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Triston Grant, Brennan Evans, Jeff Hoggan and Nathan Paetsch (l-r)

Sept. 16, 2013

by Alan Cross -

As the Detroit Red Wings’ training camp reaches its conclusion this week, the Grand Rapids Griffins’ 2013-14 season is just beginning to take shape.

The Griffins will hit the ice once again at their own training camp on Sept. 23, where the roster will be determined through a week’s worth of difficult workouts, high-pressure practices and grueling scrimmages.

While many up-and-coming players will have to fight for their spots on the team, there are some recognizable faces who have already earned their keep from last year’s Calder Cup-winning run. Fans will recognize the faces of players such as forwards Riley Sheahan, Mitch Callahan, Tomas Jurco, Landon Ferraro, Grand Rapids native Luke Glendening and goalie Petr Mrazek, not to mention the emergence of a group of highly-touted younger players in the form of Ryan Sproul, Richard Nedomlel and Xavier Ouellet.

Although many of these players have achieved profound success in their first few years playing professionally, and others are just beginning their careers, there’s something to be said about knowing your way around the block.

Returning to the battle lines are four key veterans who provided the team with a foundation of outstanding work ethic and consistent leadership last year. First to re-sign to one-year AHL contracts with Grand Rapids were the brute-force duo of left wing Triston Grant and defenseman Brennan Evans. Then, just a day later, it was announced that Griffins captain Jeff Hoggan and assistant captain Nathan Paetsch would reunite, after both accepted two-year contracts to continue their legacy of success.

“We thought it was extremely important to get our vets back. We felt like they created a culture in our locker room of work ethic and day-to-day competitions, and that’s extremely important to winning,” said head coach Jeff Blashill. “We felt that they helped the development of our young players as well, which both helps us in Grand Rapids and ultimately helps in Detroit. So to me, that was a critical thing, and we’re real excited to have those guys back.”

United last year as the Griffins’ veteran core, Hoggan, Paetsch, Evans and Grant stumbled across a winning recipe using skills they acquired throughout their years on the professional front. As a unit, the four understand just how extraordinary it is to be reunited for another year and to be given another opportunity to lead the development of the younger crowd.

“Bringing the four of us back, it’s very rare that all four guys would come back like this. I think it’s something special that the team has done,” Evans said.

Each veteran totes his own arsenal of accolades, even just in terms of the 2012-13 season. Hoggan, who captained last year’s youthful Griffins squad to its title, posted 45 points (20-25—45) during the regular season and ranked among team leaders in nearly every other category. Paetsch’s resilience was on full display last year, as he tallied 27 assists in 70 regular season games. Grant and Evans finished 1-2 on the team, respectively, proving their value as league ironmen, and Evans scored the most important goal in franchise history with his championship-clinching tally in Syracuse. However, inspiring the same sort of success within the rookie ranks is another story entirely.

The veteran/rookie dichotomy is a constant dynamic throughout the league, as the AHL harbors players on both ends of the career timeline. Nevertheless, finding the harmony between the varying levels of experience is a huge factor in producing progressive results.

Evans identified the most important aspect of the process.

“The biggest thing to me is work ethic, just working hard every day. Coming in and being a professional,” Evans reflected about the veteran crew’s strategy for conditioning newer players. “We’re trying to show the young guys what it takes to be a pro and come ready every day. Work ethic is the biggest thing we try to impose on them.”

Anchored by the solidarity of his proven, successful methods and unit of seasoned players, Blashill decided to add a bit of unexpected, aged spice to propel the Griffins to new dimensions of success. And it comes in the form of experienced center David McIntyre, who is a veteran in his own terms.

No stranger to the landscape of professional hockey, McIntyre enters this season with four years of professional experience, including a brief stint in the NHL with the Minnesota Wild. Most recently, he was part of the 2012-13 Houston Aeros, where he led the team with a plus-19 rating and finished the season with 33 points (15-18—33).

The Griffins faced McIntyre and his Aeros in the Western Conference Quarterfinals, narrowly knocking them out of the playoffs. During that series, McIntyre tallied two goals and one assist in five games and certainly made an impression on Blashill and the rest of the team.

“I think he’s definitely a guy you would rather have on your team than have to play against him. I wouldn’t say he’s an agitator, but he’s tough to play against, he’s in your face all the time,” said Evans. “He’s really fast and he’s strong on the puck.”

While both his size and tenacity on the ice prove his ability to bark, McIntyre shows his bite through his diverse set of skills and ability to play multiple positions.

“He can play both center and wing. You have to make sure you have enough real good centers, and depending on what happens throughout the year with Detroit, we wanted to make sure that we had real good depth in that position,” said Blashill, who is confident that McIntyre will make a splash. “He’s someone in his career who wants to get another chance at the NHL, so I think he’s very highly motivated and we feel like we’ll get a real good year out of him.”

With the veteran nucleus of the team on lock, the Griffins will begin their season on the road Oct. 4 against the Rochester Americans. It’s there that the team will immediately face a challenge that it has never been confronted with in franchise history: defending the Calder Cup title.

Winning back-to-back Calder Cup championships is not unheard of, with the feat most recently achieved by the 2010 Hershey Bears. With the hope of keeping the cup safely tucked away in Grand Rapids coming at them from multiple angles, it will be important for the captains to lead their team through the stresses that goal brings.

“Going into the season last year, the team hadn’t been to the playoffs in years. It didn’t seem like we had pressure on us; we were sort of the underdog and not on anyone’s radar, and we came and won the division and then won it all,” said Paetsch. “I think this year, there’s definitely going to be pressure. People are going to be eyeing us, watching us every game and playing us different. The great players rise above that and play great under the pressure.”

The frontier of professional hockey is an ever-changing entity, and the team must adapt in order to once again produce results. The veteran core will certainly play a huge role in repeating last year’s success. But they do remember one very important notion: it’s an entirely new season.

“Right from the get-go, it’s a new team, a new time,” said Hoggan. “Obviously, the key is to grow as we go. We talked about that process last year, and we’ll definitely look at improving as a unit as the year goes on to put us in an awesome position to do what we did again.”

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