10/12/2012 7:41 AM
From growing up in the Upper Peninsula to his various coaching stints across the state, Jeff Blashill thinks his Michigan roots will serve him well in his new job as the head coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Talk to almost any coach and you will discover that his coaching philosophy has been formed by the experiences and places he has encountered over the course of his career.
Jeff Blashill has zigzagged his way across the map of Michigan, collecting subconscious souvenirs from stops in Sault Ste. Marie, Big Rapids, Kalamazoo and Detroit, along with Great Lakes detours to Oxford, Ohio, and Indianapolis, Indiana.
For a young coach who won’t turn 39 until December, Blashill has accumulated miles and miles of experience that he believes will serve him well as he becomes the ninth head coach in the 17-year history of the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Born in Detroit, he spent his formative years in Sault Ste. Marie, where Jim and Rosemary Blashill had moved when he was little. They believed it would be a good place to raise their family, which included Jeff’s older sisters Lisa and Deb and, later, younger brother Tim.
The family lived on the campus of Lake Superior State University, where Jim had come to teach criminal justice after 10 years on the force of the Detroit Police Department.
Growing up in the Soo meant one thing. “When you’re a young boy, you play hockey,” Blashill said. “The reason I became a hockey player is that simple. I was extremely lucky to grow up in the Soo.”
In interviews, his father has claimed that Jeff’s interest in hockey began before he could even read, that his devotion to the game was so serious that he didn’t like people cheering because it was distracting.
Blashill chuckles at his father’s recollection, doubting its veracity but unable to dispute its accuracy. After all, he remembers being consumed by anything remotely associated with Lakers hockey.
“I became a hockey fan before I became a hockey player, and in that sense I was fortunate because I had that exposure to a high level of hockey at a young age,” he said.
The family lived an idyllic life among cloistered houses that had once been home to army officers and staff. In the winter, the university maintenance staff built skating rinks so the boys could get out and play. “We also played some mean games of street hockey,” Blashill recalled.
Blashill became a goaltender. “I think I was the only one to volunteer in Mite hockey,” he said. “Nobody else wanted to do it, so I stuck with it.”
Although he tried other sports, Blashill primarily played hockey and baseball, and he credits his coaches for teaching him the basic values that endure in his coaching philosophy today.
“I was fortunate to have a number of great coaches, particularly John Ferroni and Bob Brown, who had a significant impact not only on my development as a hockey player but also as a human being.
“The same was true in baseball, with guys like Dan Weaver and Clyde Alaspa. They were hockey parents and baseball coaches – it was all intertwined. Sports can be a great educator for young people if handled correctly, and my coaches taught me the discipline you need to be successful in life.
“Winning was certainly important, but it was secondary to the life lessons we learned.”
Discipline, of course, often starts at home, and Blashill feels he was truly blessed by his upbringing. Both of his parents worked – his mother, a nurse by training, was an administrator for the Chippewa County Health Department – and they made sure that their children knew the importance of doing your best.
“They were both very successful people who understood the balance between personal careers and family,” Blashill said. “It’s something that I’ve always tried to keep in perspective.”
Blashill was fortunate to grow up with a group of boys who were, in his words, “very talented and very driven” – seven would ultimately play hockey or baseball at the Division I level.
In Blashill’s case, the destination was Ferris State University. Lake Superior State was looking for a goalie, but John Grahame, who has had a long NHL career, got the nod ahead of him. “And deservedly so,” Blashill said. “They made the right choice.”
At Ferris, Blashill had high hopes. “When I chose Ferris, I had hoped to be part of building the program into a national contender like I had watched Lake Superior do, but we didn’t have as much success.”
Blashill was the starting goalie his first two seasons until his game fell apart during his junior year.
“I was given every opportunity to succeed and I didn’t,” he said bluntly. “It was 100 percent my fault. I didn’t get the job done. I lost my starting job and didn’t play much after that.”
It was the proverbial blessing in disguise.
Sitting on the bench game after game gave Blashill an opportunity to observe the action in a way that he would never have experienced had he been playing on the ice. He might have felt like the forgotten goalie, but Ferris State head coach Bob Daniels was keeping an eye on him.
“About midway through my senior year, he came up to me and asked if I was interested in becoming a coach someday. I thought it might be something I could do – it was either coaching or something in the financial world or law school – and I accepted a position as a volunteer assistant the following year.”
Blashill became a full-time assistant after one year. He admits that the transition to coaching was much more difficult than he might have imagined.
“I went right from playing to coaching, which presents its own challenges because now you’re coaching guys who were your buddies,” he said. “As a player, coaching looks easy, but I can tell you that I learned very quickly that it wasn’t.”
Blashill was eager to make his mark, but he candidly admits now that it was a struggle. “I think I was a below-average coach at the beginning of my career,” he said. “When I see guys I coached during those early years, I almost want to apologize to them.”
He learned that it’s one thing to have some ideas in your head and quite another thing to be able to verbalize them in a way that makes sense to a player and enables them to thrive and succeed.
“Lucky for me, I had great guidance from Bob and Drew Famulak, and they showed great patience with me,” he said.
Blashill stayed at Ferris for eight years, serving as an assistant coach from 1998 to 2002. During that time, he lived in Grand Rapids, where his girlfriend (and now wife) Erica worked in marketing and advertising.
