A Brighter Future
Griffins general manager Shawn Horcoff is confident that the Red Wings are developing a solid foundation for the organization.
Story by Mark Newman / Photo by Dave Reginek
As the assistant general manager for the Red Wings and general manager of the Griffins, Shawn Horcoff has the same singular focus as everyone else in the organization.
“We’re all in this for the same reason — we all want to win the Stanley Cup,” he said. “The only way it happens is through hard work. It’s not just one person. You need everyone in the organization pulling in the same direction and doing everything they possibly can to get the most out of their job because there are so many areas that go into building a championship team.”
Horcoff was promoted to assistant GM for Detroit in February 2022 when Pat Verbeek left the organization to become the GM of the Anaheim Ducks. Horcoff had previously served as the Red Wings’ director of player development since 2016.
Although he never lifted hockey’s hallowed chalice during a 15-year NHL playing career, Horcoff reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2006 as a member of the Edmonton Oilers, with whom he played 12 seasons, including the last three as captain.
The Oilers lost Game 7 of the Final to the Carolina Hurricanes, whose roster included center Kevyn Adams. The current GM of the Buffalo Sabres had been a rookie on the very first Griffins team back in 1996-97.
Horcoff has no interest in coming close again. Next time, he wants to be able to win it all.
Not surprisingly, his own experience is what defines his perspective on what it takes to develop winning hockey players.
A graduate of the Michigan State University hockey program under the legendary Ron Mason, Horcoff was selected in the fourth round of the 1998 NHL Entry Draft (99th overall) before going on to play 1,008 NHL games with Edmonton, Dallas and Anaheim.
“At the beginning of my career, the whole development process was practically non-existent,” he recalled. “I got drafted by Edmonton after my sophomore year at Michigan State. I might have talked to them a few times. I know they had a scout at my last tournament game during my senior year, but there was no real (development) programming – nothing at all. That’s not Edmonton’s fault. No one did it back then. That’s just the way it was.”
Horcoff retired after the 2015-16 season. While working out with Kris Draper during the summer that followed, he was offered the opportunity to meet then-assistant GM Ryan Martin and was ultimately invited to join the Red Wings organization under then-general manager Ken Holland.
“By the time I took over, we had kids who had skating coaches and full-time training coaches, but not everyone had access to the same tools and facilities,” he said. ”When I became director of player development, I took the approach of ‘What would I have wanted when I was young?’ I didn’t have a lot of facilities when I was growing up.”
It was at MSU where Horcoff began his own development process. He has nothing but fond memories of his time with the Spartans, playing four seasons under Mason, who was the winningest coach in college hockey history at the time of his retirement in 2002.
“He was like my development coach, to tell you the truth. He was the reason that I chose Michigan State,” Horcoff said. “I was from western Canada and this was pre-internet, so while you knew who some of the best teams were, you didn’t have access to all the information that you do now to do your homework.
“For me, it was a matter of which teams were putting the most players into the NHL. At the time, it was Ron Mason and it wasn’t even close. He was known for being a hard coach but also as someone who put players right into the NHL.
“He was great for me. He was the first coach who brought defense to my attention and just how important it was. We put a lot of focus on that – the ability to defend and be reliable in your own end. It helped me stay in the league longer as my career progressed. I stayed close with him after I made the NHL and, though he’s no longer with us [Mason died in 2016 at age 76], I owe him a lot.”
Horcoff blossomed during his four years (1996-2000) at Michigan State. As a senior, he posted career-highs in goals, assists and points, tallying 65 points (14-51— 65) in 42 games when he was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given annually to the top player in college hockey.
“I was really small coming into college. I wasn’t very big,” he said. “I started college at about 5-foot-11, maybe 165 pounds, and I wasn’t able to do physically what I wanted to do. So I spent my summers there every year.
“I would go home for a couple of weeks but I would come back and work in the facilities at Michigan State, which were incredible and ahead of their time. It took some time – it wasn’t a one- or two-year process – but it did wonders for me physically. By my senior year, I was hitting my stride.
“I remember my jump to college hockey was harder than my jump to the NHL. In terms of being physically ready, it wasn’t even close. When I left college, I was 6-foot-1, 200 pounds, and I was ready to physically compete with the guys in the NHL.”
