As a Griffins assistant coach, Todd Krygier draws on his experience as a former player – and dedicated dad – to provide encouragement and support to the Red Wings’ prospects.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Being a coach is not altogether different from being a father.
Just ask Todd Krygier, who joined the Griffins’ staff following three years at Western Michigan University as an assistant, three years with the Muskegon Lumberjacks as head coach and, perhaps most significantly, after helping raise five Division I athletes at home.
His youngest, identical twins Cole and Christian, are currently sophomore hockey players at Michigan State University, following in the footsteps of their older brother Brock, who played with the Spartans from 2013-15 before finishing his college career at Arizona State.
Daughter Grace is a junior soccer player at the University of Wisconsin while her sister Natalie played three years of soccer at the University of Iowa after one season at the University of Connecticut, her father’s alma mater.
One could debate whether to credit nature or nurture for the Krygier family’s good fortune, but he believes that it was ultimately up to the kids to accomplish whatever they were able to achieve. He and his wife Kim could provide words of advice and encouragement, but the kids had to do the work.
“My biggest thing was I wanted them to become great people with a great work ethic,” he said. “Sports can provide a microcosm to learn the lessons of life. My goal was for them to be better prepared for life when they were finished playing their sport.
“We had the expectation that they would work hard no matter what they were doing. Coming from a professional perspective, I knew how much work it can take – how much focus, determination and perseverance. As parents, we can’t do their work, but we could provide support and guidance.”
Krygier scored 100 goals in an NHL career that spanned 543 games with Hartford, Washington and Anaheim. His professional journey started in the AHL after four years at Connecticut and finished in the IHL with the Orlando Solar Bears.
“One of the benefits of having played in the minors, making the NHL, and then finishing back in the minors, you learn a lot about yourself in the process,” he said. “If I could help my kids learn their lessons a little easier than I had to learn mine, then I was doing my job as a coach.”
It was his boys who had pulled him back into hockey and into coaching.
Krygier tore his rotator cuff during his final season (1999-00), and a difficult comeback at age 35, along with limited professional options and a growing family, led him to decide to retire from the game.
“My wife had twins a day or two after our season ended, which meant we had five kids age 7 and under,” Krygier recalled. “I knew I wasn’t going to play in the NHL, but I had opportunities to play in the minors or Europe. It came down to a family values decision. I knew inevitably I was going to have to find a career after hockey, so that became my focus.”
Krygier opened his own State Farm Insurance agency in Novi, where he had bought a home a couple of years earlier because his parents lived there. He eventually spent seven seasons (2006-13) as head coach at Novi High School, compiling a 102-51-15 mark. He was named MHSHCA Division I Coach of the Year in 2011 after leading Novi to the school’s first hockey state championship.
He posted a winning record in all three seasons with the USHL’s Lumberjacks (2013-16) before accepting an assistant coaching position under Andy Murray, who had been hired by the Broncos after Jeff Blashill left to join Mike Babcock’s Detroit Red Wings staff as an assistant coach in 2011.
“I wish I could have coached before I became a player,” said Krygier. “I’ve learned so much while coaching. I feel like I could have been a much better player because I understand the game so much better now. If you could somehow reverse coaching and playing, I feel like I would have had a better career. That’s one of the things that motivates me to coach now.”
After splitting the past six years between Muskegon and Kalamazoo, he seemed destined to find his way to Grand Rapids. His job with the Griffins is his first coaching position in the pro ranks.
“For me, this was the next step after having coached at all the other levels, from youth hockey to juniors to college,” he said. “I’m thrilled to be here and I’m excited to work with the Red Wings’ prospects and help the Detroit organization.”
Ironically, his greatest memory in the NHL came against the Red Wings. He played in the 1998 Stanley Cup Final as a member of the Washington Capitals.
“It was a thrill to play against that team and they deserved to win,” he said. “You can’t beat playing in the Stanley Cup Final. And now here I am, working for the organization that I got beat by. As they say, ‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.’ What a privilege I have now to work in the Red Wings organization.”
Although Washington was swept in four games by Detroit, Krygier said that he will never forget the 1997-98 season and how close the Capitals came to capturing hockey’s Holy Grail.
