Veteran defenseman Josiah Didier is determined to help the Griffins return to their winning ways this season.
Photo by Charlotte Checkers
In Marvel movies, superheroes often show uncommon bravery, a willingness to put themselves in perilous situations where they might be outmatched and outnumbered but can show themselves to be fearless in the face of insurmountable odds.
Josiah Didier is no superhero, but he continues to show the perseverance and resilience that distinguish the kind of fearless and unselfish players who put the team's fortunes ahead of themselves.
Whether he is blocking shots or killing penalties, Didier is determined to make a difference. It's how he spent the past two seasons as captain of the Providence Bruins and it's what led the Griffins to sign the nine-year AHL veteran from Littleton, Colorado, to a two-year contract.
Didier is nothing but a winner.
He captured a U16 AAA Hockey Club national championship as a member of the Colorado Thunderbirds in 2010. He helped his University of Denver team take the inaugural National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) championship in 2014, securing the Pioneers' seventh-consecutive NCAA tournament bid. He won the Calder Cup in 2019 as a member of the AHL's Charlotte Checkers.
Didier is excited about coming to Grand Rapids and becoming a leader at the minor league level in the Red Wings organization.
"I felt Grand Rapids was the best fit for me, and I've heard nothing but amazing things about the city and the organization in Detroit," he said. "It's something I wanted to be a part of and help lead this team and teach these young guys to win. That's what I want to do. I want to win another championship."
Didier knows there is a lot of work ahead, but he's never hesitated to do whatever it takes. On skates by the time he was 18 months old, he has always been steadfast in his effort to leave nothing to chance. If you want something, you have to work for it.
It's a single-minded, strong-willed philosophy that was ingrained in Didier, who was born between two volleyball-playing sisters. His father was a mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service while his mother was a youth director at church in addition to a volleyball coach.
He was taught to always do your best and try to excel at everything you do.
"School was the most important thing," he recalled. "If I didn't get my homework done, I couldn't go to practice or stuff like that because good grades will lead to success in whatever you do. So just always be the hardest working guy out there."
Didier grew up an Avalanche fan – his family had season tickets – and Joe Sakic was his favorite player until he switched from forward to defense when he was about 12. "My coach switched me to defense, I think, because I was one of the bigger guys, and I fell in love with the position. Nicklas Lidstrom became my favorite player."
He became enamored with the defensive side of the game. "I enjoyed trying to keep the puck out of the net," he said. "Even from an early age, I loved blocking shots and I still do to this day. It hurts a little more now, but I just love being physical and trying to keep the puck out of the net. Everyone always says defense wins championships, and that's what I wanted to do."
His first title came in AAA, which is the highest level of youth hockey in the U.S.
"I think we lost less than 10 games the whole year," said Didier, who wore number 5 in honor of his favorite player after having worn 19 earlier in honor of Sakic.
"We were just kind of dominant and it was fun traveling the country every weekend. We had great coaches and a great group of guys. I think over half of the team went on to play Division I hockey and a couple of guys ended up playing pro as well. It was just a great team and a fun year."
Didier headed to the USHL for one season with the Cedar Rapids Roughriders in 2010-11. "I don't remember too much, but I think moving from home was pretty easy for me," he said. "I'm a pretty driven person and I just wanted to play, and I knew that the USHL was the next step to help my development as well as improve my exposure to NHL scouts.
"In Cedar Rapids, I had a great billet family and a great coach with Mark Carlson. There have been a ton of former players who have played for him and he's still there coaching. He's a great guy and a great mentor, so I definitely learned a lot there."
Didier was tenacious in trying to prove that he was good enough.
"I think I was just driven in everything I did, whether it was getting my schoolwork done, doing extra work on the ice after practice, or getting up in the gym, going the extra mile," he said. "Instead of just sitting around at home in the summer, I'd go for a run or a workout, or I'd shoot pucks or practice stick handling. I was always working, trying to do whatever I could to get better."
Didier felt incredibly honored when he was drafted by Montreal, one of the Original Six franchises. The Canadiens selected the big defenseman in the fourth round (97th overall pick) of the 2011 NHL Entry Draft.
