Jonathan Ericsson (left) and Jakub Kindl
Grand Rapids is serving as a training ground for future Red Wings defensemen like Jonathan Ericsson and Jakub Kindl.
Story and photos by Mark Newman
Imagine being an aspiring actor and having the opportunity to train with Robert DeNiro or Russell Crowe.
Imagine being a struggling singer and working alongside Mick Jagger or David Bowie.
Imagine being a prospective businessman and getting guidance from Donald Trump – oh wait, they based a television show on that.
If you’re a young defensemen with dreams of playing in the National Hockey League, you couldn’t pick a better place to learn and develop the necessary skills than Grand Rapids.
In the past few years, the Griffins have sent Niklas Kronwall, Brett Lebda and Derek Meech to the Detroit Red Wings, where they were able to improve their skills alongside the best defensemen in the world.
Being in training camp with the Red Wings means working out with Nicklas Lidstrom, who is considered to be the top defenseman of his era, having won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman six of the last seven years.
As a Red Wings prospect, you get to watch Chris Chelios, the ageless wonder now in his 25th NHL season who, in his heyday, was considered to be the greatest U.S.-born defenseman.
Then there’s Brian Rafalski, who signed a five-year contract with Detroit in 2007 after seven seasons in New Jersey. Rafalski has played in four Stanley Cup Finals in his eight NHL seasons, winning twice with the Devils and last season with the Wings.
It’s no wonder that young blueliners like Jonathan Ericsson and Jakub Kindl feel they’re in good company.
“I don’t think there’s any organization that is better to play for,” said Ericsson, the Swedish-born defenseman now in his third season in Grand Rapids. “I was fortunate enough to sign with Detroit and hopefully I will play there eventually. Everyone wants to play for the Red Wings.”
“It felt awesome to be drafted in the first round by the Red Wings, I’m not going to lie,” said Kindl, the Czech Republic native who is in his second full year with the Griffins. “It’s like playing soccer for Manchester United. In Detroit, they know what it takes to win the Cup.”
Ericsson and Kindl got a first-hand look at the playoff atmosphere last spring when they were recalled to Detroit, along with fellow defenseman Kyle Quincey, goaltender Jimmy Howard and forwards Cory Emmerton, Darren Helm and Mattias Ritola.
They joined the Wings as “Black Aces” to provide depth and insurance in the case of sickness or injury. Although they often practiced alone, they were present for the entire Stanley Cup playoffs.
“I get a smile on my face every time I start think ing about the Red Wings’ playoff run,” Ericsson said. “We did everything with the team, except play 60 minutes a game. All of the players and all of the people around the team made us feel a part of what was going on. It was a great time.”
“It was unbelievable,” Kindl said. “When I was growing up, I watched the Stanley Cup Finals on TV, and now I had a chance to be there with them, even if I didn’t play any games.
“To be up there was the best time of my life.”
For young players – Ericsson is still only 24, Kindl won’t turn 22 until Feb. 10 – the opportunity to be a Black Ace is a priceless experience.
Just ask Griffins assistant coach Jim Paek, who was in Pittsburgh when the Penguins won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1990-91. Like Ericsson, Kindl and the others, Paek joined the Wings for the playoffs.
“Where else are you going to get that kind of experience?” Paek said. “ I went through it as a player, but to go through it as a coach, that’s 10 years experience, I think.”
It was especially rewarding for players who are looking for any edge to improve their chances of earning a job in the NHL.
“It was amazing to watch Lidstrom and Kronwall in the playoffs,” Ericsson said. “Of course, the whole team was amazing, but I tried to watch the defensemen and learn what they were doing. I tried to take in as much as I could.”
Still, it was difficult for the players to be right there and be told they were going to have to wait to play.
“It’s hard to be up there and then be set aside, but if you look at the big picture, it’s a process,” Paek said. “The key message that I try to pass onto these guys is ‘preparation meets opportunity.’ Work hard and prepare yourself, so when the opportunity comes, you’ll be ready.”
And so being a Red Wings prospect is both a blessing and, in a way, a curse. The same guys you admire and emulate are the same guys whose spot you eventually hope to take.
