The Detroit Red Wings found their place in the NHL record book, thanks to key contributions from a number of former Griffins.
Story by Mark Newman / Photo by Getty Images
By extension, the Grand Rapids Griffins have every reason to relish their relationship with the Detroit Red Wings.
The Red Wings' soon-to-be 21-season streak of making the playoffs is the longest active run of any team in the four major professional sports leagues (NHL, NFL, NBA, MLB).
For the last 10 of those years, the Griffins have supplied dozens of players as Hockeytown’s primary minor league affiliate.
As impressive as that streak may be, the Red Wings recently set an NHL record by stringing together 23 consecutive victories at home, smashing the old mark of 20 first established by the 1929-30 Boston Bruins and later matched by the 1975-76 Philadelphia Flyers.
“It’s beyond impressive,” said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock after his team finally saw its streak come to a close. “I don't care what era. It was just a real good run for our Red Wings. We’re thrilled to have done it. It sets us up in a good situation playoff-wise.”
The Griffins played more than a small part in the home winning streak.
A total of 15 Griffins alumni played at Joe Louis Arena during the streak, including five who played in all 23 games (see chart). And every victory was backstopped by one of the Griffins’ top two all-time leaders in goaltending wins.
After the streak ended at 23 on Feb. 23 – “You can’t win them all” was Babcock’s succinct survey of the situation – the Red Wings lost three defensemen to injury.
With Nicklas Lidstrom (swollen ankle), Kyle Quincey (sore groin) and Jonathan Ericsson (fractured wrist) out of action, the Red Wings re-inserted former Griffins defenseman Jakub Kindl into the lineup and recalled Brendan Smith and Doug Janik from Grand Rapids.
It’s no wonder that the Red Wings are excited about extending their agreement with the Griffins for an additional five years.
"The American League is critical for all NHL teams, and having a great relationship with Grand Rapids helps keep us competitive,” said Red Wings general manager Ken Holland. “We’re all thrilled with our arrangement.”
Holland said the relatively close proximity between Detroit and Grand Rapids, not to mention the fan support from the faithful inside Van Andel Arena, affirmed the need to maintain ties between the two.
"As a former minor league player myself, it’s exciting to see 8,000 to 10,000 fans and a great atmosphere in the building each night,” Holland said. “It’s a wonderful city and there is terrific support from the community as well as the ownership. It’s a real positive environment for our young players.”
Holland places great value on the role that the Griffins fill in preparing players for the NHL.
“AHL teams are important to the major league clubs for two reasons: No. 1, the development of our young players; and No. 2, as a home for veteran players like Joey MacDonald, who obviously has been a big story for us.”
MacDonald, the Griffins’ all-time leader with 109 wins, was recalled from Grand Rapids on Feb. 3 after Jimmy Howard, a first-time NHL All-Star this season, was sidelined with a broken finger.
Not only did MacDonald seize the backup goaltender’s job from Ty Conklin, he proceeded to produce six straight victories in Joe Louis Arena, extending the Red Wings’ winning streak to 23 before Howard returned to action.
“Mac's done a really good job,” Babcock said after the organization made the Griffins’ No. 1 goalie the new No. 2 in Detroit. “It's worked out good. He's played great."
By the end of his first month with the Red Wings this season, MacDonald had compiled a 7-1-1 record with a 1.70 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage. “I'm just living the dream, getting an opportunity to play for the best team in the league,” he said in the midst of the Red Wings’ record-setting stretch.
His first appearance with Detroit this season came in Edmonton on Feb. 4, when he relieved Conklin at the start of the second period with the Red Wings trailing 3-1.
MacDonald, who stopped 22 of 23 shots, helped rally his teammates to earn a point before losing a shootout.
“When you get called up,” he said, “you never know how long you might sit on the bench. It could be a week or a game. You’re never sure what to expect, but you’ve got to be ready when they give you the opportunity.”
Two days later, MacDonald yielded only two goals in a loss on the road to Phoenix. He was then given the unenviable task of not messing up the home winning streak that stood at 17.
“I was sitting on the couch at home in Grand Rapids when Howie picked up the 17th game and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of games,’ so when I was going to get the chance to go for 18, I think that was the most pressure,” he said.
MacDonald withstood the pressure to help the Red Wings beat Edmonton 4-2 for No. 18. Two days later, he led Detroit to a 2-1 shootout decision for the 19th straight win. A 4-3 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers tied the 20-game record on Feb. 12.
He held Dallas and Nashville each to a single goal to register wins 21 and 22, then helped defeat San Jose 3-2 to put 23 in the record books before Howard returned to the lineup.
MacDonald was not merely minding the store. Four of the wins were by a single goal, and he was named a star in four of the six games during the streak, including the first star in the last two.
“After I won that first one, the reporters were all over me about the streak, but my whole mindset was just to go out and play because when you’re not thinking too much, usually good things happen.”
An even-keeled personality has served MacDonald well over the years, never allowing himself to get too high or too down on himself, taking the good with the bad, and vice versa.
“That’s exactly the way you’ve got to be in this game, especially as a goaltender,” he said. “Things can change in a hurry when you play night after night. You can have a great game one night and the next game might not be so good.”
He remembers playing two periods in a 10-3 loss to St. Louis last season. “The next day I woke up and everybody was worried except for me. You just have to shrug it off. You’re a goalie – things are going to happen, pucks are going to go off skates. You can’t worry about it.”
Staying positive will do wonders for a player’s confidence.
