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Dec 13, 2023
Written By: Mark Newman

Former Griffins defenseman John Gruden believes players appreciate candid coaches who are genuine and truthful to them while offering advice.

Photo by Mark Newman

When John Gruden visited Grand Rapids as the head coach of the Toronto Marlies in early November, it marked the first time he had been inside Van Andel Arena in more than 21 years.

He admitted that while it seemed like it had only been yesterday that he was wearing a Griffins jersey as a veteran presence on the blue line, so much had transpired in the intervening years that it made him pause to contemplate all that had happened on his way back.

But it was not melancholy that Gruden was feeling when he showed up for the Marlies' morning skate between a pair of early season games against the Griffins. A bout of flu sent him back to the hotel so he could rest before being back behind the bench for the teams' second meeting.

After Toronto won both games by four-goal margins, Gruden was admittedly in better spirits. "Anytime your team plays well, it makes you feel a little bit better," he said.

Gruden was also cheered by his recollections of all the time in spent in the building two decades earlier.

A member of the Ferris State University Athletics Hall of Fame, he spent three seasons on the blue line for the Griffins from 1999-2002, helping Grand Rapids win three consecutive division titles. He earned a spot on the AHL's 2001-02 First All-Star Team and represented the Griffins in both the 2000 IHL All-Star Game and the 2002 AHL All-Star Classic.

The games with his current team represented Gruden's first appearance at Van Andel Arena since April 21, 2002.

"I have a lot of great memories," Gruden said a few days after returning to Toronto, no worse for the wear. "It was close to where I went to college and I was coming to an organization in the IHL that was regarded as one of the best franchises in the league."

Gruden was already seven seasons into his pro career when he came to Grand Rapids. An eighth-round pick of the Boston Bruins in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft out of Ferris, where he had captained his junior and senior seasons, Gruden had appeared in 59 games with the Bruins. He had split the two previous seasons between the Ottawa Senators and the IHL's Detroit Vipers.

"When I signed with Ottawa, it worked out for me because Grand Rapids changed their affiliation from independent to Ottawa, so I was able to stay close to my Michigan ties, and there were people that I still talk to, and my son [Jonathan, 23, a fourth-round pick of Ottawa in the 2018 draft] was born in GR, plus the good teams we had."

All three of Gruden's Griffins teams were championship-caliber clubs and each lost to the eventual title winner: Chicago (IHL, 2000), Orlando (IHL, 2001), and Chicago (AHL, 2002). "The last one was tough because we knew the winner of the series was going to win the championship, and they did," he said.

"I guess the only thing I wish I could have had was to somehow come away with a championship, but at the end of the day, it doesn't change anything for myself and I know it didn't for the Griffins because they went on to win a couple of them, which was great to see."

Gruden was an all-star selection in both the IHL and AHL and from his standpoint, they were equally good leagues. At the time, the IHL featured primarily older, more experienced players while the AHL was considered more development-oriented due to its youth and its closer affiliation to the NHL.

"In the AHL, I thought the game itself got a little faster because of the age of the players, although I don't know if it got necessarily better. If anything, joining a younger league brought out the best of some of the older players. You could probably ask Travis Richards [the Griffins legend who was the same age as Gruden] and he would probably say the same thing."

Gruden played for head coach Guy Charron his first two years in Grand Rapids, then future Stanley Cup winner (Vegas, 2023) Bruce Cassidy during his third season.

"When I look back at the coaches that I had, I think the one common thing that sticks out to me with those winning teams and the coaches was just the honesty that you got from them," he said. "You knew where you stood and there wasn't any gray area.

"I think honesty is one of the better qualities of the better coaches. There's no guessing game. You always knew where you stood, whether it was good or bad."

Gruden is quick to add that truthfulness without tact, however, can torpedo the message.

"If you let them know where they stand, I think it's always important to give them examples of where they can improve and so forth," he said. "You can't sugarcoat things, but you also cannot do it with an iron fist. You have to be able to teach. I mean, that's our job as coaches. It's just how you communicate it, that's what matters."

After the Griffins began their NHL affiliation with the Red Wings, Gruden opted to head to Europe. He played one season for Eisbären Berlin, where he was reunited with former Griffins teammates John Emmons, David Roberts and Keith Aldridge, along with Mark Beaufait and Kelly Fairchild from the Orlando Solar Bears and Steve Walker from the Detroit Vipers.

"We had a really good year," Gruden said. "I think we won the [regular season] league but lost to the eventual champions in the playoffs. When I look back at my career, I was so close but always the bridesmaid, which is okay because I still had a great time in Berlin."

Gruden returned to North America the following season (2003-04) when he was reunited with Cassidy, who had accepted the head coaching job with the NHL's Washington Capitals the previous year. But injuries and Cassidy getting sacked in midseason spoiled the homecoming.

"It wasn't the greatest way to end, but your journey is your journey and your path is not always how you want to script it, but at the end of the day, you gotta make the best of it and go from there," Gruden said. "I think that kind of thinking goes into my coaching philosophy as well.

"There are certain things you can't control," he continued. "The one thing you can control is, when you get that opportunity you have to be prepared for it."

When he retired, Gruden was unsure where his next opportunity might be. He coached hockey for two years at Birmingham Brother Rice High School and three years at Stoney Creek High School in Rochester Hills, where he had made his home.

"I didn't know what I was going to do. I honestly had no plan," he said. "After the injuries, I didn't know that I wasn't going to be able to play again and I didn't have a backup plan. I didn't have anything. So I started coaching high school and I took a regular job selling irrigation."

Gruden got involved with his son's hockey teams and subsequently opened a training facility. "Then I got a phone call one day and it was Danton Cole. He wanted to know if I was interested in becoming an assistant coach in the [USA Hockey National Team] development program."

