Many 20-year Griffins season ticket members see Van Andel Arena as their second home.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
A season ticket is the passport to memories. For Mary Theeuwes and Shelly Walters, just two of many longtime Griffins fans, the privilege has engendered 20 years of unforgettable experiences.
Not surprisingly, winning the Calder Cup in 2013 ranks among their fondest memories.
Theeuwes was one of a small but enthusiastic and grateful group who greeted the team bus when it arrived at Van Andel Arena from Gerald R. Ford International Airport at 2:20 in the morning after the Griffins clinched their first championship in Syracuse.
“Of all the things in my 20 years of following the Griffins, I’ll probably most remember that night,” Theeuwes said. “We waited so long to see it happen, there was no way I was going to miss it. One of the TV stations interviewed me, but I was crying too hard. I was in tears.”
Theeuwes later made a collage of photos taken by a friend of the post-game celebrations with the Calder Cup. “I had the players sign it at training camp that fall and it ended up replacing the family portrait in my living room.”
Walters has similar, although decidedly more bittersweet, recollections. “It was incredible,” remembers Walters, who sits next to her sister Donna Silva in section 224 at Van Andel Arena. “We cried and cried.”
Their tears of joy were marked by the melancholy of memories of their mother and father, Dee and Jerry Kamsickas, avid Griffins fans who had passed away nearly five years earlier, only 20 days apart, in the fall of 2008. “Mom died of leukemia and dad died of a broken heart,” she said.
Getting to see the Griffins finally win a title led to a mix of emotions.
“We felt like mom and dad were sitting up there in Syracuse while we were watching the game at home online,” Walters said. “It was so incredible.”
When the Griffins organization held a lottery to assign seats in 1996, her father was fourth in line. “We used to go to the Grand Rapids Owls games together,” Walters said. “When the Owls disbanded, we wanted a new hockey team so bad. When we heard the Griffins were coming, I couldn’t afford season tickets, so my mom and dad got them.”
Walters frequently attended games with her parents and her daughters, Stephanie and Sami. “My girls basically grew up at the arena,” she said. “They were at the games all the time.”
She said very little thought was given to letting the seats go after her parents passed away.
“We don’t have a lot of money, but it’s not that expensive to go and the whole game experience makes it so worthwhile,” Walters said. “We decided we were always going to keep the seats in the family.”
In fact, Walters and her sister have shown no interest in changing their seats when the Griffins give fans the opportunity to upgrade or move before each season. “There is no way anyone else is ever going to sit in our seats,” she said. “We’re never moving. We’re just going to stay put.” Her daughter Sami even became a season ticket member last year, claiming the seat adjacent to their original pair.
The Walters family first forged a bond with the Griffins organization when their mother was sick in the hospital. “My mom was having a cow because the season tickets weren’t paid for and she was after my dad to remember the checkbook,” she said. “My brother emailed the Griffins to explain and (Griffins broadcaster) Bob Kaser came to the hospital.”
Kaser and Rich Meyers, the Griffins’ director of game operations at that time, served as pallbearers at her father’s funeral. “It was on a Thursday and my sister and I were at the game the next day. After the first goal, they showed a picture of our mom and dad on the big screen and Donna and I were just bawling.”
Over the years, the family has had its share of favorite players. “My dad liked Travis Richards and mom loved Bruce Ramsay and Darren Helm. Both of them liked Joey MacDonald. My daughter Sami was in love with Greg Amadio. She was going to marry him. Of course, she was a lot younger. I like Mitch Callahan and Jeff Hoggan. All the guys are great.”
Theeuwes is in total agreement. She learned how nice hockey players could be long before the Griffins.
“I started going to Owls games in high school,” Theeuwes said. “My mom would drop us girls off to the games, and we’d end up going to Village Inn Pizza on Alpine after the games, and we’d see some of the guys there. So when the story came out in the newspaper that hockey was coming back to Grand Rapids, I called immediately.”
A manager at McDonald’s where she has been employed for the past 32 years, Theeuwes started putting aside money to pay for tickets. “When it was time to pay for the season tickets, I went to the credit union and took the money out,” she said. “I paid in cash.”
She attends every Griffins game with her 73-year-old mother, Betty. “She loves her hockey,” Theeuwes said. “Sometimes people will ask if one of the players is her son because she’s cheering so loud.”
Her mother’s all-time favorite player is Joel Kwiatkowski, who now plays in Sweden but still lives in the area. “For her 70th birthday, I wanted to buy one of his jerseys, but he gave me one. That was her big surprise and when she opened it, she started crying. I told Joel that she wants to be buried with it.”
Theeuwes is an avowed “goalie geek.” All of her favorite players have been goaltenders, starting with Ian Gordon, whom she met at the first Griffins Booster Club dinner in March 1997. She held Gordon’s oldest daughter when she was six weeks old. She also has had dinner with Mike Fountain and his family. Jared Coreau is her current favorite.
Now in her fourth term as vice president of the Booster Club, Theeuwes said becoming involved in the organization was a natural extension of her season ticket commitment.
“I’ve met a lot of great people,” she said. “For instance, I met Jill DeWitt, who used to be president of the Griffins Booster Club, and she asked me if I was interested in going to training camp in Traverse City, and I’ve been going up every fall since, the past eight or nine years.”
Members of the Griffins Booster Club make player scrapbooks, raise money for charity and raise funds for bus trip treats for the players. In the past, the group has bought a team rug for the dressing room, a ping pong table and sewing machines.
After 20 years, Theeuwes said her attachment to the team is stronger than ever. “When the team was on that 15-game winning streak earlier this season, I had a knot in my stomach like it was the playoffs,” she said.
Like Walters, Theeuwes said she plans to keep the same seats indefinitely. “We look at the people around us as our hockey family,” she said. “Some have passed away and others have moved, but then we make new friends who we can high-five and hug. Being at Van Andel Arena is like our second home.”