By Patrick Williams, NHL.com
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Grand Rapids Griffins coach Todd Nelson often speaks about the concept of the art and science of guiding a team.
"The science is all of the systems work," Nelson said. "The art is getting the guys to play hard for you and trying to mesh your team together. We came together as a group really early in the season."
Grand Rapids won its second Calder Cup championship in five seasons Tuesday. A 4-3 win against the stubborn Syracuse Crunch in Game 6 of the Calder Cup Final ended a 15-4 postseason, 10-0 at home.
For Nelson, it is the third Calder Cup championship of his career. He is also the third person in AHL history to win it as a player, assistant coach and coach.
Nelson arrived in Grand Rapids before last season after a 46-game coaching audition with the Edmonton Oilers in 2014-15. Nelson had replaced Dallas Eakins as coach and went 17-25-9. Changes in Edmonton meant that Nelson had to revive his coaching career.
"After I left Edmonton, I was looking for a place to re-establish myself," Nelson said.
Grand Rapids fit perfectly for Nelson, who had spent parts of four seasons in the city as a player and one season as an assistant. For the Detroit Red Wings, Nelson was an easy fit after they promoted Jeff Blashill to coach from Grand Rapids.
"This job was open, and I knew that they would give me the chance to win here," Nelson said. "That's why I came here. I came here for one reason, and that is the Calder Cup."
Praise for Nelson is abundant up and down the Griffins' roster.
"He is one of the greatest coaches that I've played for, ever," said veteran forward Mitch Callahan, who was also on the 2013 championship team that Blashill coached. "I've played for a lot of great coaches in my career too."
Said defenseman Dylan McIlrath, "[Nelson] is amazing. He is one of the best player coaches that I've had the chance of meeting. He has such a great balance of working with us as players and having a great system in place to just let us go out and play."
Players cited the environment created by Nelson along with the type of personalities and talent that Detroit management seeks as a significant reason for the Griffins' success.
"Honestly, they're like nagging siblings," 34-year-old captain Nathan Paetsch said of his teammates. "You know they love each other. They fight, hug, do everything together. It's so special."
"They call me 'Uncle Nate.' It's how I feel. They're family. I care so much about all of the guys on this team. It's just a special group. The young guys are great kids. Everybody just cared so much about each other, and it showed."
Leadership is abundant in Grand Rapids well beyond Nelson. It starts with Paetsch, a veteran of 167 NHL games with the Buffalo Sabres and Columbus Blue Jackets, and extends to Callahan and veterans Brian Lashoff, Matt Ford, Ben Street, Eric Tangradi, and beyond.
That leadership was on display in Game 6, Nelson said.
Syracuse won Game 5 to extend the series, and led Grand Rapids 3-2 at the end of the second period in Game 6. Grand Rapids was staring at the possibility of Game 7 after having led the series 3-1.
Said Nelson, "I wouldn't say [there was panic. There was] concern after the second period. A couple of players stepped up. I could hear them through the door."
The message went through. Grand Rapids scored twice in the third period to win the series. They broke three Syracuse leads in Game 6.
"[Paetsch is] a great character guy," McIlrath said. "He has been through the ringer at every level. He is a calming presence. He doesn't say a whole lot, but when he does, everybody listens."
"Just even in the [second] intermission, he was a calming presence. We knew we had a job to do, and we did it."
Grand Rapids finished third in the AHL with 100 points in the regular season. The Griffins have averaged 97 points in the past four seasons, part of that being a result of the team-first culture that Nelson has fostered.
"You've got to have roles on a championship team," said fourth-line forward Colin Campbell, a key part of Grand Rapids penalty kill.
"Everybody is not going to get to be a scorer. There are defensive guys, [penalty-killing] guys. You embrace your role, you put together something like this, and it's a special feeling."
In the meantime, Nelson and his players have a championship to celebrate. One of those players is McIlrath, who arrived in Grand Rapids after spending time with the New York Rangers and Florida Panthers organizations in a season that included being traded twice.
"All of the different cities, the different hotel rooms, the travel, it doesn't matter," McIlrath said.
"I'm a Calder Cup champion."