12/09/2012 10:44 AM
Griffins captain Jeff Hoggan is a firm believer in the power of positive thinking.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
When Jeff Hoggan left Hope, British Columbia, in 1998 to play college hockey for Nebraska-Omaha, he never abandoned hope.
He felt confident that he would eventually find his way to the NHL.
“I’m a small-town kid, and I believe that you never forget where you come from, and I’m proud to say that I come from Hope,” said Hoggan, who would eventually play in the NHL for the St. Louis Blues, Boston Bruins and Phoenix Coyotes.
All roads, it seems, pass through Hope, which is 90-some miles east of Vancouver. The Trans-Canada Highway (Highway 1) travels through Hope, which also serves as the intersection of the Coquihalla Highway, the Crowsnest Highway and Highway 7.
It is best known as the location of the Sylvester Stallone action movie, Rambo: First Blood, the first of more than a dozen Hollywood films to use the town’s scenic beauty to its advantage.
“When I was growing up, it was a logging community where everybody’s dad or someone in the family had ties either to the log yard or lumber mill. Now it’s a stop for gas and fast food,” said Hoggan, who proposed to his wife, Chevonne, on Mount Hope.
In a sense, Omaha was a perfect destination for Hoggan. Not only did his spouse hail from Harlan, Iowa, less than an hour away, but the Midwestern work ethic was well-suited to his personal drive.
Hoggan started his pro career with the Houston Aeros, where his skills were shaped by coach Todd McLellan, who had his own NHL aspirations (working later as an assistant with the Red Wings and, eventually, as the head coach of the San Jose Sharks).
“In college, you can get away with running around and making mistakes and then recovering. I learned right away that if you’re out of position in the AHL, you’re going to be exposed,” Hoggan said.
“Todd was a key to teaching me how to be a pro. Much of it was positional teaching. I remember him saying ‘Less is more,’ which was an important lesson because I was a high energy guy.”
The Aeros won the Calder Cup at the end of Hoggan’s first full professional season in 2003, advancing to the finals after besting the regular season Western Conference champion Griffins in seven games.
Hoggan remembers his time in Houston as an “eye-opening” experience.
“When you sign a pro contract, you think you’ll be in the NHL before you know it,” he said. “You quickly realize that it’s not that easy. ‘Wow, there are a lot of good players in the AHL.’ There was a lot more for me to learn.”
Most importantly, Hoggan learned that there’s more to the game than scoring goals. A lot more.
“Guys worry about points and that’s just not it. You can’t go up to the NHL if you’re not solid defensively. You’ve got to be able to do all of the simple things that make you a well-rounded player.
“During my career, I’ve seen prospects with all the skill in the world who didn’t grasp that there was more to the game, and so their careers ended prematurely or they went to Europe before they should have. It’s a shame, really.”
Now in his 11th pro season, Hoggan is willing to tell anyone who will listen that it takes patience and practice – more than a little of both, in fact.
“You’ve got to stay resilient and you’ve got to be persistent,” he said. “You can’t lose sight of your goal, even though you’re not going there immediately. You can’t get frustrated.”
For someone from Hope, there’s nothing worse than a pessimistic attitude.
“I don’t like negative energy,” he said. “You see guys get frustrated and they bring a negative attitude that coaches and organizations don’t want. You want to snuff that out, weed out the weak. You either get on board or get out of the way.”
Hoggan’s success in Houston caught the attention of the St. Louis Blues, who rewarded his further development in Worcester with 52 NHL games during the 2005-06 season.
His first NHL game was against the Red Wings in Joe Louis Arena. “I’m not a sensitive guy, but I remember sitting there, feeling this rush of emotion. It was like, ‘Wow, you did it!’ I think I was walking on air, but you have to shake that feeling in a hurry.”
Following St. Louis, Hoggan spent a two years (2006-08) in the Boston Bruins organization, logging 47 more games in the NHL. Hoggan later signed with the Phoenix Coyotes, who wanted him to assume a leadership role with their AHL affiliate in San Antonio.
Hoggan served as the captain of the AHL’s Rampage under former Griffins head coach Greg Ireland. It was another learning experience.
“We had good players, but we just couldn’t find a winning formula,” he said. “It was my first time being captain, and because we were struggling I felt like I always had to say something. I think I was trying too hard. I learned you just have to be yourself.”
With Phoenix, Hoggan saw action in his 100th NHL game, which coincidentally came in Joe Louis Arena. Age, however, was beginning to creep up on him.
“Playing in Europe was something I wanted to try, so I went to Germany for two seasons,” said Hoggan, who played in Wolfsburg and Hannover. “It was interesting, but I ultimately wanted to see if I could come back and try to play a few more games here.”
NHL pensions, which are determined by the length of a player's career, require at least 160 NHL games for eligibility, so Hoggan was still short in that department. “It was a consideration, but I don’t play for money. I play for the love of the game,” he said. “I wanted to take another crack and see where I was at.”
He had hoped for an invitation to an NHL training camp this past fall, but with the NHL lockout he settled on a tryout in Grand Rapids. There were no guarantees, only a promise from Griffins coach Jeff Blashill that he would get a fair look.
By the end of training camp, the Griffins had not only found another veteran, but also an experienced player worthy of wearing the captain’s letter on his jersey.
“I got here and things just worked out,” Hoggan said. “It’s an opportunity to be one of the older guys and I’m really embracing it. I told the guys that my best days might be behind me, but I still take pride in winning and playing with guys who are going to the next level.”
Coming to Grand Rapids has helped him feel rejuvenated.
“There are not many guys playing in the AHL with birthdates in the 1970s anymore,” said Hoggan, who will turn 35 in February. “But I don’t feel old. I’ve taken care of my body, and while I’m not playing Call of Duty or Xbox, I can still relate to the younger guys.”
And while it’s a longshot, Hoggan still holds out hope for one more chance at the NHL.
“Part of me knows my best days are in the past, but I haven’t given up hope,” he said. “I don’t want to look back with any regrets. At the end of the day, I want to feel like I gave it my all.”