Eric Tangradi has found that his time in Grand Rapids has given him renewed purpose and confidence.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Eric Tangradi’s head is hundreds of miles from where it was three or four years ago.
When he came to the Griffins in 2015, he felt he was at a career crossroads. Although his résumé included 143 NHL games, he was 26 years old and had been traded three times, and his mindset was not in the best place after six years of struggling to fully establish himself as a regular contributor in hockey’s top league.
Fast forward to now and Tangradi could hardly be happier, even as he longs for another chance in the NHL. He is now a father and a Calder Cup champion, and his confidence is back where it belongs as he moves forward.
Tangradi admits that he had no idea how much Grand Rapids would mean.
“When I first signed here, I didn’t know what to expect,” Tangradi said. “I had played on a lot of different teams, so I thought it would be a typical adventure. This city has opened my eyes, and I have a whole new respect for the state of Michigan and the people here.”
He was especially moved by the support of the city during the Griffins’ run to their second Calder Cup title in five seasons.
“The crowds and the support we enjoyed during our playoff run make it easy to talk about those memories,” he said. “There are not many American Hockey League cities where players go to the grocery store and have fans wishing them ‘Good luck.’
“History shows that when the playoffs start, AHL teams have trouble getting fans in the stands, and it was the polar opposite here. We played some tough series. When we were flying to the West Coast to play San Jose, we needed a little bit of a boost after flying back, and it was incredible to come back and have eight or nine thousand fans cheering us on.
“The crowds were a huge advantage for us and it’ll be a memory for the rest of my life,” he said. “I’ll never forget the way that the city and people rallied around the Griffins for 2-1/2 months.”
Winning the Cup was an unforgettable thrill.
“People who have won championships talk about the feeling and you don’t know what it’s like until you experience it,” he said. “Going through that playoff run was the most fun. In fact, fun is an understatement. It’s hard to put into words.
“We had 25 warriors in that room who would have done anything for each other. Sometimes you have doubt in your mind that your season could be ending, but there wasn’t one guy in that room at any point in the playoffs who was ready to go home. Every day just felt like an extension of the regular season. We knew if we played the right way, we expected to win.
“When we won it all, it was the greatest moment in my hockey career. It was unbelievable.”
It was the perfect ending to a year that had been filled with ups and downs for Tangradi. His regular season was bookended with injuries. Shortly after the season began, he missed a dozen games due to injury, then missed another eight games near the end of the campaign.
Being sidelined for the month of November 2016 turned out to be a blessing in disguise. He was injured shortly after the birth of his daughter, Kennedy, on Oct. 26.
“It’s unfortunate to get hurt anytime in hockey, but for it to be two days after the birth of my first child, I definitely think it was God’s plan for me to be home for a little bit and spend some quality time with the family.”
Like many expectant parents, Tangradi admits that he had been a bit naive about how much a new baby would change life for him and his wife Caitlyn.
“You think, ‘Yeah, sure, whatever.’ But when you have a child, it truly does change your life, and yet you never feel like you need a break because you’re seeing a little miracle every day,” he said. “She’s someone we’re both very thankful for.”
Tangradi believes becoming a father has had a calming effect on his play.
“She’s probably been my best sports psychiatrist,” Tangradi said. “I used to be extremely hard on myself and put a ton of pressure on myself. In the past, I also had a hard time shutting hockey off. Now when the front door opens and I see her, it really helps putting closure on when I’m at work and when I’m at home.
“I think she’s been very beneficial for me. When I get home from a road trip at 4 or 5 a.m., I’ll get up with her at 8 a.m. and she’s got this huge smile, yelling ‘Da-da,’ and it makes getting no sleep worth it. Since she’s been here, I think I’ve been able to take my game to the next level, and I think she’s been a huge part of it.”
Tangradi has not changed his style of play. Thanks to his big body (6-foot-4, 230 pounds), he’s got the frame of the prototypical power forward, crashing into people in the style of his idols, Eric Lindros and Keith Primeau, whom he grew up watching in his hometown of Philadelphia.
“Being able to manage that net-front area has been one of the strengths of my game since juniors,” he said. ”I take pride in creating havoc and moving people out of the way to make space for second-chance opportunities by my linemates. There are a lot of things that I try to do in that blue paint area.”
Tangradi’s grit shows younger players the importance of paying a price to score.
“That’s the game I have to play,” he said. “The moment I try to take shortcuts and don’t play that style, there won’t be a job for me because that’s how competitive this league is. It takes some bruising to score those dirty goals. I know it’s just something that comes with the territory.
“I feel like I score a lot of my goals late in the game because it’s a process of wearing the other guys out. If I finish a check on a guy five times in the first two periods, maybe he eventually looks over his shoulder and commits a turnover and it gives us an extra scoring chance.”
Of course, paying the price can exert a toll on one’s body.
“Since I turned about 25, my body has definitely felt a whole lot different in the morning than it once did,” he said. “When you go to the front of the net and take a cross-check to the back, you’re probably going to feel it the next morning.”
Now in his third season with the Griffins, he feels sure that he has re-established his power forward credentials.
“Since I’ve been in this organization, I’ve been able to get my confidence back,” he said. “I think I’ve been able to establish myself as one of the top offensive players here, and I’ve done that by trying to play physical every night and be that power forward that might have been missing here. I think I’ve really rounded out my game and become a complete player.
“Obviously my dream is still to play in the NHL. Before coming here, I told myself that the reason I didn’t make it in the NHL was because I didn’t do something that made me stand out. So for me, being physical and providing a big body presence are things that I’ve tried to bring every night in Grand Rapids.”
When Tangradi signed a two-year extension after his first season in Grand Rapids, he relished the notion that he would be one of the veteran players upon which the Griffins’ fortunes rested.
“I think my role on this team is leading by example but also by being vocal,” he said. “Accountability is something every good team should have, and if you have other players’ respect they’re going to appreciate what you have to say.
“I’ve been through it all: top prospect with the Penguins… pressure… didn’t work out… traded multiple times… second chances… you name it. I think I have a wealth of knowledge that I can share with young players and even the older guys.”
“I play a very energetic, in-your-face style. For me to be mixing it up, talking, rah-rah, doing all those things to stay physically and mentally involved, all that just helps my game, and hopefully other guys can feed off my enthusiasm.”
Tangradi, who was named an assistant captain this season, is proud to be wearing an ‘A’ on his jersey every game. “Last year I may not have worn a letter every day, but I was still a big part of that leadership group,” he said. “It was nice to be rewarded with a letter this year.”
He looks forward to helping the Griffins earn a place in the playoffs this season and taking a run at another Calder Cup. In the meantime, he is keeping his fingers crossed for another crack at the NHL. He played one game for the Red Wings during his first year in Grand Rapids.
“I honestly and truly believe that I can provide the Red Wings a type of game they might not have,” he said. “I’m going to do the best I can down here to be consistent and do the right things to get noticed by them in order to get another opportunity.
“I’ve been in Grand Rapids going on three years and I’ve only played one game in Detroit, but I’m going to keep grinding away and keep plugging in hopes of getting another chance.”
What happens after this season for Tangradi is anyone’s guess, but he’s not going to lose any sleep – thankfully, Kennedy now sleeps 12 hours through the night.
“I’d love to sign back with this organization,” he said. “At the same time, I know I can play in the NHL. I think I’ve done the right things to earn a chance to prove myself up there and see what happens.
“I know that my wife and I love Grand Rapids – we bought a house here. Who knows where my career will go from here? But we’ve talked about how we could see ourselves coming back here at some point. It’s a great city with great people.”