“I signed last July to be here and when they sent me down, I wasn’t going to mope and cry,” he said. “You just have to work hard and be patient and wait for your chance.”
His opportunity may have taken longer than he expected. An early season concussion derailed a fast start.
“Things might have happened a little sooner, but unfortunately I got that concussion and it set me back almost two months before I was feeling better,” he said. “It took a while, but my game is finally where I want it.”
MacDonald credits his teammates for playing outstanding defense – limiting the number of shots, clearing out rebounds, and giving him a chance to see and stop the puck.
“The guys have been great in front of me, battling every game,” he said. “When you see guys like Nick Lidstrom or Niklas Kronwall blocking shots, it makes you work even harder. That’s why we kept the streak going. It seemed like every night there was a new hero.”
He will likely never forget the spectacular goal scored by Pavel Datsyuk with five seconds remaining to beat Nashville for the 22nd consecutive win – “I was probably the happiest guy in the rink,” MacDonald said – but he also singles out the team’s unsung third line of Darren Helm, Justin Abdelkader and Drew Miller.
“It takes a team effort to do something special like the streak,” Helm said. “We had different guys chipping in every night, and that’s what we need for this team to be as good as we are.
“Hopefully we can continue to play the same way down the stretch with everyone contributing in different ways.”
Abdelkader agrees that teamwork often makes the difference in close games. “We’ve got the kind of guys in the locker room who rally around each other,” he said. “It’s a tight race, so we have to look for points every night, especially at home.”
The Red Wings outscored opponents 92-34 during the streak, scoring five or more goals eight times while allowing their opponents more than two goals only twice.
“We played really well together at home and found ways to win every night,” said defenseman Jonathan Ericsson. “Howie has played tremendously for us the whole year, and when Mac got the opportunity to play, he really stepped up. He’s done an unbelievable job for us. We’re very blessed to have him back there.”
Abdelkader said MacDonald deserves a lot of credit for keeping the streak alive as the pressure mounted. “Hats off to him – he’s played really well. He knows he’s a good goalie and it was just a matter of him getting an opportunity.”
For his performance, Red Wings fans showered MacDonald with praise, echoing their appreciation with chants of “Joey, Joey!” Bob Wojnowski of The Detroit News
suggested that things had “gotten so strange and giddy...Joe Louis Arena had become Joey Louis Arena.”
“To hear my name like that is an unbelievable feeling, especially in this rink with so much history and so many great goaltenders – it sent a chill down my spine,” MacDonald said.
“The atmosphere has been just like the playoffs, with the crowd always standing the last four or five minutes of the game and people cheering 20, 21 or whatever number we had going. It’s been awesome, and I had a front row seat to it.”
Naysayers have long said the Red Wings are too old, but that is no longer the case, thanks to a steady influx of players from the ranks of the Griffins’ organization.
“You look around our dressing room and there’s me, Kronwall, Hudler, Ericsson and Jimmy (Howard),” said MacDonald. “We all came from Grand Rapids and we all played a lot there, not just a few games or even one year.
“Everybody waited their turn and when they got the opportunity, they succeeded. I think that’s a huge step. You play in the minors for a few years and when you get up here, you want to work even harder to stay. You learn that you’re not going to get to the next level if you don’t leave everything out on the ice. That’s why guys like Abby and Helm work so hard. And now you see it with younger guys like (Jan) Mursak, (Cory) Emmerton and (Jakub) Kindl.”
Nobody wanted to see the streak stopped, but all streaks eventually come to an end.
Vancouver came into Detroit with the NHL’s best road record, but to lose the lead to the Canucks with only 15 seconds left on the clock was “disappointing,” according to Abdelkader. Losing in a shootout, Ericsson said, was “a tough one.”
Even so, Helm declared that the team had enjoyed “a good run” and admitted that the streak had been “pretty amazing,” although he was holding out hope of reaching the mark again someday.
“I know it’s pretty incredible, but I’m still young enough in my hockey career that hopefully...”
Helm let his voice trail off, perhaps realizing that he’s more likely to be an old man reflecting on his accomplishments than to ever top a streak that broke a record that had stood for 82 years.
“I know 23 straight wins at home is a great accomplishment,” MacDonald said. “To look at where I am now and to have gotten the opportunity to step in, play some big games and be part of history, I know is pretty special.”
MACDONALD’S SIX HOME WINS
Feb. 8 – 15 saves in a 4-2 win over Edmonton
Feb. 10 – 29 saves in a 2-1 shootout win over Anaheim (2nd Star)
Feb. 12 – 26 saves in a 4-3 win over Philadelphia – Tied NHL mark of 20 straight home wins in one season (Boston 1929-30 and Philadelphia 1975-76)
Feb. 14 – 20 saves in a 3-1 win over Dallas – Broke record (3rd Star)
Feb. 17 – 20 saves in a 2-1 win over Nashville – Tied NHL mark of 22 straight home wins (over multiple seasons by Boston 1929-31) (1st Star)
Feb. 19 – 31 saves in a 3-2 win over San Jose – Broke record (1st Star)
GRIFFINS ALUMNI: PART OF HISTORY
A total of 15 Griffins alumni played a part in the Red Wings’ amazing 23-game winning streak at Joe Louis Arena. Every game was backstopped by one of the Griffins’ top two all-time leaders in wins.
In each of the last five home games (Feb. 10-19) and in seven of the 23 overall (also Jan. 12 and Nov. 8), the majority of Red Wings who played (10 of 19 on each occasion) were Griffins alumni.
* As of the streak’s conclusion