Hockey players learn to treasure the playoffs no matter whether they win or lose. Capturing the Cup, however, is the crowning achievement they all desire.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Playoff hockey is the sport at its most competitive.
The difference between victory and defeat can be razor-thin: a simple mistake, a lucky bounce of the puck or even a change in the weather can turn the fortunes of a team from sadness to celebration.
In 2013, the Griffins were scheduled to face the Oklahoma City Barons in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals when torrential rains and a tornado warning forced the teams and fans into a parking garage beneath the Cox Convention Center, and subsequent flooding inside the arena forced their Calder Cup Playoff game to be postponed.
At the time, the Griffins were down 2-1 in the series, and the extra time off ultimately proved to be a godsend.
Gustav Nyquist had just arrived in Oklahoma with teammate Joakim Andersson, the result of the Red Wings having been eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs two days earlier. The pair of Swedes were rejoining the Griffins in hopes of authoring a better finish to their seasons.
“I remember flying to Oklahoma with Joakim Andersson through some thunderstorms,” Nyquist said recently, reflecting on what proved to be a most memorable playoff run. “It was probably the bumpiest ride I’ve ever had. When we got there, the game was postponed because water was running through the building.”
Both had played in the Red Wings’ season-ending 2-1 overtime loss to the Chicago Blackhawks and were ready for a second chance at a championship.
“That series was a tough, tough one to lose,” Nyquist said. “We were up, 3-1, in the second round against Chicago (but) we ended up losing in Game 7 in overtime. That one stung because we felt like we had a good team, and Chicago went on to win the Cup that year.
“So we were excited to get another crack at it. Obviously, the AHL is a different league but it’s still a very good league, so both Andy and I were really excited to join the team. The team had played good throughout the year without us, too, but we formed a good line with Tats (Tomas Tatar) and it was a great experience.”
With the addition of Nyquist and Andersson, the Griffins won the next two road games by shutout, 4-0 and 3-0, propelling the team to eventually take the series in seven games and earn a spot in the Calder Cup Finals against the Syracuse Crunch.
Call it an act of God or Mother Nature’s revenge, but the delay proved to be a turning point in the team’s playoff fortunes, according to Jeff Blashill, who was in his first year behind the bench in Grand Rapids.
It was a magical year, said Blashill, now in his fourth season as the head coach of the Red Wings.
“We came into the year really with no expectations,” he said. “The team hadn’t been in the playoffs for three seasons and we weren’t sure how good of a hockey team we had. As we went through the process, we started to realize our team was getting better. We were a good team, not an elite team, during the regular season, but then things really came together for us during the playoffs.”
There were many pieces to the puzzle, but Blashill reserves his highest praise for the team’s leadership.
“One of the best things we did is we brought in veterans who cared about the growth of the younger players in the organization and who cared about winning,” he said. “Jeff Hoggan, Nathan Paetsch, Brennan Evans and Triston Grant weren’t guys who were in it for themselves. They were guys who really wanted to see the growth of players like Nyquist, Tatar and Tomas Jurco, and at the same time they wanted to be a part of winning.
“Finding the right veterans can get tricky in the American League, but I think having great veterans is the magic pill. In the end, I really think they were the difference.”
East Grand Rapids native Luke Glendening, who joined the Griffins right before Christmas that season after starting the year in the ECHL with Toledo, said it was easy for the team to rally behind Hoggan and the other veterans.
“I think our confidence came from the leadership,” Glendening said. “Hoggie was a guy who never gave up. That’s the way he carried himself and that’s the way he played. He might have been playing on one good leg, but he kept working. All the veterans were great. I think the team was emboldened by them and said we’re never going to give up. We kept battling because we never felt out of it.”
Blashill said he believes the team excelled because they were willing to do whatever it took to taste victory.
“I loved our group in terms of overall sacrifice. We had a bunch of guys who were committed to doing everything right,” he said. “The group had a team-first attitude and I thought all year long we had a great group that way.”
The playoffs can have a war-like intensity and so players take a “die with your boots on” attitude, the idea that they’ll keep fighting to the end – or, as some might say, the ideal is “to leave it all on the ice.”
