03/13/2013 12:02 AM
Jeff Hoggan was a rookie when he helped the Houston Aeros win the 2003 Calder Cup.
Getting into the AHL playoffs is the first step on what every team hopes will be a journey to a Calder Cup championship.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Jeff Hoggan is the only Griffins player who has lifted the Calder Cup trophy, having won the AHL championship as a member of the Houston Aeros following the 2002-03 regular season.
Even though a decade has passed since his rookie year, Hoggan said it doesn’t seem that long ago. “It seems like yesterday,” he said. “It was my first year and I thought there were more to come.”
The Griffins’ captain learned that it wasn’t that easy. In fact, since that time, he has not been on a team that has even come close.
He hopes that changes this year.
“You don’t want to get too carried away. As the cliché goes, you don’t want to put the cart before the horse because we’re still fighting for a playoff spot,” he said. “But I have a feeling.”
It’s the same special feeling that he had as a member of the Aeros.
“We didn’t finish at the top of the league, but the whole year we kept building and improving,” he said, recalling the team that was coached by Todd McLellan, who later became a Red Wings assistant coach and is now head coach of the San Jose Sharks.
“We came into our own late in the season. We had the mindset that we had the right chemistry and the ability to win it. Once you get into the playoffs, anything can happen.”
When the 2013 Calder Cup Playoffs start April 24, there will be 16 teams with an equal chance to take the coveted prize.
The first step is to secure a spot among the sweet 16, which is easier said than done. “Winning gets harder the closer you get to the end of the season because teams are all fighting to get that playoff spot,” he said.
Nothing is certain, but Hoggan likes the composition of this year’s Griffins team, with its mix of veterans and young talent that has jelled during the course of the season.
“Our dressing room is pretty solid,” he said. “We’ve had guys coming and going, but I like our nucleus. Some teams will lose a player to an injury or a call-up and you see them fall apart. From what I’ve seen, I’ve got a feeling that it’s going to be hard to get us off track.”
Ultimately, it takes a team, not one or two individuals, to be able to achieve a championship.
The Houston team that won the Calder Cup in 2003 – after beating Grand Rapids in a memorable seven-game Western Conference Final – had no real superstars, although several attained success at a higher level. Hoggan eventually saw action in 107 NHL games, Stephane Veilleux appeared in 460 NHL games, and Zbynek Michalek had played in 550 NHL contests entering this season.
“It’s not an easy road,” Hoggan said of the journey to win a Calder Cup. “We had so many guys who were beat up with bumps and bruises. But we had some real character guys, and that’s what it takes.”
It’s the kind of character that he saw the Griffins exhibit on Jan. 19 when the team endured a bench-clearing brawl on the way to a record-setting 11-6 victory in Rockford, Ill.
“I think it’s one of those things that you look back on when all is said and done,” he said. “You hate to see those things happen, but it was the kind of incident that makes a team stronger because guys don’t forget guys who are willing to go to war for them.”
During the bus ride back from Rockford, Hoggan said it felt like the team’s character had been tested, and he and other veterans felt the team had come through the experience with flying colors.
“Some teams might wilt and fold, but that’s not us. There’s not much another team can do to keep us down. We’ll respond and keep fighting back.”
More recently, Hoggan liked what he saw in back-to-back home games against the San Antonio Rampage on Feb. 23-24. The Griffins avenged a 6-3 loss by bouncing back from a 2-0 deficit the following night to win the rematch 7-3.
“When you put up 43 shots and generate a lot of scoring chances, only to lose 6-3, you can get frustrated, but we went back to what we know how to do and scored seven goals for the comeback win,” he said.
It’s that kind of resiliency that can be the difference in the postseason.
“If you lose a game in the playoffs, you have to bounce back quickly,” he said. “If we do lose a couple of games, I think we have enough guys on board that we can right the ship in a hurry, and that’s key in the playoffs.”
There’s a tangible intensity to playoff contests, with almost a nervous excitement at the beginning of a series. “You get over it pretty quickly, whether it takes a shift or a game. It doesn’t take guys very long to get into that playoff mindset,” he said.
“As they say, you’re either in or you’re in the way.”
Playoff experience is priceless for players who are hoping to build their resumes as they pursue a promotion to the NHL. “It’s definitely good for a player’s development,” he said.
Hoggan, who recently celebrated his 35th birthday, said it would be good for the old guys, too.
He wouldn’t mind if a couple of Calder Cups served as bookends to his career. “I’m coming closer to the end, so it would definitely be a nice way to go out,” he said.