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SCRUTINY ON THE BOUNTY

Being an acute judge of talent has helped Griffins general manager Bob McNamara steer plenty of good players into Grand Rapids

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Look for Bob McNamara at a hockey game and you won’t find him near the bench or even close to the glass. He’s not hiding in the zamboni tunnel and he’s not even in the stands.

No, if you want to locate the Griffins general manager, your best bet is to look at the farthest spot away from the ice.

Sitting in his perch high above the Van Andel Arena ice, McNamara watches the game below from his crow’s nest while he’s working another angle.

A cell phone never far from his ear, he’s in frequent communication with other managers, coaches and agents, always on the hunt for fresh, undiscovered talent or the well-traveled veteran who might help his team.

“We continue to do a lot of background on guys every year as we put our team together,” he says. “It’s important that you don’t leave any stones unturned.

“The more you do in terms of legwork, the better chance you have for success.”

As the only general manager in Griffins history, McNamara’s record speaks for itself: eight winning seasons out of nine, an overall record of 391-257-78-4, four division titles, two conference finals and one final appearance.

This being the minors, developing young talent is equally important and, in this regard, his efforts have been no less fruitful.

After the Griffins played three years as a independent, McNamara successfully steered the organization into NHL affiliations with the Ottawa Senators (three years) and Detroit Red Wings (the past three years).

The Griffins have seen a total of 69 former players land jobs in the NHL, including 11 goalies and 58 skaters. Entering this season, 29 players have made their NHL debuts after first playing for the Griffins.

“It’s not easy building a winner and developing players at the same time,” says Jim Nill, Red Wings assistant general manager. “It’s a fine line, but Bob handles it very well.”

Following a philosophy to find players of character, rather than just characters, McNamara is on the lookout for team players who won’t rock the boat.

“Invariably you’re going to make a mistake here or there,” McNamara says. “You cut down the margin for error when you do your due diligence.”

Nobody wants negative influences in the dressing room, most of all a general manager who wants to make the journey to the playoffs as smooth sailing as possible.

McNamara figures he can count the number of bad apples who have played for the Griffins on one hand.

“Bob is a very astute judge of talent,” Nill says. “He’s got good rapport with people around the league and he’s done a great job of building a franchise in Grand Rapids.”

The cornerstone of every McNamara team has been a solid goaltender, a fact that owes less to his credentials as a former netminder than to the belief that defense wins championships.

“You need a strong goaltender or you’re not even going to have a chance,” he says. “In terms of building a winning team, you have to start from the goal mouth out.

Over the years, the Griffins have enjoyed the services of seven all-star goaltenders: Pokey Reddick, Ian Gordon, Jani Hurme, Mike Fountain, Martin Prusek, Marc Lamothe and Joey MacDonald.

In addition, the Griffins have welcomed the talents of four goalies who have seen significant NHL duty: Patrick Lalime, Tyler Moss, Dieter Kochan and Curtis Joseph.

Meanwhile, McNamara has found skaters by scouring the college and ECHL as well as the AHL and, formerly, the IHL. Over the years, he’s managed to find a diamond or two in the rough, to say the least (see the accompanying box).

“His niche has been finding the (unknown) guys who fill in your team, but end up being a major part of your team,” Nill says. “Good examples are Rob Collins and Greg Amadio.”

Collins, who originally signed with the Griffins out of Ferris State University in 2002, led the Bridgeport Tigers in scoring last season. Amadio, who is expected to supply much-needed grit for the Griffins this season, was discovered playing for the ECHL’s Columbia Inferno.

“It’s guys like Mark Mowers, Jamie Rivers and Patrick Boileau who have come up to help the Wings over the years that have been part of his scouting,” Nill says. “He finds players who can help us down the road and vice versa.”

From his perspective, McNamara couldn’t feel better about the affiliations that the Griffins have forged with their NHL clubs.

“We’ve been fortunate that both Ottawa and Detroit subscribe to the theory that they want their young players to develop in a winning environment – that’s not always the case in minor league hockey,” McNamara says.

“Both organizations were very adamant about wanting their players to learn how to win and that fits our philosophy and what we want to accomplish.”

Nill stresses that not all affiliations are made in heaven. Sometimes relations between the parent club and minor league organization are acrimonious or, at best, strained.

To date, the Griffins and Red Wings have enjoyed a mutually beneficial affiliation.

“Kenny (Holland, Red Wings general manager) and I have a great relationship with Bob,” Nill says. “We’re interested in building the same type of team; we like the same type of player. (As a result,) our relationship has been outstanding.”

Building a winning organization ultimately creates an atmosphere that attracts other players, according to McNamara.

“Over the years we’ve attempted to create an environment where guys feel this is a special place to play. The organization has tried to treat players very well and they, in turn, learn that they’re going to be very well received by the fans.

“Some of our best ambassadors are the guys who have played here over the years.”

Sitting in his favorite spot aloft in Van Andel Arena, McNamara sees one thing he would like to change – the absence of a championship banner sticks in his craw.

“We’ve obviously been very good during the regular season and we’ve had some playoff success, but we still haven’t won the championship. We’ve been close, and it’s been frustrating when we haven’t won it.

“For whatever reason, we haven’t been able to bring a championship to the fans in Grand Rapids.”

If one player can make the difference, McNamara is bound and determined to find him. “Winning continues to drive us year after year, and we hope our 10th season is the one where we finally bring a championship home.”

And a Calder Cup, he hopes, is only the beginning. Like his players, McNamara dreams of someday winning the Stanley Cup.

“At some point, I want to move onto the National Hockey League,” he says. “At the same time, it’s got to be the ideal situation, because in my mind this is the best job to have outside the NHL.”

McNamara feels privileged to have earned the confidence of Griffins owners Dan DeVos and Dave Van Andel, and he’s grateful for their trust over the years.

“In this industry, you tend to see a lot of movement,” he says. “I’m fortunate to be going into my 10th year in the same place. We’ve been able to put down some roots and raise a family.”

He might be buying his own sales pitch, but outside of the NHL, he can’t think of another place he’d rather be.

“The organization is committed to winning and it starts at the top with the DeVos and Van Andel families and their philosophies and how they treat people.

“There’s a lot to be said about Grand Rapids and its attraction to players. I think that’s what draws players back and why you see them living here after their playing days are over.

“Obviously, it’s a pretty special place.”


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