12/04/2009 12:03 AM -
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Somebody should check the water in Welland, Ontario.
There must be something to explain how this modest city of 50,000 has produced not one, but two team captains in the 14-year history of the Griffins.
When head coach Curt Fraser named his captain for the 2009-10 season, Jamie Tardif learned he would be following in the footsteps of Matt Ellis, with whom he had played in Grand Rapids during the spring of 2007.
The announcement came as a bit of a surprise to Tardif, who is now in his fourth season with the team.
“It’s something that I thought about, but not something I expected,” said Tardif, who learned the news in a team meeting a day before the season opener. “It’s a great privilege and a great honor.”
Tardif had made a favorable impression on Fraser last season when he was one of the team’s assistant captains. “He started a little slow last year, but he worked exceptionally hard to get back into the mix,” Fraser said. “He ended up having a pretty good year.”
It was his work ethic, particularly in the playoffs, that helped convince Fraser to choose Tardif to wear the “C” this season.
Tardif had missed the final 16 games of the regular season due to injury but returned to the lineup for the start of the Calder Cup Playoffs.
“Jamie was the guy who stepped up and delivered the physical presence that helped us beat Hamilton in the playoffs by taking them off their game,” Fraser recalled.
“He caught my attention by doing a job that nobody else wanted, and I never forgot it. I thought he earned the chance to be a leader and the captain of our team.”
Tardif admits that he was humbled by his coach’s decision.
“Since I’ve been here, there have been some unbelievable captains, so it’s a great honor,” he said. “I learned a lot from Matty Ellis while he was here. I’ve known him for the better part of my life, watching him play junior back home in Welland.
“No matter who you talk to, when you ask about Matty Ellis, guys know him as a leader, an unbelievable guy on and off the ice. He’s definitely well-respected, in Grand Rapids and in Welland.”
Tardif also picked up pointers from former Detroit Red Wings veterans Darren McCarty and Aaron Downey when they played in Grand Rapids.
“I can’t speak enough of Downey and McCarty,” Tardif said.
“McCarty came here when he was making his comeback and he was just the hardest working guy. You learn a lot when you see a a guy who’s been in the NHL working that hard to make it back to that level.”
“Aaron Downey is the same way. I worked out with him every day this summer and I learned a lot from him – his work ethic, his leadership and the way that he’s always putting a positive spin on things, almost like a motivational speaker.”
Tardif watched how Downey carried himself last season, both on and off the ice, when he spent most of the year in Grand Rapids.
“You can’t put a price on a guy like Downey in terms of how much he means to your team,” Tardif said. “He was unbelievable in the locker room with the young kids, (talking) about development and conditioning. On the ice, he gave all he had every shift, every game.”
In many ways, it’s the same approach that Tardif has adopted for his own style of play.
“For me, when I judge my game, it’s how hard I worked, how hard I battled,” he said. “Did I win puck battles? Did I finish my checks? Those are the kind of things that I concentrate the most on.
“At the end of the game, I want to be sitting in my stall after the 60 minutes and know that I am tired because I worked hard. Some games you know you played better than others, but even when things don’t go my way, I want to know I still worked hard and competed.”
Tardif makes his living in the “hard” areas of the ice, in the corners and, especially, in front of the net, where he does his best to create havoc for the opposing goaltender.
“If Gretzky’s office was behind the net, mine is in front of the net,” Tardif said. “Ever since I started playing junior (hockey), it’s where I find myself going to pick up the scraps. Some days you get rewarded for it, some days you don’t.”
“You stand there, with shots coming right at you, and you get hit by the puck. You learn to take all the hacking and whacking. It’s hard, but people who go to the net often get rewarded with goals.
“Sometimes, it’s just lucky bounces. It’s being in the right place at the right time.”
It’s not been an easy road for Tardif, who started his professional career in Toledo after five junior seasons with the Peterborough Petes in the Ontario Hockey League.
He was signed to a professional tryout by the Griffins in early 2007 and bounced back and forth between Toledo and Grand Rapids before finally signing a standard player's contract. He earned a two-year entry-level contract with the Red Wings after his second season with the Griffins.
“It’s been a process and I’m not going to lie to you, it’s been tough at times,” Tardif said. “But you know what? In the end, it’s all been worth it. I have a lot of thanks to give to the guys who I’ve played with, all of the guys have helped me out one way or another, whether on or off the ice.”
Tardif is trying to repay the kindness that others have shown him by doing his best to honor the tradition of past captains.
“A captain has to be one of the players who is working the hardest all of the time,” he said. “That’s all Coach Fraser wants. You work hard, you’ll get the opportunities, and if you get the opportunity, you’ve got to take advantage of it.”
Tardif was rewarded earlier this season with the opportunity to play on a line with Michael Nylander, a 16-year NHL veteran, who was loaned to Grand Rapids on a conditioning assignment by the Washington Capitals.
