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A FEW GOOD MINUTES

On Wednesday, Grand Rapids Griffins head coach Greg Ireland took part in an extensive discussion about his team’s accomplishments during the 2005-06 season and its yet-unfinished business.

griffinshockey.com: Coach, it’s been great following you guys the whole year – watching you from the beginning of training camp, seeing what you had envisioned and seeing that come to fruition, at least to this point. Take us from the beginning – you thought you knew what you could do, you thought you knew what you had, but to have everything go the way that it did, one of the best AHL seasons of all time in your first full year as head coach – is there part of you that can sit back, and at least somewhat acknowledge that accomplishment and be proud of that?

Greg Ireland: Oh, undoubtedly. I’m more proud of our team, excited to be working with (assistant coach) Jim (Paek) – it’s been tremendous, the way he sees the game and the things he’s added for me, the details. Working with (Red Wings head coach) Mike Babcock, (Wings assistant coaches) Todd McLellan and Paul MacLean, we still continue to talk on a daily basis.

I was just telling my wife the other day, I can’t believe how much I’ve learned about the game this year, the last few years. It’s like you’re always relearning. The game’s always changing, it’s always evolving and taking on a new face. Working with people like that has allowed me to keep learning more about the game and challenging myself and feeling confident in my teachings.

Working with this team has been an unbelievable experience. The ability to think outside the box and try new things has allowed me the confidence to know that guys at this high of a level will buy into some of the corny teachings that I try and the things we do. It’s really made it an enjoyable year.

griffinshockey.com: One of the things that (Red Wings general manager) Ken Holland said about Dave Lewis when they dismissed him was that in the assistant role, he was kind of like the mother, the caretaker, the guy the players could go to – when (then-Wings head coach) Scotty Bowman was being rough on them – and confide in, and that he never really fully transitioned to the head coaching role. Now you, as an interim coach last year, got a taste for that. How were you able to handle that transition?

GI: Well, I had never been an assistant coach before. I had always been a head coach. So, for me, it was more of a transition going the other way – stepping back, being the non-voice, playing in the shadows, doing a lot of the grunt work. I thought that was a tremendous experience. It stretched me as a coach, and made me even better. Working with (former Griffins head coach) Danton (Cole), he was a tremendous coach, I learned a lot and I really relished having that opportunity.

At the same time, as an assistant, I probably wasn’t great at being one of those ‘touchy-feely, buddy-buddy, out-with-the-guys-after’ types. There was still a little bit of aloofness with me because I had been a head coach and I was all business and all about what was best for the team. So maybe that helped me in my transition, because I kind of got to a good middle ground in my previous role.

griffinshockey.com: Taking a look at an 80-game AHL season, you can only do so much in preparing for that. You mentioned your experiences as a head coach, but at this level with a diverse group of guys that you have – from Europe, to old, to young, to fitting all these guys together, to finding the lines that work like you did – how were you able to keep that focus and energy level up, both you personally as well as the team?

GI: I think just finding the right moments – and maybe we could have done a better job, because we’d ‘push, push, push’ – to give the guys a day off, or just when they think you’re going to push them harder…back off a little. When they think they deserve a little time off, push them harder.

More than anything, we tackled our fitness level early. We went after it, we bought into it, we pushed it, we made it our theme. And I think we felt deep down that is what made us tick, and it really was. Our guys believed in that. We were able to utilize our conditioning very well through long stretches of tough travel and frequent games. To me, that was the bottom line this year. It helped so much.

griffinshockey.com: Going to ask you about a few turning points here, three of them to be precise, the first one being Jimmy Howard in net. There was a goaltending carousel here, in part having to do with injuries and the Detroit situation. Jimmy getting settled into his role in his first year as a pro, when did he turn the corner? When could you look at him and say, ‘that’s my number one guy, and this is the guy I can see taking us through the Calder Cup playoffs’?

GI: Probably a couple of weeks before Joey (MacDonald)’s injury, Jimmy had come on – still growing, still maturing, still developing the confidence. Joey had really forged ahead and played very, very well for us, and then all of a sudden, we found Jimmy really pushing ahead and we had a great little friendly competition between the two. And I’m looking, saying ‘hey, we’ve got a great one-two punch.’

