COSTA MESA, Calif. – It came as no surprise to Ken Holland that “his right-hand man” for the last 15 years was setting a new course for his NHL journey.
For the last few years Holland has fielded numerous calls from NHL suitors looking to name Jim Nill as their next general manager. But Monday, Nill, who served as a scout and assistant general manager to Holland, was introduced as the Dallas Stars’ new GM.
“It’s a big loss, because I think he’s one of the best, if not the best assistant general managers in the business. Now he’s a general manager,” Holland said. “He’s paid his dues. He’s deserving of being a general manager in the National Hockey League and he’s ready.”
Nill was the lead architect for the Red Wings’ annual amateur draft as well as their player development program in Grand Rapids.
“We didn’t want to lose him, but he’s given us 20 years of incredible service,” Holland said. “To me this is what life is all about. We want to win and either there is a bigger role here or you let people go elsewhere. Steve Yzerman obviously did the same thing, now Jim Nill. Then you think about Paul MacLean leaving and Todd McLellan leaving. When you have people leaving your team and going elsewhere, to me, that’s why we’ve been able to do what we’ve done. We’ve had really good people in their positions and other teams have realized that they want them to have bigger roles with their team.”
Hired in 1994, Nill has played a crucial role in helping the Red Wings maintain a level of excellence that has resulted in 22 straight trips to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
A former NHL player, Nill has worked his way up the management ladder for the last 19 years. He has been a brilliant evaluator of talent from the North American pro leagues to junior hockey and Europe. He was also an important part of a Red Wings organization that has made the playoffs for 22 straight seasons and has won four Stanley Cups in that span.
He was an integral part of preparing Detroit's draft day selections, which weren’t always easy, considering the Red Wings have only had one top 20 pick since 1992. The Wings’ amateur scouting team, led by Nill, found talent in late rounds, guys like Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Tomas Holmstrom, Valtteri Filppula Johan Franzen, Jonathan Ericsson, Darren Helm, Joakim Andersson, and Gustav Nyquist. All were selected in the third-round or later.
“He became assistant GM in ’97 and was overseeing the amateur draft along with Joe McDonnell and Hakan Andersson, they’re the three key decision-makers,” Holland said. “Ultimately the success of any team has to start on draft day and he’s done a tremendous job of drafting.
“Anytime you’re a manager, your assistant general manager is your right-hand man involved in every decision, putting his opinion in, doing his leg-work. He’s negotiated entry-level contracts, he’s overseen Grand Rapids.”
However, Nill put in many more hours this year in Grand Rapids than he had in the past.
“Grand Rapids missed the playoffs in three of the last four years,” Holland said. “We thought it was important for player development to get Grand Rapids back into the playoffs every year, so Jimmy’s time and efforts this year were much more into G.R.”
Nill acknowledge that there were a few different offers from NHL clubs, like Montreal, last year. But nothing seemed to fit, like the Stars’ offer, Nill said.
“I am honored and very excited at this opportunity to be the Dallas Stars general manager and I want to thank (owner) Tom Gaglardi and (president) Jim Lites for believing that I am the right person for this job” Nill told the Stars’ official team website. “There have been a few other openings out there that have been presented to me in the past, but I was waiting for the right one to take, and coming to Dallas was that right one. I am eager to get started building on the pieces that already exist and helping return this team to the playoffs”
He will also be sorely missed in the community where he helped with humanitarian efforts through his church, partnering with such groups as Urban Harvest Ministries to host street hockey games in the city. He also ran his first marathon last fall, as a tribute to his wife, Bekki, who has been battling cancer. He finished the Chicago Marathon, and in doing so was part of a Christian network of runners who raised $500,000 in pledges to deliver aid to communities in Africa.
Detroit’s loss is definitely Dallas’s gain. Nill knows plenty of the folks that he’ll be working with in the Stars’ front office personnel, including former colleagues in the Red Wings’ organization like Mike Modano, who played his final NHL season in Detroit, and Curt Fraser, who coached at Grand Rapids prior to taking an assistant coaching position with the Stars last season. Modano is an executive advisor and alternate governor for the Stars.
Nill, who turned 55 on April 11, joined the Red Wings’ front office in 1994 following three years with the Ottawa Senators. With the Senators, he was an amateur and pro scout.
Prior to that Nill enjoyed a playing career that spanned nine seasons as a right wing with Boston, Vancouver, St. Louis, Winnipeg, and finally Detroit. He spent his final 2 ½ NHL seasons with the Red Wings. He produced 58 goals, 87 assists and 854 penalty minutes in 524 NHL games. Nill later went to Adirondack as a player/coach, retiring as a player after the 1990-91 season.
A native of Hanna, Alberta, Nill played three seasons with the WHL’s Medicine Hat Tigers, one year at the University of Calgary and was a member of the Canadian National team that played in the 1980 Olympic Games at Lake Placid.
Holland said that a successor for Nill’s position will be named soon.
“Internally, we have a lot of good people,” Holland said, “who are awaiting their opportunity.”
Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @Bill_Roose
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