“The guy’s got unbelievable skill, so you just try to get open,” he said. “My job was to go to the net, and one game I got rewarded for it by getting a hat trick. I got plenty of other chances as well.”
The Oct. 25 hat trick was the second in Tardif’s AHL career and his first since March 3, 2007. It helped the Griffins win their third home game in as many nights.
A week earlier, the Griffins dropped back-to-back games to the San Antonio Rampage by scores of 7-4 and 7-2, providing the first test in Tardif’s captaincy.
“In San Antonio, we just didn’t have it. We weren’t prepared,” he said. “When you’re captain and your team is not ready to play, it all falls back on you. That’s the way that it is.
“You get the glory when you’re winning and everything’s going great, but when things aren’t going well, the coaches look to you for answers. They want to make sure that you’re the first to pick yourself up because you’re one of the leaders.”
Once back on track, the Griffins stretched their winning streak to nine games before dropping a game – their third in four days – to a well-rested, AHL-leading Rochester team.
“By the look of things, we’ve got a great team this year,” Tardif said. “We’ve got a great group of guys, everyone gets along and we work hard every day, whether it’s practice or in the gym. I think it’s got all the makings of being a great season.”
The real test, Tardif believes, will come in late January and February.
“Right now everything’s great, but it’s a long season. When you get to that 40-60 game range, that’s when a team is defined. It’s a long stretch before the push for playoffs begins and that’s when you start getting down to the nitty gritty.
"It’s that time of year when every game starts to blend together. You look at the stats sheet and games played and it’s almost like the number doesn’t move. It’s such a long, dragged-out stretch and often we’ll be doing a lot of travel, so everything becomes like a big blur.”
It’s inevitable that the Griffins will see some players get called up by the Red Wings, too. “It’s happened every year that I’ve been here, but that’s why guys are playing in this league. If guys leave, it doesn’t change a thing. It just means that someone else will get more ice time and the chance to improve themselves.”
Tardif harbors hopes that he will eventually get to see some action in Detroit.
“Two years ago, I was only a potential prospect,” he said. “Now it’s great to be mentioned and be thought of as a possible call-up, but my main goal is to win here and lead these guys and help out the young kids on our team so they can be that next call-up.”
Still, success breeds success and Tardif knows that if the Griffins do well, it’s to everyone’s benefit, including his own. “If your team is winning, it reflects well on everyone,” he said. “Ultimately, that’s what everyone wants.”
That, and a chance to play in the NHL.
“Absolutely,” he agreed, “but you look at the Red Wings and it’s not the easiest team to crack. So when you can put yourself in the position where Detroit’s got to make a decision on a couple of guys and your name is possibly one of them, that’s what you want.
“If you’re in the mix of three or four guys, that’s pretty much all you can ask for. If they happen to catch you on a good night and you play well, you might be that next call-up. That’s the dream of everyone here, to make it to the National Hockey League.
“That’s what everybody is playing for.”
Tardif doesn’t like to lose. Whether it’s paintball or playing video games, he’s out to win.
“I have a competitive streak, no question,” he said. “Whether it’s on the ice or outside of the rink, playing tennis, playing golf, or even X-Box, you want to win. It’s just part of the nature of being an athlete. You want to win, no matter what you’re doing.”
Not surprisingly, Tardif was one of the many people in line at midnight to buy the new Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 video game when it hit store shelves on Nov. 10.
“It’s fun and a great time-killer,” he said. “You wear a microphone headset, so you can play online with anybody worldwide. It’s a great way to stay in touch with guys like (former Griffin) Randall Gelech, who’s all the way out on the west coast playing in Victoria. You can talk and play the game at the same time.”
The video game was only a minor dent in his wallet compared to a couple of other recent purchases.
He recently bought a Harley Davidson motorcycle. “I don’t know how to ride it yet, but I took the written test and I hope to take it out next summer. I live out in the middle of nowhere, about an hour north of Toronto, so I figured it would be a great little thing to do.”
Tardif and his girlfriend, Nikki, bought a home in Grand Rapids this past summer. “With the way the housing market’s been going, we wanted to take advantage of it. We’ll live in it for as long as we’re here; eventually, we’ll use it as an investment and rent it out to another player or fan.”
They share the home with two dogs: a Siberian husky named Walker and a Rottweiler named Trivette. Tardif was a fan of the Walker, Texas Ranger series starring Chuck Norris. Trivette was Walker’s partner on the show.
Tardif enjoys relaxing away from Van Andel Arena, but at the rink, he remains all business. He admits that he’s grown into his new role as captain of the Griffins.
"I think it finally sunk in when I looked down and saw the ‘C’ on my chest,” he said. “It’s a lot of responsibility, making sure that 25 guys are ready every single night, but I think I’m up for the challenge.”
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