Horcoff started his pro career with the Hamilton Bulldogs in the AHL, where he played for less than two months before being recalled to Edmonton.
“Every team had their coaching staff, but that was about it,” he recalled. “There was no development staff. Essentially they said, ‘You’re going down to Hamilton and you’re going to be there until you’re good enough to be called up. Just go down and be the best possible player that you can be.’
“Now things are a little bit different. Every organization has skating and strength coaches and all the tools necessary. I don’t think it’s any secret that the American Hockey League is a stepping stone. It’s the place where all the NHL teams put their top prospects and help them develop into NHL players.”
The AHL represents a major leap for all young players, whether they’re coming from juniors, college hockey, or any of the European leagues.
“It’s a really difficult league,” Horcoff said. “More often than not, players think it’s going to be easy. They think they’re going to step in there and succeed. The top draft picks, especially, think they’re going to dominate and that they’re only going to be here for a quick stop on the way to their spot in the NHL where they belong.
“That kind of thinking is very universal. It’s a common mindset among all the players, and then they get here and they realize it’s legit. Every single player who’s in the AHL – it doesn’t matter how old they are, even guys in their early 30s – still thinks they have a chance of making it in the NHL. Although the numbers may be low, [late breakthroughs do] happen now and then.
“The fact is you can make a very good living in the American Hockey League.”
Although he is now charged with overseeing the big picture regarding Red Wings prospects, Horcoff talks regularly with Dan Cleary, who oversees the program in North America, and Niklas Kronwall, who is in charge of the European player development.
“Our goal as an organization is to make sure that we don’t wish that we would have done this or done that for a player and that maybe things might have turned out differently as a result,” he said. “We want to make sure that we have everything covered and that these players have everything imaginable.
“The NHL is a very hard league to make and you don’t bat a thousand with every draft pick and every free agent that you sign. We want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to give these kids all the tools necessary to get the absolute most out of their abilities.”
When it comes to making it in the NHL, a player’s position in the draft is of little consequence. The annals of hockey are filled with just as many first-round picks who were a bust as those unheralded players who were able to forge long careers in the NHL.
Horcoff played for two examples of the latter.
Craig MacTavish, the last NHL player to be allowed to play without a helmet, was Horcoff’s head coach in Edmonton for eight seasons. Selected in the ninth round of the 1978 NHL Entry Draft, MacTavish ended up playing 1,093 NHL games, more than any other player in the entire draft. Pat Quinn, MacTavish’s successor behind the Oilers’ bench, was never even drafted but played 606 games in the NHL.
“We tell the kids all the time that the best thing about pro hockey is there’s no politics – the best players make it,” Horcoff said. “Truthfully, the higher picks get a little better opportunity, a few more kicks at the can, but not many.
“We’re in the business of winning hockey games and you look at the best players in your organization to accomplish that. What we want to create is good, healthy competition among everyone, which forces everyone to play harder and play better to drive each other to improve their overall game. I think the kids respond well to that challenge. They want to know if they come in and play well, they will get rewarded.”
Horcoff is a firm believer that every team needs good veterans to mentor the younger players in the organization. Experience can be a team’s best ally as far as the development process is concerned.
“When our young prospects come in, we like to surround them with good, solid veterans,” Horcoff said. “Brian Lashoff is our captain in Grand Rapids and he’s a perfect example of what a really good veteran can do. We’re lucky to have a guy like him down there. There’s a reason that he’s the captain, and we’re always trying to add more guys like him that we can spread through the lineup.”
Although every organization has prospects who will eventually become regular contributors in the NHL, not every prospect is on the same timeline. Some players take longer to develop than others. Patience is key.
“People respond in different ways,” Horcoff said. “Some people are visual learners, some people like to be pressed hard, and some don’t respond well to that. You have to figure out the best way. You’ve got to spend time with the prospects so they trust you. They have to trust that you have their best interests at heart so when you ask them to do something, they’ll actually do it. If they don’t trust you, it’ll never happen.”
