In his new role as advisor to the Red Wings’ general manager, Niklas Kronwall is helping guide the development of the team’s top prospects.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
The student has become the teacher.
Sixteen years ago, Niklas Kronwall was playing for the Grand Rapids Griffins. An AHL rookie out of Stockholm, Sweden, he was learning how to navigate his way through the North American brand of hockey.
Now, after 953 NHL games, one Stanley Cup and countless highlight-reel open-ice hits that transformed his last name into a verb (“kronwalled’), he has assumed a mentor’s role, working with the Red Wings’ development staff in his official position as an advisor to Detroit general manager Steve Yzerman.
His new duties have brought back fond memories of his time with the Griffins so many seasons ago and his development as a young player at Van Andel Arena.
“My time in Grand Rapids was probably the most fun I had,” he said, reminiscing about the 102 games he played with the Griffins. “We had a young team along with good leadership from some older guys.
“We had six or seven single guys who did everything together – lunch after practice, dinner or whatever. We’d find stuff to do. When you have a good group of guys, you enjoy spending time together. We all lived in the city, so in a sense, it was more like a family.”
When he first came to the Griffins, Kronwall was 22 years old, which means he is now tutoring players who are even younger than he was, so he can relate to their experiences of adjusting to life in the AHL.
“At home, everything is kind of teed up for you,” he said. “You have your parents and family and other people you already know, so you have a safety net of people who can help you out at all levels.
“Here, all of a sudden, things are different. You’ve got to find an apartment. How do you do that? How does that work? When I got here, I was fortunate that we had a Norwegian named Anders Myrvold. He helped me out a ton that first year.”
Myrvold, who had played for the Djurgarden hockey team a year before Kronwall joined the Stockholm-based squad, was already a veteran of several AHL seasons at the age of 28 when both players joined the Griffins for the 2003-04 season.
“He was huge for me, just helping me understand all these things, even simple things like how to write checks,” Kronwall said. “You don’t really think about them because it’s outside the game. You think you’re coming here to just play hockey but there’s something to be said for everything else that goes around it as well.”
Kronwall said one should not underestimate the influence of veteran experience.
“You need good leadership from guys who are not just good players but also good people,” he said. “We need to give these young players someone to look up to, someone to show them the ropes a little bit.”
He saw that same effective leadership in Detroit, splitting the 2003-04 season between the Motor City and the Furniture City.
“I believe in the character of the group as much as the character of the individuals,” he said. “You watch the veterans and you see how they react. You watch how they treat people, not just their teammates but their opponents, referees, fans and the media. You watch and try to learn from them.”
Spending a second season in Grand Rapids was incredibly important to his development. With the 2004-05 NHL season wiped out due to an unresolved lockout between the owners and players, Kronwall spent the entire year with the Griffins.
“The lockout year was huge for me,” he said. “I knew I had to get better. I got called up the year before because there were some injuries in Detroit, but I knew I needed to work on my game on the smaller ice surface.
“After playing in Europe, I had to change. It’s a way different game over there. Here, it’s more intense, the angles are way different, and you have to learn how to close quicker in the corners, when to shoot, when there’s room to jump up. It took me some time to become used to the game here and I’m really glad I got that time.
“I was able to play in all situations and I learned a ton that year, which was important for the rest of my career.”
Kronwall blossomed in his second AHL season, tallying 13 goals and 40 assists in 76 games while solidifying his steady play in the defensive zone. His efforts led to winning recognition as the AHL’s top defenseman, the Eddie Shore Award.
Almost every player will face adversity during his career, and Kronwall saw his life altered when he injured his knee in an exhibition game the following fall. He missed more than half of the 2005-06 season as a result and battled a bum knee for the rest of his career.
“With injuries, you learn they’re part of the game,” he said. “Every time you deal with something like a knee injury, you learn something new about yourself while fighting the pain and pushing yourself through it.
“Looking back, of course, you wish you hadn’t gotten hurt, but it helped me understand more about myself. I believe that everything happens for a reason, so I never really doubted myself. All I could do was focus on doing the best that I could do that day, which would set me up better for the next day and it would carry on.
“You try to push the envelope as much as you can and try to come back stronger. Of course, it takes some time to get back to where you want to be. It’s hard. You’re never going to feel the same way you did before. The fact is you’ve suffered trauma to your knee. Just learning to deal with it means there are going to be days that are better than others, but that’s fine.”
Kronwall played with a bad knee for so long that it eventually became almost a non-factor in his decision to retire after last season.