He knew he was on the radar of several teams but wasn't certain where he might go.
"I was just outside the rankings, so I didn't go to the NHL Combine, but I went to Montreal's own combine where they brought in some guys, and I went through all their tests, workouts, and all that stuff," Didier recalled.
His efforts to make a good impression were slightly hampered. On his way there, the airline lost all his luggage. "I had no equipment, so I had to wear all new stuff to skate. I'm surprised they had a pair of skates my size ," he said. "It wasn't easy, but I ended up doing great on the testing. I got my luggage about a week later.
"When Montreal drafted me a couple of weeks later, it was a really special moment for me and my family."
Didier was equally thrilled when he was recruited to play college hockey.
"It was always my dream to go to the University of Denver," Didier said. "I grew up going to games there and when I knew I wanted to play college hockey, that was my No. 1 school. A couple of other schools were interested in me, but once Denver came along, it was the easiest 'yes' in my life."
Playing major junior hockey had been a possibility, but Didier never gave serious consideration to that option.
"I did think about it a little bit," he said. "Seattle had protected me in the WHL and I thought about it, but school was really important to me and I wanted to make sure I got my degree. I felt I needed more time to develop, too, because I was kind of a late bloomer. I knew the extra four years would allow me to get bigger and stronger and help me get to the next level."
Didier has nothing but fond memories of college.
"Those four years at Denver were some of the best years of my life," he said. "When I look at the group of guys we had there, the family that's created, and all the alumni – it's just a special place in my heart."
Didier said his time at Denver was invaluable.
"Just in terms of my development, it was huge," he said. "In the gym, I put on 50 pounds in two years, plus I got a lot stronger and faster. I had all these great teachers: George Gwozdecky, Jim Montgomery, Steve Miller, and David Carle, who was an assistant and is currently the head coach there.
"The resources we had at the University of Denver were just phenomenal and definitely a reason why I'm here today. I was never a flashy, skilled guy, but I bought into my role as a player and just continued to build my style of play from there."
Didier, who graduated a quarter early with a bachelor's degree in business, got his first taste of pro hockey at the end of the 2014-15 season. He appeared in eight games with the AHL's Hamilton Bulldogs.
"Those games were pretty important for me because the general manager in Montreal who drafted me wasn't there anymore by the time I got out of college," he said. "With a new GM and new management in Montreal, I needed to prove myself to them.
"To get eight games during those couple weeks in Hamilton, I think was a huge kickstart to my career, just to show them what I could bring to the table."
He spent his first two full pro seasons mostly in St. John's, the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador province on Canada's Atlantic coast.
"I loved my time in St. John's," Didier said. "It was cold, really cold, and you never saw the sun, but you got close with the guys, and the fan base there is incredible. They're very passionate about supporting the IceCaps. Our teams weren't great, but it was a fun place to live and a cool experience to have."
In a way, it was the perfect place for Didier to mature as a young hockey player.
"The speed of the game was a lot faster and you had less time to make decisions with the puck," he said. "One of the big things that I took time adjusting to was just trying to get rid of the puck quicker and make faster plays."
He also was exposed to the hard lessons of pro hockey. In addition to being a healthy scratch on occasion, he played a few games in the ECHL, which is a step below the AHL. Like most young players, he learned that nothing is handed to you and that your position in the draft matters little.
"I'm not going to lie – it was tough not being in the lineup every night," he said. "For me, it was important to stay positive every single day and keep working so I could show the coaches and my teammates what I could do and show them that I deserve to be in the lineup."
The experience helped harden his resolve to be the best player he could be.
"I think those two years helped build me into the player I am today," he said. "You know, it's never going to be easy. And I think, I don't want it to be easy. I like the challenge. I like it being tough. And so to battle through all that, I think definitely helped."
When Montreal didn't offer another contract, he signed a two-way deal with Charlotte. He was undeterred when he started his first season in the Checkers organization with the ECHL's Florida Everblades.
"I spent the first month of the season in the East Coast League, but I thought, 'just keep grinding, and I'll find a way to break my way in,'" he said. "I knew that I could play in the American League and it was just a matter of showing them what I got."