At this point, it makes the decision tough to go down to one goaltender. Unfortunately, for our team and for Joey, he got sidetracked with the (back) injury and it allowed Jimmy to get a lot of games in. Right before that, he had garnered a lot of confidence in himself and in his game and that really pushed him ahead.

griffinshockey.com: I don’t think there’s any question that from your standpoint, on an individual basis, Jiri Hudler has been the biggest challenge to keep motivated and focused and performing at the high level he’s capable of. You did something with him by placing him down – way down – on a fourth-line role and bumped up (Eric) Himelfarb and a couple of other guys with (Eric) Manlow and (Kent) McDonell. Was that intentional? Were you trying to get more out of him, trying to light a fire? Did that work, and has he turned the corner?

GI: It was intentional. We demand…our sign here (points to the sign behind his desk, which reads) ‘Day-to-Day, Game-to-Game, Shift-to-Shift - Accountability’. We felt he wasn’t working hard enough, he was casual in his practice attitude more than anything. He picked his spots in the game, and these other guys were working. We wanted to reward them.

Yet we didn’t want to bury him, as a young player, so we continued to play four lines and he was on the fourth line. We put him on the power play when he earned it, and when he didn’t, I let him know and I took it away for a while. When he started to get consistent in his work ethic, he started to play harder defensively in our end. I thought it was a good opportunity to jump him back in with that line (Manlow, McDonell).

He’s always a work in progress. We’re trying to make him understand the value of hard work every day on a consistent basis and be the player that he can be. But it’s coming.

I told him a couple of weeks ago, ‘I used to take you off for faceoffs in our end,’ because he was very nonchalant and casual, ‘I haven’t done that in a while.’ He said, ‘yes, I know, you’re putting me out there.’ And I said, ‘because you’re one of our better guys at getting out on lost draws, at blocking shots, at working on the defensive side.’

I wanted to let him know that there was a rewards system there as well. You get what you earn with us.

griffinshockey.com: Are you comfortable going forward with him, in the playoffs and the environment that you’ll be in, on the point on the power play?

GI: Yeah, I think it’s taken a little adjustment for him and (Terry) Virtue, and we talked about that and tried to take some of the risk away from what he does. We’ve worked on that the last few days. That power play, to be honest with you, over the last week has been our better power play.

When you’ve got high-risk guys on the ice, sometimes it works for you, sometimes it doesn’t. We have to make sure it works for us more than it doesn’t, and that’s what we’re working on now to hone that edge.

griffinshockey.com: Final question looking back, and that is – the team as a whole, what was the turning point? One of them must be one of the more incredible comebacks in the AHL this season, in Houston, the five goals on the power play in the third period, turning that around against an opponent you had struggled with and a team you might see down the road. Would you view that as the team’s turning point? Was there one which was that specific, and do you think that’s maybe when you hit full stride as a team and were ready to go the rest of the way?

GI: I do. I think there were a few of them, there was the one in Milwaukee where we came back (a 5-4 overtime win on February 3rd). That was the predominant one though, to me (a 6-5 win on Jan. 6 at Houston, storming back from a 4-1 third period deficit). It sent a good message. It was a team that had success against us early in the year.

We played hard, we felt, a lot of nights in there and maybe deserved a little bit better fate. The game is funny, how it rewards the hardest-working team most nights. So we found that by staying the course, by being well-conditioned, that we could make the third period ours. I really felt the guys started talking about being a third period-team at that point, and the conditioning being a huge factor. It was sold. The guys bought into it.

(Note: The Griffins outscored their opponents by an astounding 114-71 margin in the third period during the regular season, compared to a 92-84 advantage in the first and a 105-87 edge in the second.)

griffinshockey.com: Looking at Toronto now, this is a scary team. From the way this team has played you guys throughout the season, the tight-knit organization they have top-to-bottom, the way (head coach) Paul Maurice approaches the game – to play a team like this right now, they’re going to grab your attention. Two specific match-ups: one in goal with Jean-Sebastien Aubin, a guy who was a big-time talent early on in his career with Pittsburgh, against Jimmy (Howard), a rookie in net. And you’ve got Paul Maurice, who’s coached in the Stanley Cup Finals (for Carolina vs. Detroit in 2002), against you in your first full year here. These are formidable match-ups for you, just in those two areas. Take us through what you look at with Toronto, and what concerns you the most about them.

GI: A couple of things. I think they’re a good club, I think they’ve got a lot of depth. I heard early in the year comments from their organization that they were getting used to the league, but I looked at their team and broke it down. I think they had 17 returners – which was most, if not all, of their (defense), both goaltenders, a team that went into the playoffs.