“One of the great lessons of hockey is that it’s a team sport,” Glendening said. “You’re there to push each other past what you think is possible. That’s what characterized that first championship team. We pushed each other to succeed beyond what anyone else thought was possible.”
The 2013 Griffins had a total of 11 players who reached double figures in goals during the regular season, including five players with 20 or more. Balanced scoring was a hallmark of the team, which only finished tied for seventh in total goals during the 2012-13 campaign.
“We had a great mix of guys,” Nyquist said. “It felt like all of our lines were dangerous, which is obviously tough to play against. We had a really deep team.”
On a championship team, it’s hard to single out just one player.
“I thought Petr Mrazek gave us unreal goaltending through most of the year and he was outstanding in the playoffs, but we had lots of pieces,” Blashill said. “We didn’t know what we had in Luke Glendening, and by the time we brought him up from Toledo, he made a big impact because he’s a winning type hockey player.
“Jan Mursak got sent down to us and we didn’t know how he would react and he committed to winning. Landon Ferraro had to change his role as the playoffs rolled along. He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Blash, all I want to do is win.’
“We had a whole group of guys – (Mitch) Callahan and (Riley) Sheehan, among others – who were committed to winning. Danny DeKeyser had done an excellent job in Detroit that year, so I think he had instant credibility when he came in for the finals. At the same time, we had to sit Brett Skinner, a player who had been contributing previously, and that’s never an easy thing to do. But it’s funny how life works. Right away we had an injury (Adam Almquist) and so he went back in and did a really good job for us.”
In the 2013 Calder Cup Finals, the Griffins faced a Syracuse team that featured a number of players who had won the championship the previous year in Norfolk. The Crunch came into the series with an impressive 11-1 playoff record. Grand Rapids, on the other hand, had already played six more games to get through the first three rounds.
“We didn’t know Syracuse at all, but we had heard things about them,” Blashill said. “They were like the big, bad team from the East coming in, and we hadn’t played a single game in the East because of the schedule that year. We sweep the first two games on the road, which was a huge advantage.
“When we came home, the whole town was buzzing. The atmosphere in that rink was unreal. The only regret is we would have loved to have won the Cup at home. With that said, maybe it made winning more special. When you think it might get yanked away from you and you find a way to go on the road and win, it can be a really cool thing. And when you’re on the road and you win, it’s only you. It’s certainly one of my best memories.”
The fact that the 2013 Calder Cup was the first in the history of the franchise made winning even more special.
“Playing in Grand Rapids, you learn the crowds are great all season long, not just the playoffs,“ Nyquist said. “We were lucky to have great fans and they provided support throughout the playoffs. It felt like the whole city was really cheering us on and they were truly happy that we were able to win that first championship.”
For one West Michigan native, it was the ultimate dream come true. “Being able to bring a championship to the city that I grew up in and to be a part of that team is something I’ll never forget,” Glendening said.
The Griffins claimed the Calder Cup again in 2017, giving the organization its second championship in five years. Again, the team won on the strength of a good mix of veteran leadership and hungry youth.
The only remaining players from the 2013 team were Paetsch, who was now the team’s captain; Brian Lashoff, who was an alternate captain and another stalwart on defense; and Callahan, the gritty forward who was fearless in front of the net.
Other veterans included Matthew Ford, who was in his ninth AHL season and wore the team’s other ‘A;’ and Eric Tangradi and Ben Street, who were in their eight and seventh pro seasons, respectively, with considerable NHL experience.
Among the younger players who would springboard into the NHL the following season were Tomas Nosek, Evgeny Svechnikov, Martin Frk and Tyler Bertuzzi. The latter pair, who played on the same line, rallied the Griffins from a 3-2 third-period deficit to win Game 6 of the finals against another strong team from Syracuse.
“We had a great bunch of guys – everyone really stuck up for each other through good times and bad times,” Frk said of the 2017 Calder Cup champs. “If you stick with your plan, even if you’re down, you believe you can come back and beat the other team. When you’re in the playoffs, you have to play every game 100 percent. It was fun to win the Cup, especially at home.
