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A Return To St. Paul

Flyers GM has deep roots in the state of Minnesota

Wednesday, 06.22.2011 / 2:05 PM ET / News
By Bill Fleischman  - philadelphiaflyers.com
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A Return To St. Paul
Paul Holmgren won’t need directions around St. Paul, Minn., when the NHL entry Draft is held Friday at the Xcel Center. The Flyers general manager grew up in St. Paul in the 1960s.

It won’t surprise those who know Holmgren now, and those who knew him as a Flyers player and coach, that his roots are solid Americana. Yes, like thousands of Canadian kids to the north, Holmgren and his neighborhood friends skated on an artificial pond.

“My Dad owned the lot next door,” Holmgren recalled before leaving for the draft. “It was about 40 X 100 feet. In the summertime it was a big garden and in the wintertime it was a rink that everybody on the block skated on.”

There also was an outdoor rink at a playground a few blocks away in east St. Paul.
Holmgren played for the University of Minnesota in 1974-75.

Holmgren, 51, describes his neighborhood as a community occupied by “hard working, down-to-earth people. We walked to school. Every neighborhood had a playground with a baseball diamond, a football field and an outdoor arena. In the wintertime, because the roads would get so icy, we would literally skate over there, play hockey and skate back for dinner.”

Holmgren and his brother Mark were only born 15 month apart so they played on many teams together. Sadly, Mark died when he was 49. Holmgren’s two other siblings, Dave and Janice, also are deceased. Diabetes took Mark and Dave when he was only 23. Janice died of cancer when she was 36. I’ve known Holmgren since he was a Flyers player and wasn’t aware of his family tragedies until now.

The only relatives Holmgren has left in Minnesota are his older children and grandchildren, and his sister’s daughters.

Holmgren’s father Ed worked for the U.S. Post Office on a mail train that went from the Twin Cities into North Dakota and back. “He was gone quite a bit, four-five-six days at a time” Holmgren said. “He also owned a painting business in the summertime, mostly outdoor stuff. He was hard working guy. He was a big fisherman: he used to take us fishing a lot.”
Holmgren occasionally worked as a painter with his father. “But he wouldn’t let me go up on the ladder,” he said, smiling.

After spending one year at the University of Minnesota, playing for legendary coach Herb Brooks, Holmgren signed with the Minnesota Fighting Saints of the World Hockey Association.

“The opportunity arose after my freshman year and I went to see Herb,” Holmgren recalled. “I said `These are my options; I’m not sure what to do.’ He basically said `Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.’ He knew it was chance for me to do what I really liked doing, and they were going to pay me.”

Holmgren said he remained fairly close to Brooks until he died in 2003 at age 66. Brooks later coached the United States “Miracle on Ice” Olympic team in 1980 and in the NHL.

The Saints sent Holmgren to Johnstown, Pa., to gain minor-league experience. Current Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau and Dave Hanson, one of the notorious battling Hanson brothers, were roommates. “We lived in a big house,” Holmgren said. “It had a big kitchen and we each had our own bedroom. We each paid about $40 a month. It was a nice little town. The fans were great: they loved hockey.”

Holmgren has been GM of the Flyers since 2006 as Interrim GM, before becoming full time GM in 2007.
Holmgren only played in Johnstown about one month before he was called up to the Fighting Saints. Many years later, when Holmgren was scouting for the Flyers, he was sent to Johnstown. “I walked into the arena and people recognized me from playing there,” he said. Laughing appreciatively, Holmgren said, “They still had the same fans from 30 years before.”
When Holmgren put Johnstown in his rear-view mirror, preparations were under way to film the classic “Slapshot” movie with Paul Newman. Holmgren said several Jets teammates were in the movie.

The WHA Saints went down fighting at the end of the season. With the Saints out of business Holmgren was signed by Flyers general manager Keith Allen. After playing for Richmond (Va.) in the American Hockey League, Holmgren joined the Flyers in 1975. His career continued with the Flyers until 1984 when he was traded to the NHL’s Minnesota North Stars.

Holmgren later became the first former Flyers player to coach the team (1988-92). He also coached the Hartford Whalers, where Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger made his NHL debut. Since 2007 Holmgren has been the Flyers general manager.

Prior to the Entry Draft, Holmgren has been busy trying to sign goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. In their pursuit of a high-level experienced goalie to help them win a long overdue Stanley Cup the Flyers are trying to fit a multi-million dollar contract for Bryzgalov under the salary cap.

Holmgren indicated progress has been made in negotiations with Bryzgalov. From all media accounts the Russian goalie is interested in playing for the Flyers.

Unless Holmgren makes a deal to move up, the Flyers will not have a selection in the Entry Draft until the third round (No. 84). The effort to win the Cup now has cost the Flyers several first-round draft choices. Luca Sbisa, in 2008, was the Flyers’ last first-round selection. He was traded to Anaheim for Pronger.

“The fact that we don’t have any second round picks is not an ideal position,” Holmgren said. “We haven’t had one for a while so we are looking around at things right now. Next year we are missing a couple already.  Obviously we can’t continue to do that. We can’t keep giving them (high picks) up.”

Holmgren’s return to St. Paul is significant on many fronts. He hopes to have Bryzgalov signed. He’s also working to obtain higher draft choices while bringing back future Flyers from the Entry Draft. And the St. Paul native plans to find time to spend with relatives. For a few moments at least, he’ll also revive pleasant memories of growing up in St. Paul.




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