01/18/2008 12:03 AM
Defenseman Jon Insana overcame adversity to earn an AHL contract with the Griffins.
Story and photos by Mark Newman
Jon Insana saw his professional career get off on the wrong foot not once but twice.
A fixture on the blueline at Michigan State University for four seasons (1998-2002), Insana wasn’t flashy, but he was the type of player you could count on being in the lineup game after game.
Undrafted as a teenager, he was invited to the NHL training camp of the Ottawa Senators following his MSU career.
“It was my second exhibition game and we were playing Montreal when I turned funny and an opposing player fell on my leg and broke it. Needless to say, it took me some time to recover.”
Insana had hoped to land a job at the AHL level at the very least, but the injury forced him to start his pro career several months later at the ECHL level, playing first for Trenton and then Florida.
The following year he was enjoying a solid season – 30 points in 58 games – when he was recalled from Florida by the AHL’s Lowell Lock Monsters. In his first game, he broke the other leg.
“We had just scored a goal and a guy on the other team was going to finish his check when he hesitated and fell. He put all his weight on my lower leg and it snapped.”
His future in hockey seemed precarious, at best.
“After two broken legs, you begin to contemplate where you are and whether playing hockey is something you really want to continue,” Insana said. “It’s a tough rehabilitation process and it tests your will to get back.”
In his view, he had come to the proverbial fork in the road.
But the prospect of a premature end to his hockey aspirations led him to take a long look at himself and whether he wanted to continue playing the sport he had enjoyed since he was a boy.
“You never want anything like that to happen, but in hindsight it was something that made me look in the mirror,” he said. “I think it really strengthened my love for hockey and my commitment to the game.”
But Insana’s tale isn’t an overnight success story. For him, the journey was just beginning.
In 2004, he came to Grand Rapids for the first time, although he had come close to joining the Griffins out of college.
“Obviously, the opportunity to go to an NHL camp with Ottawa was something I couldn’t pass up, but I knew (ex-Griffins coach) Danton Cole from Michigan State and I had spoken to him about possibly coming here,” Insana recalled.
He ended up spending most of the 2004-05 season in Muskegon, then bounced back and forth between the Fury and Grand Rapids late in the year. After the Griffins failed to qualify for the playoffs, he returned to Muskegon, where he helped the Fury win the Colonial Cup.
“To rejoin a team whose only focus was to win a championship was something special,” he said. “Winning at any level is winning. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a Colonial Cup or the Stanley Cup. It was a great experience.”
Insana found himself in a similar position during the following season. In 2005-06, he once again played eight games in Grand Rapids, spending the majority of his time in Muskegon.
Unable to firmly establish himself in any of his auditions with the Griffins, he played five games in the AHL with the Cleveland Barons. He also appeared in two AHL games last season with the Chicago Wolves.
“A lot of the guys I knew were playing at higher levels and I felt like I could compete with them,” he said. “It was frustrating, but at the same time it was motivating because I saw them moving forward in their careers.”
Insana was trying to move forward, too. Unfortunately, he may have been trying too hard.
“I didn’t have great success because I was trying to do too much,” he said. “You feel like you’re under a microscope, so you want to overachieve; you want to turn heads. I finally realized that I had to play the way I was comfortable with playing.”
He played 44 games with the Griffins last season, finally signing a standard player’s contract in late March after several professional tryout contracts. When he re-signed with the Griffins last September, it was a huge step forward.
“Honestly, to be able to work out a deal that solidified my spot here in Grand Rapids was the best feeling I’ve had in my professional career. I still want to have the mentality that I’m earning my spot every day, but, in the back in my mind, it’s nice to have that little bit of security.”
Insana had rediscovered the secret to success. He had always been known as a defensive defenseman at MSU; somewhere he had gotten off track. He began to excel again when he put his focus on playing strong in his own end first.
It’s the basis of Defense First, the youth hockey camp he runs every summer in Lansing with Mike Weaver, who was his defensive partner at Michigan State and is currently playing with the Vancouver Canucks.
The camp, which will be in its fourth year, offers instruction in the fundamentals of skating, passing, shooting, checking and puckhandling, but puts an emphasis on the mental and specialty skills needed to excel defensively.
