The Griffins have altered their team chemistry to rejuvenate their Calder Cup hopes
Story and photo by Mark Newman
People have been curious about staying young long before a Spanish explorer sought its secret in the waters of the Caribbean.
Of course, Ponce de Leon didn't find the Fountain of Youth in 1513, nor have the any of the others who have gone looking for a magical source of life that might restore health and vitality.
Despite science's best efforts, man has still not figured out how to completely rejuvenate the body, although the world of sports has found marvelously curative powers in an annual rite:
A new season.
Hope springs eternal for every team at the start of each season and the Griffins are no different this year.
Wait. Actually, they are different. They've gotten younger. The Griffins have more than a dozen players who are younger than 25 years of age; only Travis Richards and Bryan Helmer are older than 30.
Four players - Eric Himelfarb, Todd Jackson, Brett Lebda and Derek Meech - have less than a month of professional experience. In fact, before the season Meech and Jackson hadn't even played a single game outside of junior and college hockey, respectively.
Like their NHL affiliate, the Detroit Red Wings, the Griffins saw their championship hopes die early in the playoffs last year. Something needed to be done.
Under the microscope, both front offices felt their fates will sealed by the fact that they were too old. There was nothing scientific about their findings. It was a gut feeling, yet allowing impressions to grow in the petri dish of time was unnecessary.
And so, faster than you can shake a stick, the Griffins became younger.
This past summer they bid a bond farewell to their three oldest players (Kevin Miller, Derek King and Michel Picard) and welcomed a lineup they hope will spell new success.
Red Wings general manager Ken Holland likes what he sees.
"(Red Wings assistant GM) Jim Nill and (Griffins GM) Bob McNamara have worked hard to make some changes to the team," Holland says. "We think the kids will be better (because) they're going to get experience.
"When you're 20, 21 or 22, you can improve by leaps and bounds with experience."
There is a genuine belief that injecting more youth into the lineup will have a rejuvenating effect on the Griffins' Calder Cup hopes. This is no experiment.
"We felt we needed to change the makeup of our team," says McNamara, who insists that the roster moves were not so much a conscious decision as a natural evolution of the club.
Prospects will forever remain prospects unless they get the opportunity to play. Older players, however, just get older. Eventually
- and every team, no matter how successful, reaches this point - youth must be served.
Management of the Red Wings and Griffins has spoken. "It's going to be a very young, energetic team," Nill says.
There is no elixir that will guarantee victory; a youth movement doesn't ensure success. But there is certainly more than a dash of promise in the new direction. Hard work and dedication will see to it.
"Change can either work for you or against you," Griffins head coach Danton Cole says. "Change is good if you respond to it in a positive way."
For young players like Himelfarb, Jackson, Lebda and Meech, it's an opportunity of a lifetime.
"It's a huge jump from junior or college to the pros," Himelfarb says.
"Every kid dreams of getting to this point," Jackson adds.
There is definitely a sense of anticipation. "It's great to finally be taking that next step," Meech says.
"It's a good feeling," Lebda agrees.
While Himelfarb and Meech have joined the Griffins following junior hockey careers in Canada, Jackson and Lebda are coming into the pro ranks from U.S.
collegiate programs (Jackson from the University of Maine, Lebda from Notre Dame).
All four find themselves at a relatively similar stage of development; how they got to this point, though, is not all the same.
Lebda started playing hockey before he was even three years old. "Some kids play baseball or t-ball. My parents just decided to put me in a pair of skates when I was young," he says.
Growing up in Chicago meant Lebda was a Blackhawks fan, but he was already gravitating towards the Red Wings as a teenager. He attended high school at Ann Arbor Pioneer, where he began playing in the USA Hockey program.
He was good enough to get the attention of several colleges. Going to Notre Dame wasn't a particularly difficult decision. "School was important to my family, so Notre Dame was the best fit for me," he says.
There would be challenges first. Lebda suffered a serious injury less than a year before joining the Irish. "I slid into the boards wrong in practice and shattered my ankle," he explains. "The doctors described it as a bowl of corn flakes."
