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Calder Cup Champions -'13 '17

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Everything and More

Jeff Blashill continues to be invigorated by the challenge of helping to rebuild the Red Wings.

Story by Mark Newman / Photo by Getty Images

In his job as head coach of the Detroit Red Wings, Jeff Blashill can attest to the word stew that might be used to describe his position.

Coaching the current occupants of Hockeytown can be challenging, frustrating, exhilarating, and often humbling. In other words, it is a job that offers everything you might expect and more. But Blashill insists that no matter what adjective might apply to the experience, he will always consider it a supreme honor and a privilege.

“Every day that you get to coach for a living is a good day and it’s pretty special when you get to coach in the National Hockey League in your home state and the town you were born in,” said Blashill, a Detroit native who was raised in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich. “I always recognize how special that is.”

Blashill is now in his seventh season behind the Red Wings’ bench, assuming the hot seat that Mike Babcock held for a decade before he left the Motor City for Toronto. The Red Wings, who made the playoffs during Blashill’s first season as head coach, have been in a complete rebuild ever since.

“In any job, there are going to be highs and lows,” said Blashill, who had been an assistant coach in Detroit for one season under Babcock before getting the head coaching job in Grand Rapids (2012-15). “There will be times when you have to work through difficult situations to get to the spot where you can enjoy the fruits of your labor.”

Blashill, who guided the Griffins to their first Calder Cup championship during his first season in Grand Rapids, acknowledges that Detroit fans have had to endure some lean times. It has not been easy watching the organization say goodbye to its past as the new regime tries to return the team to its days of dominance.

“As we’ve gone through the journey here, certainly we’ve gone through some hard times. There’s no doubt about that,” he said. “But that’s OK. That’s what it’s all about. Ultimately, you grow from the experience and, organizationally, we’ve grown from the situation and we’re working toward a better tomorrow. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

The Red Wings have flirted with the .500 mark this season as the team has shown improvement since hitting rock bottom three seasons ago, when it finished with a league-worst record of 17-49-5 record.

“I never envisioned that this would be easy – by any stretch,” Blashill said. “I always knew there would be unique and difficult challenges that would lie ahead. Certainly, I have enjoyed the journey in terms of tackling those challenges.”

The difficult 2019-20 season was the first under the direction of general manager Steve Yzerman, the long-time Red Wings captain who was a three-time Stanley Cup winner as a player before he embarked on a managerial career that saw him build the Tampa Bay Lightning into reigning two-time NHL champions.

Blashill said he and Yzerman have been largely on the same page as they continue to work together on the long, uphill battle to push the team back to its rightful position as one of the top organizations in the sport of hockey.

Yzerman, of course, witnessed an earlier revival of the Red Wings during his playing days.

Detroit finished with a dismal 17-57-6 record during Yzerman’s third season as a player in 1985-86, a full decade before the Red Wings would set the NHL record for most wins in a regular season with a 62-13-7 campaign, and 11 years before Detroit would win its first Stanley Cup in 42 years.

“I think I’m very fortunate that I get an opportunity to learn from someone who’s gone through so many experiences, both as a player and a manager as we’re trying to build this back to where everybody in our organization wants it to be,” Blashill said.

“We both have our opinions – maybe they’re the same and maybe they’re different, and that’s OK for both. I’m not someone who sugarcoats things and I know that Steve doesn’t either. Our conversations are honest. We’re not here to protect each other’s feelings. We’re here to try to win, so we better be honest with each other if we’re going to try to get to that level.

“We’ve had conversations where we’ve had differences of opinion, but ultimately, Steve’s the boss.”

Blashill is content to let others voice their opinion, but he is confident that he is a more experienced coach than he was seven years ago when he left the AHL and Grand Rapids for the NHL and Detroit.

“Every level is unique and you face different challenges at different levels,” he said. “In the NHL, there are some unique challenges in coaching that are different from any other level that I have coached at. You have to grow through those learning experiences. When you do, you grow as a person and you grow as a coach.”

