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FOREVER CHAMPS

01/20/2018 12:03 AM -

The Griffins’ veteran quartet from the 2013 Calder Cup team reflect on the upcoming fifth anniversary of the organization’s first title.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

              
Brennan Evans, Triston Grant, Jeff Hoggan and Nathan Paetsch were four veterans who were given one task for the 2012-13 season: to return the Griffins to the playoffs after a three-year absence.
              
They responded by coming together to bring the Calder Cup to Grand Rapids.
              
It’s hard to believe that this spring marks five years since that team’s magical march to the organization’s first title. Grant and Paetsch are still playing in the pros, but Evans is now attending school and moonlighting in a senior men’s league while Hoggan is coaching for an Omaha AAA hockey club.
              
Although the quartet still stay in touch with one another through texting and social media posts, they have gone their separate ways. But their common bond remains.
              
Forever they will be championship teammates.
              
“I don’t think anybody expected us to win the Cup,” said Paetsch, who would captain the Griffins to their second Cup in 2017. “Before that season, the Griffins hadn’t made the playoffs for a while, so we came into the year facing lower expectations. But everything just clicked.
              
“We had a good, tight-knit group and we were able to grow more and more as the season went on. By the time of the playoffs, we came together. Every series was an absolute hard-fought battle and we always found a way to come out on top.”
              
Prior to Grand Rapids, the foursome had one thing in common. They were all from the western provinces of Canada. Hoggan hailed from British Columbia. Evans grew up in Alberta. Paetsch’s roots were in Saskatchewan and Grant was from Manitoba.
              
“We were all from western Canada, so we had a similar blue-collar upbringing,” Grant said. “We all believed in hard work and playing the right way. None of us were super talented, but we became professionals by grinding it out. When we came to Grand Rapids, all of us had lots left in the tank and we still had some things to prove.”
              
Evans agrees.
              
“Guys from the same geographic area are generally speaking cut from the same cloth,” Evans said. “That we’re from B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba is kind of wild, but we all share the same values and work ethic. I think that’s why the four of us clicked so well.”
              
Although he was chosen team captain, Hoggan said it was crucial that the four were able to contribute in their own way.
              
“There was no one guy doing more as a leader,” Hoggan said. “We led as a group because we were all connected. We all came from the same hard-working background and I think we understood each other, so it was easy for us to jell as a leadership group and share the same message.”
              
Hoggan, who had spent the prior two seasons in Germany, had come to Grand Rapids on a professional tryout. He wasn’t sure what to expect, but he knew what it would take to win. Unlike the others, he had won a Calder Cup previously, getting his name etched onto the trophy as a rookie with the Houston Aeros 10 years earlier.
              
“I didn’t know what I was getting into when I came to Grand Rapids after playing in Germany, but it was such a great experience,” Hoggan said. “The city and the people will always have a special place in my heart. It’s now part of my journey and it’s one place that I will never forget. I’m pretty grateful for my time there.”
              
One of the keys to success for the 2012-13 Griffins team was a balance of youth and experience. The veterans provided leadership while numerous young players – Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Petr Mrazek, Landon Ferraro, Riley Sheahan, Mitch Callahan, Tomas Jurco and Luke Glendening, among others – supplied plenty of energy and enthusiasm.
              
“It was important that we worked well with the young guys,” Paetsch said. “Part of the job of being a veteran is not only to find success on the ice, but also to help the younger guys further their careers. When they were called up, we were just as happy as they were.”
              
Grant believes it was important that the quartet practiced what they preached.
              
“Management respected us and brought us in for a reason, so we were happy to do our jobs and be professional and lead by example to the younger guys,” Grant said. “Once we found our chemistry and everyone understood what they needed to do for the team to be successful, we started to find our way. I was definitely honored to be a part of the group.”
              
Grant’s departure following the 2013-14 season broke up the quartet, but the trio of Evans, Hoggan and Paetsch played together for three seasons. In fact, the Griffins played a total of 50 playoff games from 2013 to 2015, the most postseason contests during a three-year period in the entire history of the AHL.
              
“We always enjoyed great character in our locker room,” Paetsch said. “We had guys who cared about the city of Grand Rapids and wanted to have success there.”
              
Grant had the best season of his career, at least statistically speaking, following his exodus from Grand Rapids. He tallied 13 goals and 13 assists in 73 games with Milwaukee in 2014-15. When Todd Nelson, his former coach in Oklahoma City, became the Griffins’ head coach in 2015-16, Grant returned, but injuries limited him to only six games of action.
              
Last season wasn’t much kinder to Grant. He played one game for the Binghamton Senators but mostly bounced between the ECHL’s Wichita Thunder and Rapid City Rush. He was effectively retired this season before the ECHL’s Quad City Mallards came calling shortly before Christmas.
              
“I decided retirement was kind of boring, so when this opportunity came, I jumped on it,” Grant said. “With injuries the past couple of years, I wasn’t having fun, so it was good to step away from the game because I think it cleared my head. My wife and I felt like we would give it one more shot, and so far it feels good to be back on the ice.”
              
Grant, who scored in his first game back, said 2017 was proving to be a pretty good year for him and his wife Caitlin, whom he met in Grand Rapids. They now have a baby girl, Emerson. “I’ve hardly slept in the last eight months and Caitlin has slept less than I have,” he said. “Still, she’s been an absolute joy.”
              