“It was an amazing experience, something you remember for the rest of your life.”
Like 2013, the Griffins won the first two games, only this time both victories came at home. Game 2 was a double-overtime affair. Street scored the game-winner, his second goal of the contest, at the 7:02 mark and goaltender Jared Coreau made 50 saves in a 6-5 win.
Bertuzzi was named the Playoff MVP with 19 points (9 goals, 10 assists) in 19 games. It was his third straight strong performance in the postseason. He had seven goals in nine games the previous year after recording seven goals in 14 games during his first Calder Cup appearance in 2015.
“I honestly don’t have an explanation,” Bertuzzi said. “In the playoffs, it’s all about keeping it simple. It’s not like the regular season. You’re not going to see a lot of highlight-reel goals. In the playoffs, it’s a lot of mucking, tips, getting pucks on net. It’s a lot of hard work in front. In the playoffs, you shoot from everywhere.
“The playoffs are such a different game, you have to have a different mentality going into it.”
Role players become just as important as the point producers in the playoffs. The Griffins had both, plus the team benefitted from the late-season acquisition of defenseman Dylan McIlrath.
“We had one of the best teams in the AHL,” Bertuzzi said. “We had skilled guys but we also had good penalty killers. We had great ‘D’ like McIlrath. When he came in, he made such a difference. Not just because he could fight, but because of the physical presence he brought to the ice, whether it was blocking shots or clearing guys out.
“We just had a good mix of guys who were all good buddies together, which goes a long way at that time of year. When you’re trying to have a long playoff run, it’s going to take a lot of hard work and you’ve got to be able to stick together as a team.”
The playoffs are more than an extension of the regular season – the postseason is a true test of a team’s tenacity. Only the strong will survive.
“I don’t really remember feeling tired back then, but I was still pretty young,” said Nyquist, who played 104 combined AHL and NHL games during 2012-13 between the regular season and playoffs. “When you’re young, you’re supposed to have fresh legs, and I think the adrenalin of going deeper and deeper into the playoffs helps keep you going.”
Glendening said you learn to block out any aches and pains during the playoffs. “At that time of the year, it’s so fun, you’re not really thinking about your body,” he said. “I remember my body was hurting a bit, especially after coming from college where I had played only 40-some games, (but) the playoffs is such a fun time of year.”
Blashill has come to believe that playoff experience is a vital component to a young player’s development.
“It’s huge, especially when your NHL team isn’t in the playoffs,” Blashill said. “It’s important that your young players gain that playoff experience because the playoffs is a different animal. Guys grinding through the playoffs offers a huge growth opportunity because you face tons of adversity.
“One of the best ways to grow is by facing adversity and you’re going to face adversity sometime in any playoff run. It’s a really huge benefit for our young players in Grand Rapids to get that experience. I think it helped players like Nyquist, Tatar, Glendening, Sheahan and Mrazek, as well as the rest of the group who are now playing in different spots in the NHL.”
The fact remains that winning a title is a rare occurrence. The Griffins under Blashill had better regular season records the next two years after winning the Cup in 2013, but the franchise did not return to the finals again until winning its second championship in 2017, with Todd Nelson at the helm.
“You can have great teams and not win in the playoffs,” Blashill said. “We had two really great teams the next two years after my first year and we weren’t able to get through all the series. Things have to go right for you, for sure. In fact, there were moments when things could have gone the other way that first year. In the end, however, it was great for us to find a way.”
When it comes to the playoffs, players cherish every opportunity, but nothing tops the experience of winning a Cup.
“What I learned from going the whole way is how few chances you get to win a championship,” Nyquist said. “It’s hard to get there, so it makes you appreciate that time when you went all the way. You realize that it’s a grind to get there and not many players get to experience that. It’s something that I will remember forever.”
Glendening heartily agrees. “I can’t remember every single game anymore, but I’ll never forget that group of guys – it’s absolutely true,” he said. “It’s such a special time of the year and it will always be remembered as a special time in my life.”