in Big Rapids on a Saturday night during a blizzard to watch a playoff game between the Broncos and Ferris State.

Aren’t you supposed to be on Hockey Night in Canada tonight? was one of my many questions for him.  (Out of respect, I did not ask who he was there to see.)

Anyway, DeKeyser is huge (6-3, but needs to add girth) and hockey smart with soft hands.  Watching him skate is a scrumptious experience – he’s smooth and covers a lot of ice with seemingly minimal effort.  He’s also gritty: he led the team in blocked shots last year.

So far this year, he’s plus-five with five points (two power-play goals) in nine games and logs a ton of ice time, most notably last Friday’s 3-2 victory in Ann Arbor when he was on the ice for what seemed like the entire third period as the Michigan Wolverines crashed ashore in waves.

DeKeyser is also 21 years-old, which means he’s not draft-eligible.  Which means it’s a lot easier for NHL clubs to haggle for his services.

It explains why Red Wings general manager Ken Holland invited DeKeyser to the team’s prospects camp in Traverse City this summer – and why Holland, Mike Babcock, Jeff Blashill and Kris Draper were in Ann Arbor last Friday night to watch him.

It also explains why Lightning GM Steve Yzerman took time out of his busy schedule as “Hockey’s new God” to watch practice, speak to the team and pose for Facebook gold photo ops in Kalamazoo a few weeks ago – and why he was in Ann Arbor again last Saturday.  (Let’s not also forget defenseman Luke Witkowski, pretty good in his own right, is also Tampa draft property.)

So Detroit and Tampa are angling hard for DeKeyser, with the Flames also having made multiple visits this season.

And this is where coach Andy Murray gets a taste of the college game.  How does he convince DeKeyser to stay for a third year?