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Good Career Move

Mar 15, 2024
Written By: Mark Newman

After playing 14 seasons in the Red Wings organization, Brian Lashoff has transitioned to a spot behind the bench as an assistant coach for the Griffins.

Story by Mark Newman / Photo by Nicolas Carrillo

If Brian Lashoff had followed his heart, he might still be playing.

His body, however, was telling him something different. As much as the longtime Grand Rapids defenseman and captain wanted to keep pulling on a Griffins jersey, he knew the time had come to commit his energies in a new direction.

"In my mind, I still love the game, still wanted to be around the game," said Lashoff, whose 628 regular-season games in a Griffins uniform rank second only to Travis Richards (655). "I went through some pretty big injuries over the last couple years of my career. And I was dealing with some things at the end that weren't allowing me to play at the level that I wanted and that I felt the team deserved out of me."

Lashoff, who spent his entire 14-year professional hockey career with the Detroit Red Wings organization, tried his best to be honest with himself while evaluating his performance during what proved to be his final season. He knew the games had become more of a grind and it had become more difficult to excel at the sport he loved.

"I went into last year just kind of seeing how my body was going to hold up," he said. "It continued to snowball down in a direction where I started to deal with more stuff more frequently, some past things even more frequently than I dealt with them the last year or two. By the time it got toward the end of the season, I knew the direction I was heading."

It didn't help that the sport has continued to evolve in a way that favors speed and skill. "The pace has gotten faster," he said. "It's a different style of game now. In the past, a team's bottom lines were filled with bigger, more physical types of players. That's faded to the point where the game is a lot of pace built on speed. And I think it requires a different level of athlete to compete into your late 30s."

Lashoff found himself having to work harder to compete.

"Near the end, I had a 'new normal' as far as what my body allowed me to do," he said. "I needed to adjust to what I was able to do, which was different than what I could do in my 20s. And then there was a different pain level, too, on a day-to-day basis. I dealt with a lot of things toward the end that the trainers know about, for sure."

Of course, Lashoff had been learning to adjust since he first came to Grand Rapids near the end of the 2008-09 season, following his junior years in the Ontario Hockey League.

Signed as an undrafted free agent, he still showed the offensive flashes that had distinguished his teenage years. Joining the Griffins, he quickly adjusted his style of play to become more of a stay-at-home defenseman.

"I needed to adjust and, fortunately, I had some good coaches," Lashoff said, singling out former Griffins and Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill as one who had an impact early in his career. "Blash was one of those guys who helped me adjust my game to what would get me into the NHL or maybe be a more effective pro. As a young guy, I leaned into it and decided that's what I would try to do. By accepting that role, it helped me, for sure."

Lashoff would eventually appear in 136 NHL contests spread over seven seasons, including 2015-16 when he spent the entire campaign in Detroit and played 75 games in a Red Wings jersey. He is grateful that he was able to remain with the same organization for his entire pro career.

"It means everything to me," he said. "I had opportunities to leave at different times, but I got to a point where I decided that what I was building here was more important than chasing another opportunity elsewhere. I'm glad I stuck here."

Realizing that his playing days were likely coming to an end, the 33-year-old Lashoff reached out to family and friends for advice.

"Number one, I talked to my wife and my family," he said. "My brother [Matt, four years older, who played for 15 different teams during his pro career] went through a similar situation, retiring, trying to figure out what he wanted to do when he was done.

"I also talked to guys I played with and talked to coaches who I played for. I thought about it a ton. I knew I wanted to stay in the game, but I also knew I wanted to be in Grand Rapids or Detroit. I mean, it's been a good situation for me for many years."

Lashoff decided to transition to a different spot on the Griffins, becoming an assistant coach with fellow first-year AHL assistant Stephane Julien on the staff of new Griffins head coach Dan Watson.

"I knew I wanted to stick around but my body just couldn't keep up with what I wanted to do," he said. "I still love being at the rink, so working with the guys as a coach was an easy decision. Having been one of the veteran guys in the room, some things are similar, but I knew I had a lot to learn as a coach."

Lashoff said the learning process began not long after the June 26 announcement of his hire.

"I learned a ton over the summer and I've been able to learn from two really good coaches in Steph and Watty," he said. "It's all new to me, so there's an adjustment with figuring out exactly where my lane is and stuff like that. But I think it's been a great adjustment, especially because it's made easier by having those two guys around."

Having served as captain of the Griffins from 2020-23, Lashoff already was in a position of respect with his former teammates.

"I think my role the past couple of years, being the captain and having that voice in the room, helped make the adjustment a little easier," he said. "The situation is different, but it's a credit to them that they accepted it and allowed me to get involved and do the things I've been doing.

"I think it helps a ton having guys that know you as a person, that know you as a player, and that you went through battles with together. Of course, it's different talking to players as a coach as opposed to as a teammate.

"As a captain, my job was to act as a bridge between the coaches and the guys, making sure their message is getting to the guys and we're all on the same page. That relationship helped the transition, too."