Blashill would be the first to admit that he has made mistakes. He is human, after all.

“Every day you get a chance to execute and, for a coach, that execution comes down to the decisions you make or the messaging you have,” he said. “You’re going to go through stretches where you make lots of the right decisions and your messaging is super clear and there are going to be stretches when it’s not. That’s just the reality of coaching over a long period of time.

“Without a doubt, I believe you grow through your experiences, both the good times and the tough times. You have to go through experiences in order to learn and sometimes when you do that, you’re able to execute enough to win and sometimes you’re not, and there are a lot of factors that go into that.

“The great part of life is when you go after things and you challenge yourself, you’re going to go through things you’ve never experienced and you’re going to have to learn. That’s part of life. I certainly think I’m better prepared and more experienced, and because of that, I believe I’m a better coach today than I was when I left Grand Rapids.”

Blashill will always look back fondly on his Griffins experience.

“It was my first head coaching job in pro hockey and I learned a ton,” he said. “When I was in Grand Rapids, I was coaching a wide variety of ages, from a really young Tomas Jurco to a veteran like Jeff Hoggan who was a lot older. There are different ways that you handle not just different people but players at totally different ends of the perspective from age as well as their careers. Those were important lessons moving into the NHL.

“A lot gets made of the development side of the job when you’re in the American League, but I will be honest and say that development matters for every player, not just young players. And development matters at every level, not just the levels below the NHL.

“One of the promises that I try to make to our players is that I’m going to help develop them regardless of what their birth certificate says their age is.”

Not every player develops at the same rate – some players just take longer than others. There are examples in the NHL every season. This year has produced a pair of 24-year-old late bloomers in Anaheim’s Troy Terry, who had 29 goals after 57 games (his previous high was seven goals), and Buffalo’s Tage Thompson, who had 24 goals after 56 games (his previous best was eight).

Michael Rasmussen, Joe Veleno and Filip Zadina are all still younger than 23 years old.

“Some young players come in and they make an immediate impact, but most young players are going to take time,” Blashill said. “They’re going to take time in the American league and they’re going to take time once they get to the NHL

“In a perfect world, you’re able to keep them in the American League longer than maybe needed so you know they’re absolutely ready when they get to the NHL. We haven’t necessarily lived in that perfect world, so some guys have been up earlier than we may have wanted. That means they’re growing as players while they’re here. As a coach, you’re living with that growth – and with that comes some positives and some negatives. You’ve got to be able to be OK with that as long as they’re meeting certain standards. That’s the approach you have to take when you’re coaching a team that’s in a rebuild-type mode.”

Of course, the fan base – desiring to see success sooner than later – is often critical of coaching that stresses the importance of players being strong on the defensive side of the ice. In their opinion, coaches too often stifle creativity for the sake of developing two-way players.

“I know that to win, you have to have a bunch of players who play two-way hockey, and not only do I know that, but my boss, Steve Yzerman, also knows that. He constantly preaches that to us,” Blashill said, noting that Yzerman only won his three Stanley Cups after Red Wings head coach Scotty Bowman convinced Yzerman to concentrate on his defensive play.

“Our job is not to get our guys to produce as many points as possible. Our job is to help them become the very best winning hockey players they can become. Winning hockey means you’ve got to be able to defend. You can’t trade chance for chance. You have to be able to create offense in an efficient manner without unnecessary risk. None of those things are easy.”

Coaches usually agree that most young players need to improve their defensive play.

“A lot of players when they come into pro hockey haven’t had to (play defense) because they’ve been at levels where they’re so much better or their teams have been so much better than their opponents that they can trade chance for chance and they’re going to capitalize on their chances. That’s not the National Hockey League.

“Anybody that watched the Wings in the late ‘80s and into the early ‘90s understands that the team didn’t become Stanley Cup champions until they committed to playing the type of defense that you have to play in order to win. Again, my boss knows that better than anybody.