Paetsch, meanwhile, is anxious to get back on the ice himself. He resumed skating in December after missing most of the previous two months with a lower-body injury. By the end of 2017, he had appeared in only two games for the Rochester Americans.
              
Rochester, where Paetsch had played from 2003-06 and 2010-11, became his refuge when the Red Wings declined to renew his contract after five seasons with the Griffins, the last one coming as captain of the team’s second Cup winner. Paetsch was a victim of numbers, squeezed out by incoming Red Wings draft picks.
              
“When they told me that they weren’t bringing me back, it was devastating to say the least,” Paetsch said. “At the same time, I understand. Hockey is a business, so you have to look at their side, too. The young guys have to play. They have to develop.”
              
Paetsch left Grand Rapids with no regrets. “To win one championship is unforgettable. To win two is unbelievable,” he said. “Grand Rapids was home to my family and I will always hold the city dear. Five years with one AHL team is a pretty special run. Obviously it was hard on myself and my family. I still keep track of the team and how they’re doing. Part of my heart will always be there.”
              
Evans played one more season after his three-year stint with the Griffins, finishing his career in 2015-16 with the Texas Stars.          
              
“There was no doubt in our minds that Texas was it,” he said. “I think we had gotten a little spoiled in Grand Rapids. The Griffins treat everyone so well.”
              
He spent his first year in retirement from the game being a full-time stay-at-home dad. He and his wife Michele have two daughters: Vera, 4-1/2, and Isla, 2-1/2. “I definitely gained a lot of respect for moms,” Evans said. “Kids are a lot of work, no joke.”
              
Although Evans knew it was time to retire from the pro game, stepping away wasn’t easy. “I definitely miss it,” Evans said. “That happens when you do anything you love for that long and then you stop.”
              
Evans is now attending the North Alberta Institute of Technology while playing for the Lacombe Generals in the Chinook Hockey League, a senior men’s circuit in Alberta. He was recruited by the owner of the team, who promised him a career in air balancing.
              
“His pitch to me was ‘Come play for us and we can hook you up with a post-hockey career,’” he said. “Air balancing relates to ventilation systems and making sure that the airflow is correct in a building, whether it’s new construction or retrofit. Once I’m done with school, we’ll see if I like it or if I need to find something else.”
              
Playing in a senior men’s league has been “a real blessing” for Evans. “It’s been a great bridge from playing hockey full time to getting out of hockey,” he said. “I still practice, compete and get to hang out with the guys. A lot of them take their hockey pretty seriously. I’ve even gotten in a few fights, but they don’t usually last that long.”
              
Evans was surprised by the level of play – longtime Edmonton Oilers star Ryan Smyth played in the league last year – and he’s taken his share of ribbing for his pro credentials. “When guys look me up on the Internet and see that I scored the Cup-clinching goal, they go, ‘Seriously? That was you?’ Well, it’s not like I got good hands all of a sudden. I’m still the same player.”
              
He said his memories of 2013 will last forever. “I think about it a lot – all good memories, for sure. It’s pretty special to think about what we accomplished,” he said. “My wife and I will be watching TV and we’ll see something that reminds us of Grand Rapids, whether it’s Two Beards Deli, which was up the street from where we lived, or San Chez, which is near the rink. It happens all the time. We’re constantly reminiscing about the city and the team.”
              
Similar wistful emotions are stirred in the heart of Hoggan, who has returned to the state where he played his college hockey. After wrapping up his career with the Iowa Wild last season, he is now coaching the U16 and U18 teams for the Omaha AAA hockey club while finishing his degree. He is one class short of a degree in business administration at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and hopes to graduate in the spring.
              
Hoggan also helps behind the bench of the USHL’s Omaha Lancers in addition to volunteering to coach mite travel hockey for his two oldest boys. His wife Chevonne has gone back into nursing, so he’s doing what he can to help with their three boys: Hunter, 8; Cam, 7, and Quinn, 3.
              
“Selfishly, I would have played forever but all good things come to an end,” he said. “I knew I wanted to stay home closer to the family, but I didn’t know how I would take to coaching. It’s addictive. You don’t have the same aches and pains that you do playing – although sometimes you do mentally.”
              
Hoggan said he is excited about working with a great group of kids. He’s taken tips from a number of former coaches, including Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill, who coached the 2013 team. Hoggan has learned to refocus his energies from the ice to the bench. “The same work ethic applies, just in a less physical sense,” he said.
              
Winning two Calder Cups has definitely provided Hoggan with the credibility to talk to aspiring hockey players. “There are tons of guys who can preach Xs and Os, but when you talk about your experience and what it takes, that’s when the kids listen,” Hoggan said.
              
He wonders if there will be a day when he returns to Grand Rapids in a coaching capacity. He admits that he would eventually like to coach in the pros, but he is content to wait until the right opportunity presents itself. “Right now I’m having fun here coaching my kids,” he said.
              
There is little doubt that West Michigan would rate highly in potential destinations in his future. “I can’t say enough about the city and the people,” he said. “I hope I left something good there.”
              
Like the others, Hoggan continues to follow the fortunes of the Griffins.
              
“Everybody now looks at Grand Rapids as the team to beat,” Hoggan said. “The organization brings in key veterans and they preach winning, which comes down from Detroit and their Cup years and the tradition of making the playoffs every season. It’s important to them to teach young guys the right way to play, so they learn how to win.
              
“Those young guys are going to help the Wings get back on top.”