Fired Up on Ice

Mike Langlois still laces up his skates for the sport he’s always loved.

Mike Langlois reached a crossroads at around age 20. The decision he made has influenced the course of his life ever since.

Young Langlois, a hockey fan and player since attending Detroit Red Wings games in old Olympia Arena as a kid with his father, had finished a year in community college and was contemplating going away to school to finish his undergraduate work. An outstanding hockey player at the Juniors level, Langlois had been recruited by a university’s hockey coach. But upon visiting the campus, he had second thoughts. The school’s academic program wasn’t as strong as he wanted, and though he could have played hockey there, he worried about the long-term impact on his life and career. “I decided I could play hockey at home,” he says. So he returned home, to Warren, Mich., a Detroit suburb, and decided to work for a year before returning to college.

He accepted a job at St. John Hospital in Detroit as a file clerk, and coached, refereed and played hockey at night. That was 1976. He ended up staying for 25 years, and today still works closely with the health system in his current position – vice president of contracting and value analysis of Ascension Health, of which St. John is a part.

Though his career and life has had its share of twists, turns, breakaways and cross-checks, throughout it all, Langlois has never lost his passion for skates on ice.

Entrée into supply chain
It was while working in medical records at St. John that Langlois got his first taste of the medical supply chain. His department and materials management were charged with finding a way to store medical supplies and medical records in the facility’s warehouse. After working with the director of materials management on the project, Langlois was asked to run the warehouse. “I had plans to go to the University of Michigan,” he says. “But every time I thought about it, I would get promoted.” He never did go away to school. Instead, he attended night classes to earn his associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree in business administration, and master’s degree in administration with a healthcare focus.

While challenging himself academically, Langlois assumed roles of greater responsibility at St. John Health, which evolved from just one hospital, to a system with five and then eight hospitals. “We had disparate supply chain organizations,” he says. “I was the catalyst for bringing them together and operating one united supply chain.” The experience proved invaluable when, in 1999, the Sisters of St. Joseph Health System in Ann Arbor (which sponsored St. John) and the Daughters of Charity National Health System in St. Louis came together to form Ascension Health, to be based in St. Louis.

As Ascension began to gel, Langlois and a group of peers were asked in the summer of 2000 to meet in St. Louis on a regular basis to build a new supply chain operating model. “They asked, ‘Where can we leverage the size of Ascension Health?’” recalls Langlois. “One area was the supply chain.”

Working with several consultants for the better part of a year, the group designed a robust supply chain operating model, and established a separate contracting and value analysis arm, focusing on contracting and supply utilization. Ascension Health executives asked Langlois if he would be interested in leading the new organization. Langlois was eager to do so, but he was also reluctant to relocate far from friends, family and his beloved Red Wings. So Ascension agreed that Langlois could set up his office in Detroit. Not only did the arrangement work well for Langlois, but it also helped Ascension demonstrate in a public manner that its new supply chain model was a definite departure from the past.

Hockey in the genes
Staying in Detroit allowed Langlois to stay in touch with a vital part of his past, present and future – hockey. Specifically, Detroit hockey.

“My dad had a tryout with the Red Wings many, many years ago,” he says. His dad – Tom Langlois – played until he was about 30, and refereed a Junior B league. (“Juniors” refers to leagues for players between the ages of 18 and 20, although in the past, it was reserved for 17- to 19-year-olds. Juniors are a step up from “Midgets,” which are 16- and 17-year-olds, though in years past, the term referred to 15- and 16-year-olds.)

Langlois inherited his father’s love of the sport. Though his high school did not have a team, Langlois competed in Midgets and Juniors throughout his four years, playing defense for the first several years of organized play, and then left wing. He enjoyed a very successful Juniors career, scoring 60 goals in his final season. That led to an invitation in 1979 to attend the Red Wings rookie camp in Glens Falls, N.Y. “I had a great camp, and scored 10 goals over the course of the week,” says Langlois. But the Red Wings placed a premium on players who were rough and tough. That’s not surprising, considering the team was coached by Ted Lindsay, whose nickname, when he played with the Red Wings in the 1940s and 1950s, was “Terrible Ted.”

“The Red Wings weren’t real competitive at the time, and their mantra was ‘Aggressive hockey’s back in town,’” says Langlois. In fact, the Red Wings were in the middle of a prolonged championship drought, having won their last Stanley Cup in 1955. (The team was not to win the Cup again until 1997.)

“I’m [6 foot 4] and built pretty solid,” he continues. “I looked pretty rough and tumble, but I was a goal scorer.” The team suggested that he play in the old International Hockey League for a year to toughen up a bit. “The IHL was pretty much fight with a little bit of hockey,” recalls Langlois. “Guys were always getting injured. So I said, ‘That’s OK, I’m done.”

Langlois might have been done with the pros, but he had no intention of giving up hockey as a sport he could enjoy for a long time to come. He began playing in amateur leagues, and still does today – usually skating a couple of times a week. “Most of us are about the same age – in the 45 to 55 or 60 range,” he says. All have played before, some at the Juniors level or college level, and some have even gotten a taste of the National Hockey League. Still, “we’re not out there to prove to anybody that we can play hockey,” he says. “Just get a good sweat and enjoy the camaraderie.”

The secret of playing good hockey at age 50 is simple: Pass often. “You move the puck and pass the puck; that’s how you stay competitive at this age,” he says. In fact, it’s a good strategy for any team, no matter the age. The reason? “The puck moves faster than anybody can skate,” he says. “From time to time, we watch the Red Wings old-timers play kids half their age, and they beat them, because they move the puck. You save a lot of energy that way.”

It’s a strategy he tries to teach the youngsters he coaches. “You have to get people moving in the opposite direction of where you want them to go, and the only way to do that is to get them to chase the puck,” he says. “We don’t teach enough of that in hockey today.” Langlois says the strategy is called “give-and-go.” The player passes the puck to a teammate, then immediately moves up the ice to position himself to take another pass. By the time the opposing player reaches the spot where the puck was, his opponent has already passed it to a teammate.

Langlois has had ample opportunities to teach “give-and-go” to the many young players he has coached, including his two sons and daughter, all of whom played during their high school years. His message to the kids he coaches? “Work hard. Play smart. Work as a team. Have fun.”

The NHL is suffering, and that causes Langlois some consternation. “The National Hockey League is hurting because it has grown too big, with too many teams, which has allowed sub-par talent into the league,” he says. At one time, the NHL had just six teams, each with 20 players, or a total of 120 players. Today, the league has 30 teams, with hundreds of players. “Players might have gotten bigger, stronger and faster than they were in 1966 or 1967, when there were just six teams,” he says. “But there’s not enough talent to go around. It’s true that we have expanded [the base of players]; there is a plethora of European players today. But we have seen the talent level diminish as the league has expanded.”

The proliferation of teams has also diluted some of the great rivalries that existed in the NHL 40 to 60 years ago, says Langlois. “The rivalries of the 1960s don’t exist, because some teams only play each other once a year,” he says.

The NHL lost a year to a strike in 2004-2005, but has revived itself with some rule changes, which have been well-received, notes Langlois. “I think it’s coming back. But will hockey ever displace basketball or football or baseball in popularity? Probably not.” Despite the sport’s difficulties, hockey in Detroit remains red hot. In fact, Red Wings tickets are impossible to get unless you know somebody. And Langlois does.

One thing that won’t change is Langlois’s love of the game. “I believe hockey is the ultimate game, because of the speed and the skill it requires. It’s not just being able to run fast or throw a ball fast. You have to know how to skate and practice all the other skills that come with the sport. It’s a fast game, it’s energetic.”