“We’re trying to create winning hockey players here. And that is not judged on points alone by any stretch. That does not mean that points aren’t important, but it’s not points alone.”

That means the Red Wings have endured their share of growing pains.

At this point in the organization’s rebuild, Blashill professes to be less concerned with the team’s record than the overall progress of a team that is able to show that it can be competitive night in and night out.

“The wins and losses are judged externally,” Blashill said. “Internally, you judge the team’s performance based on where you think your team is at. From a coaching perspective, are you helping your players maximize their potential and become the very best players they can be?

“I won’t speak for Steve, but ultimately I think he’s going to judge on more than wins and losses right now. You’re judged based on – for the lack of a better phrase – how you maximize your group. That’s always open to opinion. Ultimately, the opinion that matters is what is voiced internally within our management team.”

Blashill does not minimize the importance of winning hockey games, but he contends that the Red Wings are focused on the bigger picture, seeking incremental improvements that will serve the organization’s long-term interests rather than a few extra wins that might push the team closer to a playoff position now.

“We certainly want to win each night but never at the sacrifice of long-term success,” he said. “Every once in a while, you can get lucky by signing an undrafted free agent or an NHL free agent, but the free agents who are really going to help your team usually happen when you are closer to winning.

”There is only one way to build a team in the National Hockey League and that’s through the draft. Nobody can put a timeline on how long that can take, but the more times you hit in the draft, the quicker you can probably turn to success. Generally, it takes a lot of time. Certainly, Steve knows that. I know that. It takes more time than any of us would like. We’d love to turn things around in a more expedient manner but that’s not the reality of how it works.”

Blashill agrees that there are optimistic signs. Red Wings rookies Moritz Seider and Lucas Raymond are both considered top candidates for the Calder Trophy, which goes annually to the NHL’s best first-year player. Whether they are building blocks for the future remains to be seen.

“Certainly, they have come in and done a really good job,” he said. “They look like guys who can help us into the future and help us be a better hockey team. I say this lots – it’s not about whether a guy can play in the league. It’s whether he makes your team better.

“Those guys have shown moments where they’ve made us better. Now the key to whether they’re building blocks and whether they’re going to help us in the future is the work they put in to continue to improve. Ultimately, I don’t think either guy wants to be a good rookie. They want to be a great player in the NHL. I believe they both will work toward that on a daily basis and if they do that, they could be real impactful toward helping us become more successful. But it will take work and both of them want to work. Both of them have that inner drive, and that’s what it will take.”

If leading the Griffins to their first Calder Cup taught Blashill anything, it was what the Red Wings will need if they want to win another championship.

“What you realize is that you need a special group of people – a special group of committed players who are willing to put the team first, guys who are talented but who also have all those intangibles of work ethic and sacrifice and competitiveness,” he said.

“In the end, you go through a journey in the playoffs and that can be its own rollercoaster. There are critical moments and you have to be lucky at times. I thought we found our way to the championship because of the group that we had.”

Nobody embodied the 2012-13 Griffins’ can-do spirit more than its team captain, Jeff Hoggan, whose No. 10 jersey will hang from the Van Andel Arena rafters after the Griffins retire his number on April 2.

“Jeff came to us at a time in his career where he was willing to sacrifice everything for the team’s success,” Blashill said. “Jeff was a great worker and all he wanted to do was win and it’s important when you have your leader showing the way. In order to win, you have to have winners on your team and Jeff Hoggan’s a winner for sure.”

It’s that kind of determination, discipline, and work ethic that Blashill is doing his best to foster with the Red Wings.

It’s also why Blashill is now the second-longest tenured head coach in the NHL, sitting behind only Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper – Blashill’s good friend and another Yzerman protégé.

“There are times when you don’t see eye to eye or have a difference in opinion. And that’s OK. You don’t get to be the best by always agreeing with everybody. You get to the best by getting to the best answer and that’s what we’re trying to do here.”

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