They were a playoff team last year, we weren’t. So I think we were getting our footing, they were able to utilize that to their advantage early. But they were a better team than everybody expected. I’d seen through that, and obviously the proof’s in the pudding.

They’re an excellent team. And on top of that, they’ve added John Pohl (center), Bates Battaglia (NHL veteran left wing), and (right wing Aleksander) Suglobov. So they’re adding at the top end to a very experienced team.

I think it is going to be a hard-fought series, I think they are an excellent hockey club, I think they’re very well-coached. And I think it’s a great challenge; I think life is about challenges. It’s how you meet them, it’s how you respond to them, positively and negatively, and at the end of the day it’s not life-threatening.

We’re not making crucial life decisions here. We’re playing a game. So we can go in relaxed, knowing that. We can try things, we can be ourselves, and we know going in full-well that the experience and what we’ve done to this point will be able to carry us.

As far as my background, it may be my first year of being a head coach in the American Hockey League, but over the last 14 years, I’ve been able to be a part of several teams that played in championship finals. Won some, and lost some. I’ve been able to go back and take that experience, change some things that we haven’t done.

My experience has been, you get into Game 7, the team that’s made it do-or-die, ‘rah-rah-rah,’ ‘we have to win one for the Gipper,’ usually doesn’t win. The team that realizes it’s just another game, we’ve played a thousand of these in the driveways as kids – last minute of overtime, you’re Darryl Sittler, Guy LaFleur, Mike Bossy – that’s really what it is.

Play with that same looseness, play the same way you’ve played for the first 80 games. Play with the same passion, and things generally win out for you. And that’s generally the attitude I’m taking in, not making it too big or too small, looking forward to a fantastic challenge, looking forward to making not only me a better coach but us a better team, no matter how it falls.

griffinshockey.com: You’re playing the same opponent up to seven times in a row. You’ve got to make adjustments on-the-fly, between each game. Is there anything that changes in your preparation for this series, game-to-game? Or do you keep it like you just said, exactly the same - you’re approaching it just like one of 80, ‘this is 81, this is 82.’ How much do you change?

GI: Well, the stakes are higher. It’s not ‘best-of-seven’, it’s the ‘first-to-four.’ Obviously, one team will be done for the year. But I want our guys to continue the way they have, with the energy level, the discipline, the composure, and the passion. It’s been successful for us, and over 80 games, if something’s been successful, why should you change it for seven?

If at the end of the day that’s not good enough, so be it. As a coach, I’ll stand up and say, ‘hey, this is what I believe in.’ But I really do believe it’s been successful, and if we can keep it and be consistent in it, we’ll be successful again.

griffinshockey.com: If you were to bullet-point it, what are the things that you know your team needs to be able to do, and what are the things that you need to stop Toronto from doing, in order to be the ‘first to four’ in this series?

GI: One is discipline. We can’t partake in the extra-curricular.

We’ve got to play hard, from the drop of the puck to the whistle.

We’ve got to try to neutralize their transition game. They’re a quick transition team, they pounce on turnovers.

The specialty teams will be a factor. So [giving them the fewest] opportunities on their power play, which is a good power play, will be important.

And I think just basically, overall, making sure that we’re patient and we establish the game that we want to play.

griffinshockey.com: One final thing. You’ve mentioned the 14 previous years, you’ve coached at a very high level in lower-level minors all the way up. You are a guy that’s had to grind it, earn your way up the ladder, nothing’s been given to you. As you come into this series, what’s going through your mind? How do you feel, maybe opposed to the past, this being the biggest stage that you’ve been on?

GI: Every year, it’s the biggest stage you’ve been on. Whether you’re in the ECHL, or Junior-A hockey, that’s the highest you’ve coached. It’s a new stage, it’s a new development, it’s a new opportunity.

I enjoy what I do. I enjoy teaching, and I think that there’s something to be learned from every situation you experience in life.

I’ve been able to take on many different roles in my life. I ran my own business through some tough economic times and had to answer to bank managers knocking at the door. To me that’s life-threatening, and those are tough things to deal with every day.

I take something out of everything. When you make it do-or-die, then you lose focus on what you’re doing. To me, I’m going to take a lot of experience out of here and I’m going to put it in my arsenal, and I’m going to continue to use the experiences I have to help make us successful through this run.


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