Didier was confident that he would get his chance.
"In that situation, you've just got to stay positive," he said. "Over the course of my career, I've seen too many guys who once they get sent down or they get scratched, they just go the opposite way. They become very negative and very whatever and they just don't put in the work and soon they aren't playing anymore.
"You've got to turn the 'downs' into a positive and find a way to work your way through it."
Didier ended up playing 54 games with the Checkers during the 2017-18 season when the team made it to the division finals. Charlotte was even better the next year.
"We kind of knew fairly early in the year how good we actually were," he said. "We won over 50 games in the regular season that year and we had this confidence that we knew we were going to win. If we were down in games, we were like, 'We'll come back,' and we'd come back and win. That was an incredible year with an incredible team."
Didier missed nine weeks of the season with a broken hand.
"It happened while blocking a shot on the penalty kill," he recalled. "I came back and ended up re-breaking it in practice, but I was like, 'I'm playing the rest of the year.' So I played the rest of the year with a broken hand."
He continued playing with the help of a modified glove. "Two of the fingers were sewn together and there was extra padding inside the glove," said Didier, who also broke a rib that year blocking a shot.
Amazingly, Didier was one of only five Charlotte players to appear in all 19 games of the team's postseason.
The Checkers' Calder Cup-winning roster featured several past and future Griffins, including Tomas Jurco, Zach Nastasiuk, and Dan Renouf. He was roommates on the road with goalie Alex Nedeljkovic. "We wouldn't have won the Cup that year without him. Ned was incredible for us and it was a good feeling to have him behind you.
"Winning that championship is something I'll never forget."
Didier parlayed his Calder Cup achievement into a new contract with a new organization. He signed a deal to play in Providence, where he played the past four seasons, including the last two as the team's captain.
He battled his way back from a torn MCL and torn Achilles to play a career-high 69 games last season with the Bruins' top farm club.
"It took four-and-a-half months to come back from my Achilles injury," he said. "There was some heavy rehab and you've got to be really dedicated and push yourself. I think being patient with it is what helped me come back faster than most.
"The doc thought I was done for the year, but I ended up playing 40 games that year."
Which meant he was especially pleased to set a career-high total for games played last season.
"It felt great, especially it being my first full season after tearing my Achilles," he said. "There were people saying I'm not durable enough and I wanted to prove them wrong and be able to play a full year without injury."
In Providence, Didier became a leader both on and off the ice. He was the first winner of the Colby Cave Memorial Award for his dedication to the community and charitable organizations. Didier won the award named in honor of Cave, who spent parts of five seasons with the Bruins organization before passing away in April 2020 following a brain bleed.
"My parents raised me to be a good person and treat everyone the way I would want to be treated," he said. "As professional athletes, we're so fortunate to be able to play a game for a living and to have fun out there when you know there are a lot of people who need help.
"To be able to spend time in the community is something I enjoy. I've been given so much and there have been so many people who have helped me along the way, so for me to be in a position to give back is really important."
Didier also enjoys being in a position where he can pass along his experience to prospects who are almost a decade younger.
Although he has yet to appear in an NHL game, he has the knowledge and natural gravitas that allow him to be a leader in the locker room as well as on the ice. As a reliable and dependable defenseman, he provides the kind of veteran presence that coaches crave.
"I really enjoy playing with younger players," he said. "Over the years I've changed my game, but I've also changed my leadership style. I was never the most vocal guy growing up. I want the young kids to see what I'm doing so I can try to help build their confidence so they can have success.
"These young kids can do things with the puck that I didn't even know you could do, but if we can get everybody playing their best and having success together, we're going to enjoy success as a team. And that's going to lead us to winning – and, hopefully, to winning divisions and winning championships."
Signing a two-year deal with the Griffins provides Didier with some stability. He is excited about what lies ahead.
"I'm excited for what we're going to build in Grand Rapids this season," he said. "It's a great opportunity for me and a great opportunity for a lot of the guys on the team to take that next step and win a championship. That's my goal every year and I want to help this team accomplish that.
"I hope we have a great year."