Defenseman Nathan Paetsch has two children, but his role on the ice offers its own share of mentoring opportunities.
Story by Mark Newman / Photo by Sam Iannamico
When Nathan Paetsch came to Grand Rapids in the fall of 2012, he wasn’t sure what kind of team he was joining.
As it turned out, what he was joining was more like a family.
In retrospect, he admits that he had no idea what was ahead. “I was playing in Europe the year before and I wanted to come back to North America, but the thing in hockey is you never know,” Paetsch said. “I signed a one-year deal with Grand Rapids and I didn’t know what to expect.”
The situation seemed pretty dire after the Griffins won only two of their first eight games.
“The season looked a little grim to start,” Paetsch recalled. “However, it seemed as the year progressed, we got better and better. The team jelled and everything came together.
“But I definitely didn’t expect to win a Calder Cup my first year back.”
At the age of 29, Paetsch was hoping to get another shot at the National Hockey League. He had seen action in 159 NHL games during seven years in the Buffalo Sabres’ organization, then played another 10 NHL games during two years in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ system.
After playing a year in Germany, he saw Grand Rapids as possibly his last chance to return to the big time.
“My aspirations were to get back to the NHL because I felt like I was still young enough,” he said. “For whatever reason, it didn’t work out. Fortunately I’ve been able to build a pretty good career with the Griffins, so it’s worked out for the best.”
Paetsch was part of a group of veterans – including captain Jeff Hoggan, Brennan Evans and Triston Grant – who showed a team of under-25 prospects the way to success, eventually outlasting a heavily favored Syracuse team in the Calder Cup finals to claim the organization’s first championship.
“Obviously we had some real stars emerge that year,” he said, singling out Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar as two among many. “We had a lot of guys step up and play huge roles for us. Glenny (Luke Glendening), for example, came out of nowhere.”
A hometown hero from East Grand Rapids, Glendening had begun the season in the ECHL with the Toledo Walleye. “We don’t win the Calder Cup without Glenny,” Paetsch insisted. “You talk about how good Syracuse was that year – their first line included Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat. They would have torn us apart if we didn’t have Glenny shutting them down.”
But it was the veteran leadership that first-year Griffins head coach Jeff Blashill often credited for keeping the team laser-focused. “It was the perfect mix of veterans,” Paetsch agreed. “We had guys who had been around, guys who had played hockey at every level. Those guys became like my brothers.”
Paetsch will forever treasure that storybook season, not only because it gave him the opportunity to be a part of a Calder Cup championship team but also because it showed him that he could enjoy a career after the NHL.
While Paetsch and his wife Jaclyn still spend their summers back in Rochester, N.Y., they now own a home in Grand Rapids, where they are happily raising their two children: son Kellen, who will be 6 in December, and daughter Mira, who is 3.
“My wife and my family fell in love with the city and everything snowballed from there,” he said. “Every national ranking puts Grand Rapids as one of the Top 10 places to raise a family, and with a kid now in school we couldn’t ask for a better place. We’re very fortunate to be here.”
Paetsch loves the downtown area, his kids love the beaches, and he especially appreciates being a part of a first-class operation.
“It doesn’t feel like a hockey organization. It’s a family,” he said. “I feel like I’m a part of a family and it means everything to me. Winning for the Griffins, cheering for the Red Wings means everything. I feel like I’m part of something that’s a lot bigger than myself.”
The success enjoyed by the Griffins during his first four years in Grand Rapids has been the icing on the cake. Prior to joining the Red Wings organization, Paetsch had played in three playoff games during his previous seven seasons.
In four seasons with the Griffins, Paetsch has played in a club-record 59 playoff contests, a mark he shares with Travis Richards and Hoggan, his former teammate.
“It’s been incredible,” Paetsch said of the stretch. “The playoffs are what we hockey players play for. There’s the pressure, the excitement, everything is just amped up. We’ve been blessed to have teams with a lot of young talent. You have to draft so well in order for your minor league team to be good year after year, and Detroit has obviously done a good job.”
All that young talent means that Paetsch has become more of a mentor as he has worked with one defensive prospect after another.
“The joke is that I’m the stepping stone to the NHL because all of my ‘D’ partners end up in the NHL. First there was Smitty (Brendan Smith), then Lash (Brian Lashoff), X (Xavier Ouellet) and (Alexey) Marchenko.”
“For me to play with all those guys and then sit at home and watch them play for the Red Wings, it’s the best,” he continued. “As an older guy, I take great pride in being able to help these guys along. It’s like watching a little brother. It feels like part of me is out on the ice with them. I love it, and it’s been a real joy.”
With each prospect having his own strengths and weaknesses, it’s fallen to Paetsch to make sure that he keeps everything under control.
“My game changes more depending upon who I am playing with and what role they want me to do,” he said. “As an AHL veteran, I’ve got to be flexible because in the end, it’s all about the young guys and helping them get to Detroit.
“I just try to be who I am, even though there’s a different approach for every guy. Every ‘D’ partner is a different challenge. How do I make us the best pairing possible? It’s a challenge that I really enjoy.
“Young guys will ask a lot of questions and I think that’s great. This is my 14th season, so I’ve been through a lot of things in hockey and life in general, so I hope they pick my brain as much as possible. As a veteran, you’re a shoulder to lean on, a voice to calm them down. You’ve got to let them know things won’t always be the same.”
With Hoggan’s departure, one might surmise that Paetsch will have to assume a larger leadership role this season, but he doesn’t think so.
“Nothing’s going to change,” he said. “We’ve always done it by committee. We’ve been fortunate that the organization has always brought in a good group of vets and this year is going to be no different. We’re lucky to play in an organization that cares about the product that they put on the ice in Grand Rapids. They care about the character of their players and it really shows. They realize it’s important for the younger guys to have those mentors.
“I want to win another championship, but I also understand that organizational success is a goal, and I’m responsible for doing whatever I can to help the younger guys make their game better. It’s part of my job and it’s a role I gladly accept.”
That role of mentor – father figure, if you will – is one that Paetsch has grown to cherish in recent years. While he harbors hopes of eventually becoming a full-time coach, he feels he still has plenty of playing years ahead.
“It’s my dream to play 10 years for the Griffins,” Paetsch said. “That’s a personal goal, of course, and time will tell whether it can happen. But to be a 10-year Griffin would be a huge honor. For me, it would be the ultimate.”