By Pete Wallner, MLive.com
GRAND RAPIDS - It's taken more years than Corey Elkins cares to remember, but he is finally back playing hockey in Michigan.
It's not the Detroit Red Wings, but that doesn't matter at this point to the 32-year-old West Bloomfield native who has embraced his role as a veteran mentor and big goal-front presence at center this season with the Grand Rapids Griffins.
He has a one-year contract, well worth the chance after an eight-year pro hockey journey that took him across the country (AHL's Manchester Monarchs to the NHL's Los Angeles Kings) and out of it, too (Czech Republic for one season and the past five in Finland).
Elkin's last dose of Michigan hockey came as a part of the Red Wings development camp while at Ohio State in 2008. Before that was midgets in 2003. So, to go from Helsinki to his home state after so many years away was not only gratifying, it was somewhat amazing.
"This organization has been a huge part of me growing up and watching hockey and loving hockey," Elkins said. "I have a young family, so coming home, having extended family nearby, it's really awesome."
Coach Todd Nelson likes what Elkins provides.
"He's very strong; there's a reason he has the nickname 'Moose,'" he said of the 6-foot-2, 214-pounder. "He strong down low, strong in the faceoff dot and he does a good job killing penalties. But he's also a big net-front presence."
Heading into Friday's game at Rockford and Saturday's home game against Hersey, Elkins has a goal and a minus-1 rating in four games.
Elkins wasn't drafted out of college and signed with the Kings organization, where he got into three games his first pro season in 2010. After that, he bounced around before he went overseas.
He played four-plus seasons with HIFK in the Finnish Elite League where he played well with three 10-plus goal seasons, including 15 goals and 40 points in 2013-14. His leadership was rewarded as an alternate captain the past two seasons.
Through most of that period, Elkins said, he kept an eye on Grand Rapids and the Griffins' roster situation, looking for the right opportunity. By mid-point last season, Elkins sensed HIFK would make wholesale changes.
"So, I reached out (to the Detroit organization) because I was over there, off the radar a little bit as an older guy and, in the past, there were too many veterans here (in Grand Rapids) for it to happen," he said. "So, it seemed like an opportunity where they might have room for a veteran guy. That was part of it, too - just seeing if there was a place."
Turns out, there was a place at center, in the eyes of the organization, which knew Tomas Nosek would be either in Detroit - picked up via waivers or selected in the expansion draft (he was the later) - and Kyle Criscuolo would be an unrestricted free agent (he eventually signed with Rochester).
"He checked all the boxes for us," said Ryan Martin, the Red Wings assistant general manager who oversees the Griffins.
After a couple exchanges, Elkins signed May 2.
"There was a phone conversation I had with them (Martin and general manager Ken Holland) and we were discussing contract and they officially offered," Elkins recalled. "It was that moment when I hung up the phone and we had some time to decide if we were going to do it and talking to my wife. And that's when it set in. There was a whole lot of excitement at that time. That was the best."
There was an extra Michigan touch, too. Elkins, who has lived in Waterford the past nine years and has three children with wife Genevieve, took the call at the home of his in-laws. That's notable since his father-in-law is former NHL forward Dwight Foster, who played three-plus season with the Red Wings in the mid-1980s.
"That just added to it," he said.
On the ice, Elkins provides a strong option as a third or fourth center who's strong on the faceoff and can contribute on the power play. Martin said scouts watched him in the playoffs in Finland and came away impressed what he could do as a two-way center as well as how he handled himself off the ice.
"He's a guy that has a lot of different experiences," Martin said. "... He's been around a lot of different types of players who have mentored him, and he has a lot of really strong leadership qualities."
While it was a hockey decision, the homecoming wasn't lost upon Martin, either.
"From his perspective, he grew up watching the team and following the team," he said. "And, to really almost come full circle with the organization in sort of the twilight of your career, what a great opportunity."
That was not lost on Elkins.
"I really want to help out the team and I'd really like to make this home," he said.