“I actually felt decent last year body-wise, but I felt it was time to step away from the game and spend more time with my young kids and my wife,” he said. “I shouldn’t say it was an easy decision, but it made sense. I think there’s a time for everything and it was time. It was time.”
He insists he harbors no regrets about ending his playing days. “Of course, there are things I miss about being a player, but at the same time I’m enjoying this side of the game and doing what I do now,” he said.
Kronwall feels like he’s starting to settle into his advisor role, which has meant working alongside the Red Wings’ development staff of Shawn Horcoff, Dan Cleary and Brandon Naurato.
“It’s been amazing how they’ve treated me,” he said. “They’ve spent a lot of time teaching me all the different aspects of this side of the game. I’m very grateful that they’ve been so good to me.”
He admits that his role was largely undefined in the beginning.
“I wanted to stay involved with the game, but I didn’t know in what capacity or what role,” he said, suggesting that he has been learning “on the fly” in his position. “I’m enjoying working with Shawn, Dan and Brandon and I’m extremely grateful for this opportunity.”
He works with the Red Wings’ prospects, primarily with the organization’s young defensemen.
“I’m enjoying sharing my experience and knowledge with our young players, especially our young defensemen because I’ve been in their shoes,” he said. “I don’t think I planned to be in Grand Rapids as much as I have, but I’ve really enjoyed it.
“For me, it’s felt natural to gravitate toward this.”
Kronwall said his role is more mentoring than anything.
“It’s not so much coaching as doing whatever we can to give these guys all the tools they need to take their game to the next level and hopefully wear the Red Wings jersey,” he said. “We’ll do whatever works. Sometimes it’s just breakfast. Other times it’s sharing video. There are a lot of different ways that you can help them and I think it means you have to do a little of everything.”
His approach is not “one size fits all.”
“Every individual is different,” he said. “You have to approach things from the perspective of personality and what type of player they are, what they need to improve. Some guys may need more offense. Some might need to improve their defense.
“It’s the same with how you talk to them. You can be a little harder on some guys and others you need to build them up a little bit. You’ve got to find an angle to approach them in a way that they will respond.”
Kronwall has been impressed with the progress he has seen since the beginning of the season. “To see how far the guys already in the system have come since the fall is pretty amazing,” he said. “It’s been awesome to watch their progress.”
Speaking from personal experience, he knows that the development process doesn’t happen overnight.
“It takes time,” he said. “The process is faster for some guys while other guys need a little more time. That’s fine. Don’t be in such a rush. Make sure to do what you can each day to get better.”
Gustav Nyquist, he points out, spent parts of four seasons in Grand Rapids. Tomas Tatar played almost four full seasons with the Griffins before earning a full-time spot in Detroit. So when Kronwall looks at prized prospect Moritz Seider, he sees a lot of potential that still needs some polish.
“Keep in mind that he’s only 18 years old,” he said. “But he has the makeup and all of the tools. This year he has come a long way and shown he’s on the right track. We’re trying to give him the tools he’ll need to keep pushing. A lot of that is within himself. He has that natural drive.
“He could be a big part of the future.”
If the Red Wings are going to assemble another Stanley Cup-caliber team, it will take a lot of pieces. When Kronwall got to lift the Cup in 2008, it was the culmination of not just that season but several.
“You’re building for years, trying to get there,” he said. “And it’s not just the players. It’s the whole organization – the coaches, the training staff, the front office – all pushing in the right direction.
“I thought we had a decent chance already in ’07, but we got kicked out of the playoffs by Anaheim, who ended up winning it. I think the experience of going through that set us up for ’08. It’s not just one season that gets you there.
While the Red Wings have struggled to find the win column this season, Kronwall believes the organization is doing the right things to lay the foundation for future stabs at winning the Stanley Cup.
“Culture is everything – you need good people,” he said. “For a team to have success, everyone needs to be on the same page. You can’t have any cancers in the room. You have to embrace your role and play hard every night. That’s something that has always been true with the Wings.
“I was fortunate to come in an era where we had Steve (Yzerman), (Nicklas) Lidstrom, (Henrik) Zetterberg, (Pavel) Datsyuk, (Chris) Chelios, and (Brendan) Shanahan, among others. Those guys were winners and they drove the bus every day. Your level is never optional. It has to be there every day.
“You’re not always going to win, but the effort has to be there.”
Knowing what the Red Wings have in the pipeline, including many young players yet to arrive in Grand Rapids or Detroit, Kronwall feels confident that the organization is headed in the right direction.
“We have some good talent on the way,” he said. “It’s going to be exciting to watch the next few years and see them take their games to a place where they can help the Red Wings and get the team back to where it belongs.”