“As a young player, it’s tough,” Kindl said. “I was drafted three years ago and a lot of the guys who were drafted in the first round and even some of the guys who were behind me have already had a chance to play in the NHL.
“When I see the guys I played against in the junior hockey playing in the NHL, I’m a little bit jealous. They’re already up there and I haven’t had a shot. You’ve got to be really patient to be in this organization, but if you want to play for the best NHL team, this is the way you’ve got to go.”
Ericsson made his NHL debut last February, eventually seeing action in eight games. He scored his first NHL goal in his third game, beating goaltender Mathieu Garon with a slap shot on a pass from former Griffins winger Valtteri Filppula.
“That was a great test for me,” Ericsson said. “I got a lot of ice time, too, so it was a really good test to see where I was standing.”
Where Ericsson will soon be standing is on the Detroit blueline. “We have a kid named Ericsson, and I can’t believe we don’t dress him,” Red Wings coach Mike Babcock told USA Today last May. “I think he’s going to be a stud in the league.”
The Red Wings have equally high hopes for Kindl, who was the 19th player chosen in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft but is coming off what he agrees was a “disappointing” rookie season.
“It was tough,” Kindl said. “My plus-minus wasn’t very good and we didn’t play the way we wanted. We didn’t make the playoffs. It was a disappointing year, but I learned a lot. I’m glad it’s over, but last year was a good school for me.”
A 2009 AHL All-Star and one of the league's top-scoring defensemen, Kindl has made great strides in his play this season, as has Ericsson, who has shown the composure, maturity and consistency that comes from playing a lot of minutes at the minor league level.
“Detroit has a winning culture – it’s that old saying that success breeds success,” Paek said. “These kids want to play in the NHL, that’s their life’s dream, and they’re doing a nice job.”
Both players give considerable credit for their development to the advice and guidance provided by Paek, a former defenseman who played in 954 pro games, including 217 in the NHL.
“He’s probably been the biggest part of my game, especially my first and second years,” Ericsson said. “He’s helped me every day, working on little things just to make me better. I’ve always felt like you can talk to him about anything, not only hockey stuff. He’s just a great guy for us defensemen.”
Paek is having a similar influence on Kindl. “He knows the game – he’s won the Cup,” Kindl said. “Seeing us every day, watching from the bench, he’s knows (how we’re playing) and he tells us what to do.”
The players also get a helping hand from Jiri Fischer, the ex-Detroit defenseman who is a frequent visitor to Grand Rapids now that he is director of player development for the Red Wings.
“We’ve worked together a lot, especially last year,” Ericsson said. “I still talk to him after the games and he’s always honest and tells you what to think about. He’s been really helpful because he knows what it takes to make it there.”
Only numbers (the NHL salary cap and roster limitations) have kept Ericsson in Grand Rapids. “I really like it here, so it wasn’t going to be a problem coming back to the Griffins,” he said. “We had a good talk before they sent me down and I think we’re on the same page as far as what I need to do.”
Ericsson feels he needs to stay strong in his defensive zone. “It’s all about being consistent every game,” he said. “In the NHL, you can’t really give away anything or they will score on you.”
Kindl is also trying to strengthen his play in his own end. His offensive production has already improved vastly – he had topped his rookie numbers for goals, assists and points less than 35 games into the 2008-09 season.
Coming out of Kitchener, Ontario, where he had played three seasons of junior hockey after leaving the Czech Republic, Kindl struggled during his first pro season. It was a difficult year, not unlike his first in North America.
“I was 17 years old when I moved to Kitchener,” he said. “I didn’t know any English and I didn’t play as much as I expected. It was a new world for me. But the next season was a totally different experience. The coaches started trusting me, and that allowed me to get better.
“Things have gone the same way in Grand Rapids. When the coach gives you the chance to be on the ice for the last minute of the game, it shows that he trusts you. It feels special because there’s a lot of pressure.”
Of course, it’s a good pressure, the kind that comes with high hopes and great expectations.
“Right now, I’m hoping that the team will do well and I’m going to do better than last year,” Kindl said. “I’m still hoping to have a chance at being in the NHL.”