Looking back on those years in Grand Rapids, Blashill remembers attending a few Griffins games and watching John Gruden, another Ferris State product. Little did he know that he would one day stand behind the home bench at Van Andel Arena.
Blashill left Ferris for Miami University in Ohio, where he would serve as an assistant under RedHawks head coach Rico Blasi.
“I had a feeling the team at Ferris the next year was going to be good, so it was hard to leave, especially knowing that you had a lot of your life invested in it. At the same time, I also felt I needed to learn some new things that would be important to my coaching development.”
Blashill stayed at Miami for six seasons, the longest he’s stayed in any one place as a coach. “I learned a ton working with Rico and Chris Bergeron. There’s no question they gave me a whole different perspective.”
Eventually, Blashill felt the tug to become a head coach. “The opportunities in college hockey were very few at the time, and Paul Skjodt, the owner of the Indiana Ice, had contacted me about coming to be head coach,” he said.
In fact, Skjodt had to ask Blashill more than once. “I said ‘no’ to him three times before I finally had a feeling in my gut that I was making a mistake,” said Blashill. “I was lucky that he gave me a fourth opportunity, and this time I said ‘yes.’”
Blashill compiled a 72-43-5 mark in his two seasons in Indianapolis, leading the Ice to a franchise-record 39 wins and the USHL’s Clark Cup championship in 2008-09.
“It was an awesome coaching experience that I think will have a huge impact on my first year in the AHL,” he said. “The USHL is a development league where players want to move on to the next level, and yet it’s also a place where winning is extremely important to the individual franchises.
“Like the AHL, you have two simultaneous goals: to develop players to their maximum abilities and to win championships. You also have some of the same roster fluctuations that are present in the AHL, although not to the same extent.”
His success in Indiana brought him back to his home state when he accepted the head coaching job at Western Michigan University in 2010.
While in Kalamazoo, Blashill led the Broncos to a 19-13-10 record, doubling the team’s win total from the previous season and leading the team to its best conference finish (4th) since 1995-96. The Broncos also played in the CCHA championship game for the first time in 25 years and earned their first NCAA Tournament berth since 1996.
For his efforts, Blashill was a finalist for CCHA Coach of the Year and was named National Coach of the Year by College Hockey News and Inside College Hockey. It looked like he was well on the way to rebuilding the Broncos program.
“One day in June, I received a phone call from (Red Wings head coach) Mike Babcock,” Blashill said. “We had no previous relationship. It was really out of the blue.”
It seemed like a chance of a lifetime.
“I wanted to coach in the NHL and had told the people at Western as much, but the opportunity just came along a lot faster than I would have previously guessed,” he said. “For someone who was born in Detroit and grew up in Michigan and was a Red Wings fan, it was far too great an opportunity to turn down.”
He left Western with mixed feelings. “It was an absolutely outstanding season with so many positive feelings that it felt like I was there more than a year,” he said. “I thought it was a tremendous start to our efforts to build Western Michigan into a national power, and I was excited for the upcoming seasons.”
In Detroit, Blashill had to hit the ground running. “There is no patience at that level – you’re there to win, and it’s a win-now level,” he said. “Mike Babcock felt I brought certain talents to the table that could combat my lack of NHL experience.”
“To say I wasn’t learning as I went would be a fallacy,” he continued. “I was very fortunate to be with a veteran team with solid leadership, and that certainly helped me in the process of trying to be an effective coach at that level.”
The Griffins’ job seems tailored for Blashill, who has proven his ability to develop and motivate young players. It’s the reason that the Red Wings’ front office – Ken Holland, Jim Nill and Ryan Martin – felt Blashill was the ideal choice to replace Curt Fraser, who was named an assistant coach with the Dallas Stars in June after four seasons in Grand Rapids.
“Ken, Jim and I had the opportunity to work with Jeff last year in Detroit, and in our opinion, Jeff is one of the brightest and most talented young coaches in all of hockey,” said Martin, assistant general manager of hockey administration for the Red Wings. “He’s energetic, he has a tremendous work ethic, he’s competitive, he’s demanding but compassionate, and he has a great passion for the game of hockey. He’s an excellent teacher and a leader. He was the perfect fit when we were looking for someone to fill this spot.”
Blashill admits that he couldn’t have imagined a better situation.
“I knew my next step in the coaching ladder was an American Hockey League head coaching job,” said Blashill at his introductory press conference. “If I was asked what the perfect scenario for my next job would be, I would have stated that it would have been as the head coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins.”
Being the bench boss of the Griffins affords Blashill the opportunity to keep his ties with the Red Wings organization while having the chance to build a winning team in Grand Rapids.
“Every year, every place I’ve been a head coach, the goals have been the same,” Blashill said. “First, we want to maximize player development. Our promise to our players is that we’re going to do everything possible to maximize their development. Secondly, we want to win championships.”
“I believe those goals go hand in hand,” he continued. “The more our players improve over the course of the season, the better equipped we will be at the end of the year. And the more our players experience winning, the more they’ll be ready to help Detroit in their goal to win a Stanley Cup.”
Like the Griffins players, Blashill intends to relish his time in Grand Rapids.
“Coaching is a learned profession just like any other,” Blashill said. “You are the sum of your experiences, from the coaches you worked for and with, as well as your players. Over the years you can only get better.”