By Herb Garbutt, Oakville Beaver
When Matt Lorito and the Grand Rapids Griffins won the Calder Cup last month, the team held on to the trophy for five days, taking it to banquets and team functions and various other celebrations.
But it wasn’t until the oldest annually awarded hockey trophy — sorry Stanley, the 2005 lockout robbed you of the title — arrived at his home in Oakville this weekend, that Lorito had a chance to take a really good, close look it.
“When you take time to look at all the names, it’s amazing seeing all the guys who have gone on to great NHL careers,” Lorito said. “Patrick Sharp, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards with the (Philadelphia) Phantoms. That team was stacked. And Carey Price winning with Hamilton right out of junior. There are a lot of good names on there.”
Lorito’s will soon join that list, once the 80-year-old trophy goes in for engraving after the players and coaches have all had their day with it.
For many of the players on that trophy, the Calder Cup championship served as a launching pad for their careers. Lorito hopes that will be the case for him.
Even before winning the Calder Cup, Lorito had plenty to be excited about in his first season in Grand Rapids. He scored the game-winning goal in the AHL all-star game, established career highs with 22 goals and 56 points despite missing a month and in the final week of the NHL season was recalled by the Detroit Red Wings.
The 27-year-old played the Wings’ final two games in the Joe Louis Arena, the rink he’d visited many times as a kid to cheer on his favourite team.
“That was unbelievable. It’s been my goal since I was a little kid to play in the NHL, and to get to do it as a Red Wing in the last two games at Joe Louis, it was pretty cool.”
Lorito worried it might not happen, though. The Red Wings were hobbled by several injuries late in the season, but Lorito — Grand Rapids’ leading scorer — was nursing one of his own after needing 10 stitches to close a cut on his hand. Thinking a recall might be possible, he played returned to the Griffins' lineup for a Wednesday game in Winnipeg.
“It wasn’t 100 per cent, but it was good enough to play,” Lorito said.
After the game, coach Todd Nelson told Lorito he been recalled. He flew back to Grand Rapids with the team the next day and then drove to Detroit. The Red Wings held an optional practice on Friday, but with the team having practised the previous day, Lorito was the only player to show up. So his first NHL practice was himself and a Wings’ assistant coach.
The next day, Lorito picked up his first NHL point, assisting on Dylan Larkin’s goal midway through the second period against the Montreal Canadiens.
“For an offensive guy, I put pressure on myself to produce, so for my first NHL game, I just wanted to create something,” he said. “I was lucky to make a play coming over the line and then (Tomas) Tatar made a good pass. It was pretty unbelievable.”
After playing in the Wings’ final game, Lorito returned to Grand Rapids where the Griffins wrapped up the regular season and then went on a playoff roll, winning 11 of 13 games to reach the final.
In the opener against Syracuse, he set up a last-minute game-winner in a 3-2 victory and the Griffins took Game 2 in double overtime. Ten days later in Game 6, the Griffins got a goal with 7:19 to play and held on for a series-clincing 4-3 win.
“The last six to eight minutes, you’re just hanging on and its nerve-wracking,” said Lorito, who had 13 points in 19 playoff games. “When the final buzzer goes, you can’t believe it. You’ve been playing for two months, plus seven months of regular season, and when it’s finally over, it’s hard to describe, but it’s pretty special.”
That could easily sum up the past 12 months for Lorito, since he signed a two-year deal with Detroit last July. Now he’s looking forward to going back to training camp with the confidence of knowing he can play in the NHL and contribute to a winning team.
“I couldn’t have scripted a better year,” he said. “Obviously, signing with the Red Wings was a dream come true. I wanted to have a strong year and make a good impression and we had a really good team, but there’s no better way to finish the year than winning your final game.”
And after helping close Joe Louis Arena, the only thing better would be helping Detroit open its new rink, Little Caesars Arena, in the fall.
"This summer is going to be shorter than most, but I'm going to do whatever I can to give me the best chance to make the Red Wings," he said. "That's the only goal, to be there to help them move in."