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12/08/2007 12:02 AM -

Griffins center Evan McGrath has no shortage of mentors entering his second year of the pros. He’ll need their support to graduate to the NHL.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

When people talk about the challenge of college, it’s not the classes alone that test one’s mettle. It’s learning how to retain all the information, how to ask questions, how to study, how to communicate, how to exist in the context of a larger society as a whole.

In other words, it’s the process.

Evan McGrath is in his second season with the Griffins and while it may not be the equivalent of a college education, he is going through a process. He is learning what it will take to graduate to the National Hockey League.

It’s not easy.

Detroit’s second choice (behind Johan Frazen) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, McGrath is a smarter hockey player for having experienced what, in his calculation, was a difficult freshman year in the pros.

Some of the lessons might even have been tougher than he expected.

A prolific scorer during his final two years in junior hockey, McGrath discovered that the Red Wings expected him to become a two-way hockey player, capable of playing as well in his defensive zone as he could around the net.

Metaphorically speaking, it meant going to school.

“It was a huge learning experience,” said McGrath, who struggled to find his role last season. “Things didn’t go exactly the way I wanted them to go. It was something I’ve never experienced.”

By his own admission, he has always been the “go-to” guy, the player a team looked to when they needed to get on the scoreboard. To make it to the NHL, however, he learned he would need to do more than get his name on the scoresheet.

“It’s just one of those things,” he said. “You’re going home every day after practice, wondering what you have to do. It’s on your mind all day and all night. It was definitely a frustrating experience.”

He learned that ice time was earned, not a given. In fact, like the student who learns that you don’t get an “A” just for taking a test, McGrath discovered there are no guarantees you’ll be in the lineup.

“When you’re not sure if you’re in the lineup every night or if you’re even on the team, it’s a definite eye-opener,” he said.

McGrath is referring to his two-week assignment to Toledo in the middle of last season.

After making him a healthy scratch three times in the space of a couple of weeks, the coaching staff felt it would be good for McGrath to get some playing time in the ECHL and regain his confidence.

Naturally, he didn’t see it their way at first.

“Being sent to Toledo was pretty rough,” he recalled. “Starting the season, it was something I never would have expected. It left a pretty bad feeling in my stomach. I couldn’t even eat for a day and a half.”

One phone call helped.

From the day he signed with Detroit, McGrath had an unofficial mentor in Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, who was always willing to offer encouragement and words of advice.

“I got a call from him telling me not to worry, not to be too upset about it,” McGrath recalled. “Just hearing some feedback from a well-respected person like that helped. I think it actually helped me have the success I had in Toledo.”

McGrath found his confidence in Toledo, where he recorded six goals and nine assists for 15 points in nine games. He thrived under the tutelage of head coach Nick Vitucci.

“He was unbelievable,” McGrath said. “He told me right from the get-go that I was going to play a ton. He told me that he was going to let me play and do whatever I felt I needed to do to get back.”

McGrath joined the Toledo team after it had lost six of its last seven games going into the ECHL All-Star break. It was hardly a one-man show, but the Storm rattled off seven straight wins after McGrath was inserted into the lineup.

“It was great to get some games in and play 25 minutes a night,” McGrath said. “It was a lot of fun and made me feel a lot better. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.”

His confidence restored, McGrath finished the year in Grand Rapids with an eye toward this season. The Red Wings gave him something more to think about.

“At the end of the year, Detroit told me they wanted me to work on a couple of things: to be aggressive and get on the puck. They don’t want me sitting back. They want me to become more like (Dan) Cleary or (Kris) Draper, be a kind of energy guy, getting on every loose puck.”

So this past summer McGrath worked out with his girlfriend’s father, which might not sound like that big of a deal, except that he’s Doug Gilmour, who scored 450 goals in his 20-year NHL career.

McGrath and Gilmour’s daughter, Maddison, went to the same high school in Oakville, Ontario.

“He’s tried to support me on and off the ice, including this past summer going to the rink, helping me with the things that I need to improve. He came to several of my games when I played in the OHL and he’s usually in Toronto or Hamilton whenever we play there.”

His biggest supporter, however, is his father, Mike. “My dad is probably my biggest fan and also my toughest critic,” McGrath said.

“If I don’t have a good game, he’ll be the first one to tell me. I think I get a text message from him every day about something he saw on TV or something he thinks I can use to improve my game. For someone who never played the game of hockey – he was a lacrosse player – he studies it very well.”

Knowing he still has a lot to learn, McGrath is willing to listen and learn.

“My dad’s always been supportive, always been pushing. He’s been that way since I was young. Without him pushing me, I don’t think I would be where I am now.

“I’ve had great support from all kinds of people, from my parents to my brothers to Doug Gilmour and Steve Yzerman. It helps when you know people are there for you.”

McGrath has come to understand that success rarely happens overnight. If he is going to realize his dream of playing in the NHL, it will take time.

Of the 29 players selected in the fourth round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft before McGrath, only one had played in an NHL game prior to this season.

McGrath played well in the prospects tournament this fall when he also had a solid training camp with the Red Wings. He saw action in five exhibition games, which he considers a step in the right direction.

“Putting on an NHL jersey and going into Joe Louis (Arena) or going home (to Toronto) and getting to play against the Leafs was the experience of a lifetime.

“It’s definitely something I’m grateful for and hopefully I’ll get in some regular games sooner or later.”

Of course, it can’t happen soon enough.

“It can be difficult sometimes when you watch guys you played against for years now playing in the NHL,” McGrath said. “At the same time, this is an organization that wants to have their prospects learn and get experience before they bring them up.

“I think that may be a reason why Detroit has been so successful for the past 10 years.”

He points to the example of Matt Ellis, who spent a full year in Toledo, came to Grand Rapids, worked hard over four years, became captain of the Griffins and is now in Detroit.

“He was a great captain and a great guy to have in the dressing room, especially in my first year. (Watching him), he definitely made you work a little harder. It’s a slow progression, but hopefully one day I’ll be in the same shoes as he is.”

McGrath hopes to be able to convince the coaches to eventually increase his ice time. He knows he will have to show that he is capable of making the grade.

“The goal is to get a couple of NHL games, but there are a lot of guys fighting for the same thing. I want to have a good year down here, improve as much as possible and hopefully reap the benefits up there.

“I just want to keep progressing and get better every day.”

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