Like most, if not all, who have been in a similar position, Lashoff is drawing experience from past coaches.

"When you're young, you're not thinking about it as much, but as you get older in your career, you start to take a bit of everything that you've learned from your different coaches," he said. "I've been fortunate to have had really good coaches here and in Detroit. You start to see how they put together a practice and how a game plan is put together.

"That process has been enjoyable for me, especially being in Detroit for training camp, seeing how their staff works and how involved they are. I think that the process has been fun. Having been a player for so long and now being on the other side of it has made it enjoyable."

Lashoff said he felt prepared for the new opportunity.

"It's not until you get into it and you're doing it every day that you have a true appreciation for the amount of work that goes into the job to be good at it, the amount of work that goes into helping guys get better on a daily basis," he said.

He admits he had gotten a sneak peek into the coaching process during his later years.

"I was in the room a decent amount of time as a captain, when you're having conversations with coaching staffs that are sometimes tough conversations about the team. So I've been in types of those conversations, but I think tactically, how to put together a practice and a game plan, that stuff has been super interesting."

Lashoff said fitting into a new staff started during the Red Wings' development camp and continued through the NHL Prospects Tournament and training camp. By the time the season started, he felt they were all on the same page.

"We've continued to learn as we go and learn about each other. I think we've meshed very well," he said. "I've known Watty for a long time. When I was 20 and I went down to Toledo, he was the 'D' coach. Although I only had him as a coach for a short time, I heard amazing things about him and how he's able to bring people together, to bring teams together to win.

"Being able to see things firsthand now and then adding Steph, who has a great resume, both playing and coaching, they're two smart guys that I get to learn from every day. I think we have a good time together as people, too, and that makes it fun to come to the rink."

Although it's coincidental, it doesn't hurt that all three members of the Griffins' coaching staff are former defensemen. "It makes it easy," he chuckles.

Lashoff said he is now enjoying a different type of job satisfaction.

"My body's thanking me, for sure, but there's also the sense of gratification that comes from helping guys. As a player later in my career, I tried to help guys as much as I could. Even though I was dealing with my own stuff as far as injuries go, I still tried to be there for the young guys.

"You get a certain satisfaction from helping guys become better because they all want to play in the NHL, no different than when I was their age. They all want to get to the NHL. And they're all here longer than they want to be.

"We've got a lot of good young players who all have aspirations of playing in the NHL. I think what's important is that while they're all good players, they're also good people and they want to get better every day. I think that makes our job as coaches easier and it's no different than I was a player.

"When I was starting to get older and I was playing with guys like Fil Hronek and Mo Seider, they were the same way – they wanted to be good, they wanted to win, and I think it's no different now. It says a lot of good things about Detroit, the organization in general, that we have so many good, young players pushing for bigger roles on our team and hopefully pushing for us to have more wins.

"You try to manage where they're at in their careers. Patience is tough to teach a young guy because they all want it right away, but I think that's a good thing. And if they go up, they will have to learn they will have to work even harder to stay there. Getting up is one thing; staying up is a totally different thing."

Lashoff said the entire Griffins team has been in good spirits since Christmas, when the Griffins started a stretch where the team suffered a regulation loss only twice in a 23-game stretch.

"You can see the guys are gelling," he said. "They're understanding what we're trying to put together and that makes it fun for everyone. As a player, I've been on that side when the team is coming together and it's fun to come to the rink every day. So seeing it happen from this angle, it's been interesting to watch how everybody has figured it out."

Lashoff was an integral part of the Griffins' two Calder Cup-winning seasons (2013, 2017), and while he's not making any predictions, he is encouraged that the team is showing every sign of being on the road to making the playoffs for the first time since the 2018-19 season.

"Anytime you go that far, especially in this league, you learn a ton about what it takes – how hard it is, not only during the playoffs, but how everything starts in October and it's a long marathon," he said. "There are going to be ups and downs. Having been part of championship teams, I think it helps prepare you. You're not surprised by much, especially when you get late into the season.

"I think the team in '13 won a different way than we won in '17, and this team's different than those teams and other teams that I've had here. But you can see when you get buy-in from everyone, from top to bottom on the team, that can push you a long way.

"And when you have the talent, the young talent that we have, you continue to develop the guys throughout the season so they can take on bigger roles. I mean, anything can happen. This is an important time of year. When you get into this time of the season, you want to be firing on all cylinders, especially when you want to be playing the playoff-brand style hockey you need to have success.

"Obviously, the intensity of the playoffs is different than a regular season, but if you can play that style at times during the year, you'll be heading in the direction you want going into the playoffs, where you need to sustain that intensity for a long period to succeed."

Lashoff feels the team is building momentum.

"We've gotten into situations in the last couple of months where maybe we didn't play our best, but we still end up winning. You learn from those wins and I think it's best to learn while you're winning. We've been able to limit some of the mistakes that we were making earlier in the year and we're giving ourselves a better chance of winning.

"We've got a good group of guys who are willing to work. That's putting us on the right track."