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Close Enough

01/11/2002 2:03 PM - Griffins defenseman John Gruden has learned to live with being on the bubble of playing in the NHL.

Story and photos by Mark Newman

John Gruden has been "close" his whole life. Born practically in the shadow of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, Gruden has long understood the meaning of being "in the neighborhood."

Nobody has been on the brink of bigger and better things more times than the dimpled defenseman with dumb luck. Fame, it seems, has always been right around the corner for Gruden, who was born in the northern Minnesota town of Virginia only because there was no hospital in Eveleth, which was home to his father and a museum dedicated to his favorite sport.

Almost from the first time he laced up skates at the age of 2-1/2, Gruden has seemed destined to come no closer to the hallowed halls of hockeydom than across the street. Even so, you would be hard-pressed to find a more gracious guy who is simply thankful for having the good fortune - and privilege, he might add - of playing the game he so loves.

While Gruden would certainly like to spend the rest of his playing days in the NHL, Grand Rapids is close enough as far as he is concerned. "I really enjoy playing here," Gruden says. "Of course, it would have been nice to play every year in the NHL and never play a game in the minors, but I've learned things that will go a long ways even after I'm done playing.

As far as Gruden is concerned, in hockey - as in life - it's the journey, not the destination, that's important. "Even at my age, I'm still learning," says Gruden, who turned 31 this past summer. "You go through ups and downs. Sure, I wish things could have been different, but I wouldn't trade it for anything. If my career was over tomorrow, I won't have any regrets."

Gruden's route to a hockey career was a lot longer than most professional players. He actually quit playing after high school, certain that a future in the NHL was no more than a pipedream. "I might have been better-than-average, but I was no standout."

He enrolled in a community college, played in a men's hockey league and began coaching a pee-wee team. "I figured my hockey days were done as far as a career was concerned," Gruden recalls. "I had written it off."

A self-described "late-bloomer," Gruden followed a friend's suggestion that he tryout with a junior team from Waterloo, Iowa. He not only made the team, he had a good enough year that the Boston Bruins picked him in the seventh round of the 1990 NHL Entry Draft. Gruden also earned himself a college scholarship. That it was a small Michigan school by the name of Ferris State didn't matter. "I was just happy to have someone come knocking on my door," he says. Surviving school threats to cut the hockey program, Gruden was named to the NCAA West First All-American Team as a senior before making his NHL debut with Boston in 1994. "One week I'm watching Ray Bourque on television and a couple of days later I'm sitting next to him," recalls Gruden, who made his debut in Quebec before playing in the Boston Garden against the Montreal Canadiens. "Everything happened so fast - I went directly from college to the NHL, which doesn't happen that often," he says. "Obviously, the NHL was a little different from college.

He played seven games that season, then saw action in 38 games with Boston during the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season. He split his third year between Boston and the Bruins' affiliate in Providence. "You never want to complain about an opportunity, but I think I needed more time to develop. With the way I play the game - being more offensive-minded - it might have been better if I had played in the minors after that first year."

Gruden spent the entire 1996-97 season in Providence, where he scored a career-high 18 goals. "By my third year, Boston had written me off," he says. "No matter what I did, they weren't going to give me another chance."

Another chance came in the Ottawa organization. He spent a couple of years with the Detroit Vipers before being assigned to Grand Rapids at the beginning of the 1999-2000 season. Injuries and call-ups have kept him in and out of the Griffins lineup. "Without all the injuries, I might have been able to stay up (in the NHL). Who knows?" It was that suspicion that led him to resign with Ottawa rather than going to Germany to play as he had planned. "I've got to give it another shot - I can always go to Europe the following year," he says. "Hopefully, I can stay healthy."

Gruden was having a banner season when he was recalled by the Senators on Dec. 29. He owned the best plus-minus rating among AHL defenseman at the time of his call-up. "In a career - and this is my ninth year - you go through your share of ups and downs," he says. "You can't dwell on things that happened in the past. You've got to look ahead and find ways to contribute as best you can," he says. "Knock on wood, I feel like I'm finally getting into a groove that I haven't been in for years." In other words, he is close to the top of his game - which is good for Grand Rapids or Ottawa or wherever he is playing tomorrow. "You can never get too high or too low," he says. "You never know where you'll be tomorrow."

Gruden empathizes with his best friend in hockey, John Emmons, the former Griffins forward who was recently sent to the minors after appearing in 22 games this season with the Boston Bruins. "He was actually quite happy about it," Gruden relates. "Obviously the money's nice, but he was sitting out a lot of games, not knowing what his role was. He's still young. He needs to play, whether he gets another chance (with Boston) or catches the attention of another team."

From Gruden's perspective, it's always better to be in the lineup than out, no matter where you're playing. At this point in his career, he is just glad to be healthy and playing. "At my age, I'm definitely not a prospect," he says. "I may be older, but I feel like there's still enough life in my legs and body to contribute - whether it's here with the Griffins or the NHL."

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