Niyo: Draper continues grind to get Red Wings back to glory years

Detroit News

Detroit — Kris Draper didn’t quite know what to think when Steve Yzerman phoned a few weeks ago and scheduled a meeting with him in his office.

“I was never a big fan of being called down to the office,” Draper joked. “I saw the principal way too much in elementary school. So, I wasn’t sure how the trip was going to go.”

But all went well, he can report now, and the Red Wings made it official Wednesday, when they announced a promotion for Draper, the former “Grind Line” centerpiece of the franchise’s last Stanley Cup championship era. After serving as Detroit’s director of amateur scouting for the past four years, Draper, 52, is now adding an assistant general manager title as well, joining Shawn Horcoff, who oversees the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins, in working alongside Yzerman on all hockey operations.

“I guess he appreciates what we’re doing right now, and that means a lot to me,” said Draper, who was a part of four Cup-winning teams in Detroit before retiring as a player after a 20-year NHL career, in 2011. “You know, for 30 years I’ve been part of this organization. It’s something that I take a ton of pride in. The Detroit Red Wings are one of the most important things in my life. And I want to be a big part of us getting back into the playoffs, and then from there, being Cup contenders and Cup champions again.”

He’s hardly alone with that feeling, he knows. And it’s that institutional knowledge the Red Wings are banking on these days. Yzerman, the iconic “Captain,” might be at the top of the organizational chart, but he has a long list of ex-teammates helping him make this latest championship push in various roles: Draper, Nicklas Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall, Dan Cleary, Kirk Maltby, Jiri Fischer, Jesse Wallin.

“We played in arguably the greatest era of the Detroit Red Wings organization, and we want to bring that back,” said Draper, whose 1,137 games played in a Red Wings uniform rank fifth-most in team history. “And we all understand how hard it’s going to be. But, we’re all in this together.”

Like most NHLers, Draper wasn’t sure which way he’d turn when his playing days ended. He started coaching his son’s 2002 Little Caesars squirt hockey team initially, and the irony wasn’t lost him Wednesday as he watched two players from that squad — Kienan Draper (2020 seventh-round pick) and Carter Mazur (2021 second-rounder) — on the ice, as the Wings’ prospects finished up their annual development camp at the BELFOR Training Center.

But Draper also took then-GM Ken Holland up on the offer to join the Wings’ front office as a special assistant a decade ago, getting his feet wet scouting games at both the amateur level — Canadian junior leagues, USA Hockey’s development program, college hockey — and on the pro side in Grand Rapids and Detroit.

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And by the time Yzerman returned as GM in 2019, Draper was a natural fit to step up as the Wings’ amateur scouting director. Though if you ask Cleary, who is now Detroit’s assistant director of player development, as well as Draper’s daily pickleball nemesis, that’s no surprise at all. The same energy Draper displayed as a player, from his maniacal off-ice workout regimen to his Selke Trophy-winning tenacity in games, is the same thing he has poured into scouting.

“Drapes is constantly on the grind,” Cleary said. “He’s a winner, he’s passionate, and he’s so competitive. And that just bleeds down to all of us.”

And as Draper has gotten more confident in his role over the last few years, so has the GM in trusting Draper not only to find players — “I know he has a very good eye,” Yzerman says — but also to call the shots, whether it’s organizing the scouting staff or manipulating the draft itself.

“The same work ethic that he had as a player he has in scouting,” Yzerman said. “He’s a hard worker, he wants to do well, and he’s determined. And each year, he’s gotten more comfortable with it.”

Now he’s determined to do even more. Yzerman gave Draper a front-row seat for the start of free agency last week, and he’s excited to expand that going forward on the business side, working on contract negotiations and entry-level deals with prospects and player agents, learning more about the salary cap, and so on.

But for now, at least, “I know what my main role is,” Draper adds, and that’s continuing to oversee the amateur scouting department and running the draft, as he did again last week in Nashville where the Wings added 11 more players to a deep prospect pool.

Still, Draper admits, his career aspirations do include running a team as a GM one day, whether that’s here in Detroit or elsewhere.

“If an organization feels that I’m ready and I’ve put the time in and they understand that, then we’ll see where that goes,” he said. “But, obviously, the commitment from the Detroit Red Wings is something that means a lot to me. …

“It’s just incredible how fortunate I’ve been to be a part of this organization for 30 years. And, you know, who would have thought that trade for future considerations, what that turned out to be? I mean, it’s unreal.”

Yet it is real, and that’s part of the story he wants these young prospects he’s bringing into the organization to understand.

“You look at the path that people take to get to the NHL, it’s never the same,” Draper said.

That’s true whether it’s a former top-15 pick like Cleary, whose early NHL struggles led him to Detroit as a training-camp invite after the lockout in 2005, or a “scrawny” Swedish defenseman like Kronwall that didn’t get a second look from many NHL scouts in his draft year, or a checking-line forward like Draper who couldn’t find a regular shift in Winnipeg but found a home in Hockeytown after getting claimed off waivers — 30 years ago last Friday — for a paltry $1 transaction fee.

As owner Mike Ilitch quipped at Draper’s retirement press conference back in 2011, “I never dreamt that I’d get a player for the cost of a smoothie at McDonald’s.” Nor could Draper have dreamed he’d be in the role he’s in now.

“But, I think it’s a great message for every single prospect in there,” Draper said. “You know what? It’s going to be hard, but it’s possible. And why do we say that? Because we’re sitting here, and we lived it.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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