Horcoff doesn’t believe there is a right way or wrong way to develop players. Some organizations like to push prospects before they might be ready while others choose to let their prospects marinate in the minors. For years, the Red Wings had enough talent that the organization could allow players to become “over-ripe” before calling them up.
Circumstances usually determine when a player gets the call, according to Horcoff.
“In truth, it’s often the player that decides when he goes up. More often than not, it’s your best players at the time. It might depend on their position or whether they’re a power play guy or a penalty killer or an energy guy, but we usually try to reward the players who are playing the best at the time, given what we need.
“When guys do get called up, their play will dictate whether they’re ready or not. If they come up and they dominate, they’re not going to go down. On the other side, if they come up and they struggle, it shows that they’re not ready yet so we’re going to put them in a position, probably back in the minors, where they can play more and develop until they are ready.”
And when it comes to development, honesty is the best policy. Management can attempt to be diplomatic and tactful when providing guidance, but when it comes to evaluating talent and describing the best course forward, it’s best to be upfront.
“It’s all about being honest with them,” Horcoff said. “You don’t need to sugarcoat anything or lie to them. They’re not 15 years old. They’re in pro hockey, playing in a man’s league and they need to learn to handle criticism well and properly.
“You don’t want to crush their confidence, but there’s a way to be honest with them and tell them that there are certain things they need to work on. That’s what we try to do. We will tell them, ‘If you want to play in the NHL, here’s what you have to do.’ But not just tell them. Show them. Back it up with video. ‘Here’s what you have to do better to make the NHL.’ Let them know what they have to do to get to the next level.”
Getting players to develop in a winning atmosphere is equally important.
“First and foremost, we want to put a good team together to do two things – we want to win and we want to develop players,” Horcoff said. “Sometimes those two things can coincide well and other times they can be like oil and water. That’s always a fine line.
“Our philosophy is we want our young kids to play, but at the same time we want them to earn their ice time. We also want to bring in good veteran players who can help carry the load and help us win by showing these young guys how to play the right way, and how to do the right things both on and off the ice.
“Every single guy is fighting for their job every single night. No one is willing to give it up to any kid coming in. They want to go out and prove that they’re better, not just to the guys on their own team but also to the guys on the other side of the ice. The AHL is a very competitive league. It’s a hard league to produce points in.
“It’s impossible to put three 18- or 19-year-olds together and think they’re going to lead the league in scoring. It doesn’t happen. The league’s too good. There are too many good players.”
The Wings were disappointed that the Griffins failed to make the playoffs last season, a situation the organization tried to rectify by signing players to add depth at every position. Horcoff is hopeful that the Wings have addressed last season’s shortcomings.
“In order to make the playoffs, you have to win games. Once you get to the playoffs, it’s a whole different story,” he said. “If we’re going to be successful in Detroit, our young guys need to learn how to play in big games and how to perform under pressure. That’s what winning in the American League can do for you. It’s not quite like the Stanley Cup Final, but it’s as close as you can get. We want them to learn how to handle those situations so when they do get to the NHL, they have a little of that feeling like they’ve been there before.”
While everything looks good on paper, the proof will be on the ice.
“We have a lot of good young players and we’ve added some veteran players who can help them,” Horcoff said. “Of course, you don’t know what you will have until the end of the exhibition season when the big club figures out what they want. There are a lot of decisions that have to be made in Detroit first.”
That the Red Wings’ rebuilding process has had its challenges is no surprise, given that this was unfamiliar territory for a team that had made the playoffs for 25 consecutive seasons.
As Horcoff can attest, you learn as you go.
Horcoff studied finance and mathematics at MSU, but there are no classes for hockey management.
“I had the benefit of playing in the NHL for a long time and being around a lot of different situations, from different sets of players to different coaches to different organizations. You see what works and what doesn’t work.
“I was lucky to spend time watching and listening to guys like Kris Draper, Ryan Martin and Ken Holland. As the years go by, you sit through more and more things and you’re asked a few more questions and you answer a few times. Eventually, Steve Yzerman and Pat Verbeek came in and my role grew and became more involved on the management side.
“There’s nothing in college to help you figure this out but you need to live it and I’ve found that I really enjoy it. I’m looking forward to doing this as long as I can. I’m excited to help build a winning organization.”