So serious was the injury that playing hockey seemed the least of his worries. "Sitting in the doctor's office, I was told I would probably never walk normally again," Lebda recalls. "It was a blow, but it motivated me to come back stronger."
He was on crutches for three months, then in a walking boot for three more. It was nearly nine months before he was skating again, but he was ready for his freshman year at Notre Dame. "It was a long, long process," he says, "but it was a good mental challenge," he says.
Himelfarb had an entirely different challenge. Ever since he can remember, he was smaller than most of his teammates. Instead of a crutch, it drove him to play harder, his reason to strive to be better.
Today, Himelfarb is listed at 5-foot-9, but they don't measure your heart in inches. He is ready to dispel any doubters.
"I've heard the same questions at every level, before the OHL draft, before the NHL draft," he says. "There's nothing I can do about my size. I have to go out there and work that much harder."
Himelfarb posted solid numbers during five seasons in the Ontario Hockey League, starting with Sarnia as a 16-year-old. Last season, as an overage junior, he tallied an impressive 37 goals, 70 assists and 107 points in 67 games.
"When everybody says you're too small, for me that's motivation," he says. "You just want to prove everybody wrong."
Himelfarb was chosen by Montreal with the 171st overall pick in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft. He never signed with the Canadiens, so he waited for his shot. He was signed by Grand Rapids to an amateur tryout last March.
He made an immediate impact. He scored a goal on his first shot in the pros. "It's nice to get that first one out of the way," he says.
Jackson, meanwhile, was making an impression at a school with a rich hockey history. "I chose the University of Maine for a few reasons," he says. "To win a national championship and secondly, to give me the best chance to turn pro."
He came close too reaching his first goal, close enough to insure that he would realize the second.
"Two out of my four years, we were within a goal of the national championship," Jackson notes. "It was tough (losing in the final) but I wouldn't have traded the experience for anything."
During his collegiate career, Jackson evolved from a sound defensive forward to a solid two-way player with good offensive skills. His progress earned him the distinction of becoming captain during his senior year.
"It's a great honor to have that 'C' on your jersey," he says. "I'm not the most outspoken guy in the locker room, but I try to lead by my hard work. That's what the guys respond to."
Meech has seen what leadership means. He has been attending the Red Wings' rookie camps and regular training camps for three years. "It's been a huge advantage," he says. "The older guys take you under the arm and you get a lot of tips from them. You try to take in as much information as possible."
He established himself as one of the Red Wings' defensemen of the future this past spring with a strong performance for Canada at the 2004 World Junior Championship in Helsinki, Finland.
"I wasn't really expecting to even make the team, but I just took one step at a time," he says. "It was a dream-come-true for me, especially for a Canadian kid. You always dream about representing your country, competing against world-class players."
Canada finished second in the World Junior tournament to the United States. "We lost, but I'm happy with the silver medal," he says. "Not every young man gets to take home a silver medal from an international event."
Even so, Meech looks forward to bigger and better things. "You can never be satisfied," he says. "There's always room for improvement. You can always work on little things in your game."
To help the younger players learn the little things, the Griffins have assembled a small but solid group of veterans to provide leadership and act as mentors this season.
Along with Griffins stalwart Travis Richards, the quartet of Bryan Helmer, Eric Manlow, Blake Sloan and Peter Vandermeer should play a critical role as the four rookies develop.
"These are high quality guys who will certainly help the younger players," McNamara says. Cole agrees. "As important as it is that they be very good hockey players, it's equally important that they be good people of high character," he says.
Team chemistry will go a long way toward determining the Griffins'
success this season. In reality, the formula hasn't changed. Youth and experience have always been a good mix. This year's group offers more than a beaker of hope.
After all, it takes time, but the rookies eventually will become veterans.
"If you can establish yourself and play every day in the AHL, be smart and work hard at both ends of the ice, you'll be a lot closer to the NHL than you think," Cole says.