“We had a really good team, too,” he said. “We were considered overachievers to get there, and the experience changed my outlook on what it takes to win. I wish I had managed to have had that experience earlier in my career. I would have become a lot better player.
“You realize that it’s about the team. It’s about finding a role on a team and being the best you possibly can be in that role. You’re not trying to be the superstar, you’re not trying to be the goal scorer, you’re not trying to be what you think you should be or want to be.
“Ultimately, it’s about being the guy who adds value every shift for the good of the team. Look at the Wings and guys like (Kirk) Maltby or (Kris) Draper. They were guys who grasped their roles on the team and were absolutely fantastic.
“I had every opportunity to become like Wayne Gretzky, Steve Yzerman or Mario Lemieux. I played on the power play, played on the penalty kill. I got a regular shift, but I couldn’t get the results that they did.
“That’s when you realize that you’ve got to grasp a role. You’ve got to become better at something and I learned that too late in my career, but it’s one of those things that motivates me to coach.”
Even though he says there are times when he wishes he could go back, Krygier harbors no regrets about his playing days.
“I enjoyed everywhere I played,” he said. “As a player, I would have loved the opportunity to have played for an Original Six team but it never happened. That’s why it’s so exciting for me to work for one now.”
Talking to Krygier, it sounds like he enjoys being behind the bench even more than he did playing.
“I love coaching,” he said. “As a parent with five kids, there are some similarities. You get these guys who want to be successful and become the best they can be and it’s the same with our kids. You try to guide them and help them but at the end of the day, they’re the ones who have to get the job done.
“I can help facilitate the process and work with these players, but ultimately it has to come from their heart – their willingness to compete, their determination, their perseverance. That desire – that they’re not going to be denied – has to be inside them.”
Krygier hopes others can benefit from his experience.
“Having played in the AHL and IHL, having that experience at both the beginning and at the end of my career, helps me to understand what guys are going through,” he said. “My job is to help these guys through the process so we can win here while putting players into Detroit who can help the Red Wings become Stanley Cup contenders again.”
He feels fortunate to have joined the Griffins organization at a time when the Red Wings have stocked the team with several highly talented prospects possessing raw skill that only needs time to develop.
“It’s really exciting to join Ben’s staff and be in a position to assist him in the process of helping mold these young guys to get them ready to be impactful in Detroit,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity to work in a capacity where you can help players who want to be in the NHL.”
Just because a prospect is a first-round draft pick doesn’t guarantee that player a spot in the NHL.
“They have to understand that there’s so much more to it than hockey talent,” he said. “You have to have that work ethic. It’s not all about playing hockey. It’s the mental, physical, emotional aspects of the game, too. It’s grit, character and work ethic. What are you willing to do to sacrifice to get there? As coaches, we’re trying to help them understand what it takes.”
Krygier is more than happy to share stories of his days in the NHL.
“Peter Bondra was a 50-goal scorer, one of the fastest skaters in the league, and I’ll never forget a practice with Jim Schoenfeld one year. It was one of the toughest practices I ever had – I was absolutely exhausted. As I was getting undressed, I saw Bondra taking off his jersey and shoulder pads and he had worn a 25-pound weight vest for that whole practice. Amazing.
“When I played with Ron Francis in Hartford, he was unbelievable on draws, one of the best. You wondered how he did it and then you’d see him work on his quickness by having heavy pucks taped to his stick all the time. It’s those little things that can make a difference.”
Krygier likes to remind players that there are no shortcuts to success.
“You have to work for exactly what you get,” he said. “These guys have to understand that Detroit owes them nothing. The Wings give them the opportunity, but they’re called prospects for a reason. They have to turn themselves into players. I’m here to help Ben facilitate that process, to help turn prospects into NHL players, but in the end it’s up to them.
“It’s not always talent that will get you there. I’ve seen many players with talent. The minors are filled with highly talented players who will never play in the NHL. It’s the intangibles – the drive, the determination, the heart – that makes the difference. There’s that feeling of ‘this is what I’m meant to do and no one’s going to take it from me and I’m going to find a way to get it done.’
“If you want to get there, that’s what it takes. You’ve got to make a difference.”