It’s based on the belief that “defense wins championships,” and is built on the knowledge that Weaver and Insana have acquired during their professional careers.
“We started talking about different ideas to accompany our summer training and we liked the idea of a defensive camp, since we both take a lot of pride in that aspect of our game,” Insana said.
“We wanted to go beyond the raw skills and cover those things that make you a more complete hockey player, like how to think the game, how to position yourself properly.”
Originally conceived for defensemen only, their five-day camps now attract young skaters of varying size and skill.
“The more we talked to parents, the more we realized that a lot of young players haven’t settled into a position, so we teach them defensive skills that can apply to either side of the game,” Insana said.
The camp, which is held in Munn Ice Arena on the MSU campus, features guest appearances by former Spartans and current NHL players such as Adam Hall (Pittsburgh), John-Michael Liles (Colorado), Andrew Hutchinson (NY Rangers), Mike York (Phoenix) and Ryan Miller (Buffalo).
“We get a lot of returning players, which is really gratifying,” Insana said. “In our three years of doing the camp, we’ve seen these kids make a lot of progress.”
The camp also allows the former Spartans to renew their ties to MSU. “Being allowed access to the ice and the facilities there is an incredible privilege for us,” Insana said.
Insana spends his summers working out with roughly 15 ex-MSU players. “We all have the same gym memberships, so it’s nice that we’ve been able to stick together.
“Obviously, Michigan State was a great experience for our four years there, so we appreciate the fact that we’re able to come back in the summer. Some guys give us a hard time because we can’t quite cut the cord, but it’s an experience that we honestly treasure.”
Returning to East Lansing also led Insana to meet his wife Ashley, who was a senior at MSU when he came back for the summer two years into his professional career.
“I was still living out my college days a little bit when we met,” Insana said. “She has a real good head on her shoulders and she helped ground me and settle me down a bit. Getting married (in 2005) brought me to a new stage in my life and gave me direction and focus.”
For Insana, that direction is now up. As a regular in the Griffins lineup, he is doing his best to keep things simple. He wants to establish himself as an AHL defenseman while doing his part to get the Griffins on the path to the playoffs.
“It’s definitely a work in progress, but we’re learning more about ourselves every day,” he said. “We’ve lost some games that we should have won, but they’re all character builders and should help us down the stretch.”
Like his career, this season didn’t start exactly the way the Griffins had envisioned, but as far as Insana is concerned, that’s all in the past.
One thing in his past that Insana won’t ever forget is the “Cold War” game against Michigan in Spartan Stadium in 2001.
He was reminded of the outdoor hockey game when the Buffalo Sabres welcomed an NHL-record 71,217 fans for the Winter Classic against the Pittsburgh Penguins on New Year’s Day.
Sidney Crosby scored the game-winner on a shootout goal, sliding the puck past Insana’s former Spartan teammate, goalie Ryan Miller.
In contrast to the snowy, blustery conditions braved by Buffalo’s fans, the weather was nearly ideal for the “Cold War” game, Insana recalled.
“It might have been a little cold for the fans, but it worked out perfectly for the ice conditions,” Insana said. “The day before the ice had been a little slushy.”
Insana remembers the team eating a pre-game meal at the Kellogg Center on the west side of campus and then walking to Spartan Stadium for the game.
“We saw all these tailgaters, that atmosphere you normally associate with football games. It was pretty amazing to think we were just going to play a hockey game.”
The contest attracted 74,544 fans, the largest crowd to ever watch an ice hockey game.
“There was a lot of excitement building up to the game, but I remember wondering whether it would really happen,” Insana said. “It sounded so big and over the top, I didn’t know if they would actually go through with it.”
There has been talk of a Cold War II game, possibly staged in conjunction with an NHL game between the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs.
Insana think it’s a good idea, but knows making it happen isn’t as easy as people might think.
“It’s more than just an idea; it requires a lot of action - there’s a ton of work that goes into it,” Insana said. ”But I’m for anything to help the sport. If it will help spread the word and get more exposure for the game, let’s do it.”