Cole, who had his name etched on the Stanley Cup as a member of the 1995 New Jersey Devils, was an assistant coach with the Griffins during Gruden's first two seasons in Grand Rapids before becoming the head coach of the Muskegon Fury for the 2001-02 season.

"Danton brought me on board and I spent four years with him," Gruden said. "I used that time as a benefit to groom myself in terms of how I wanted to coach and how I wanted to be perceived; first, as an assistant coach, and, later, as a head coach in the OHL."

Gruden became the head coach of the OHL's Flint Firebirds for 2015-16 and proceeded to be fired not once but twice by the same team in the same season. In a highly publicized incident, he was relieved of his duties after the team owner was reportedly unhappy with his son's playing time. Gruden's players staged a successful walkout that led to his reinstatement as the Firebirds' head coach, only to be fired again three months later in the season.

"It wasn't really a nightmare because things happen and it was indeed unfortunate, but I think it helped me as I moved forward," he said. "Stuff happened off the ice that was out of my control, and like anyone else in life, when you come to adversity, it's not the fact that you hit adversity, it's how you handle it that counts.

"He was the owner, the boss, so you just try to handle it with class and wish everyone the best because hopefully, it's something you don't have to deal with ever again. It helped me grow as a human, not only as a coach, and as a human being you have to understand it's not personal, it's just sometimes the way life works."

On the positive side, it led Gruden to become the head coach of the OHL's Hamilton Bulldogs, and he led the team to become league playoff champions during his second season. "I was very fortunate to get a second opportunity and then take full advantage of it by winning a championship," he said.

Success in his second attempt at coaching in the OHL led to an assistant coaching position with the NHL's New York Islanders. He spent four years working with head coach Barry Trotz, who won the Stanley Cup behind the bench with the Washington Capitals the year before coming to the Islanders.

"I could see why he was in the position he was because, number one, I saw how great of a human being he is," Gruden said. "Number two, he makes everyone in that locker room feel just as important, including the staff, equipment managers, and the trainers. There's a reason why he's been in the league for 25 years now. I was very fortunate to get to work with someone like him."

When the Islanders missed the 2021-22 playoffs the entire staff was let go, prompting Gruden to get in touch with Bruins general manager Don Sweeney.

"I played with Don in Boston and although I hadn't spoken to him in a while, I called him for Jim Montgomery's number so I could reach out to Jim," Gruden said.

In the small world category, Montgomery had been introduced as the Bruins' new head coach, replacing Cassidy, who had led Boston to six straight playoff appearances, including the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when the Bruins lost in seven games to the St. Louis Blues.

When he was hired by Boston, Gruden was coming back to the organization that had originally drafted him and where he had broken into the NHL 30 years earlier. "It's a great organization that's now been around 100 years and Boston is a great city, a great sports town."

Gruden was part of the coaching staff that helped the Bruins to the most successful regular season in NHL history. Boston finished the season with a record 65 wins, passing the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings (62-13-7) and the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning (62-16-4). Neither of those teams won the Stanley Cup in its record-setting season and the same happened to the Bruins, who were ousted in the first round by the Florida Panthers.

"Obviously the year didn't end the way we wanted, but it was still an historic season," he said. "I think we always knew we were going to be a good team, but it was probably around Christmas when we knew, wow, we have a really good team.

"It was a special team with a lot of good players and a lot of good leaders and some future Hall of Famers, too. It was a great experience learning from Jimmy, who's a great hockey mind. I got to learn from another really good head coach in the National Hockey League, which was very important and very instrumental to helping me become who I am today."

If there was a consolation prize, it was the head coaching position in Toronto. On July 4, 2023, the Marlies organization announced that it was hiring Gruden as the eighth head coach in the club's history.

"I had worked for some great coaches in the National Hockey League, and I was at that point where I thought that for me to grow more as a coach, it was time to be a head coach at this level. It's a great city, great organization, and I'm very fortunate to have gotten the job," he said.

"I'm excited to work with the great young players who are prospects for the Leafs. It's still early, but I'm really enjoying it. [Maple Leafs head coach] Sheldon [Keefe] made it easy for me to come in and fit in, and I believe it's a great opportunity for me to grow as a head coach at this level."

Does Gruden feel any added pressure because the Toronto organization is still looking for its first Stanley Cup since 1967? The Maple Leafs' 48-season drought between championships is currently the longest in the NHL.

"In this big city, this big market, the Leafs are huge – it's a proud organization and the fans are proud, so it's a great environment to be in," said Gruden, who notes while the two teams share the same practice rink, they don't see each other much. "We're just at a smaller version of it, and at the end of the day, we just have a job to do, so we try to stick to those responsibilities, and execute them at the best of our ability."

Gruden hopes to mold the team in his image.

"We're a team first," he said. "Throughout my playing career –- and I don't care what league you're in –– you don't get to where you need to be without your teammates. So it's important to put them in an environment where they can grow as human beings and players.

"There's a lot of pressure on these young athletes, so we want them excited about coming to the rink and coming to work. To maximize their potential, we'll start the teaching process by helping them become better players. That's our job as coaches.

"It's not just to coach two or three or four guys, but to coach 23, so we're going be a good team as far as balance goes. They have to know that there will be some nights where you're not at your best, but if the consistency is there, and if your effort is there, the wins will happen. I'm a big believer in that."

This past season Gruden witnessed the first fruits of one of his earliest coaching endeavors when his son Jonathan made his NHL debut as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins. On the second day of the 2020 NHL draft, Ottawa traded Gruden and the 52nd overall pick for goalie Matt Murray.

The younger Gruden made his NHL debut in a 4-3 overtime home win against the Anaheim Ducks at PPG Paints Arena, but his dad couldn't attend because he got stuck at work. The Bruins were busy beating the Philadelphia Flyers 6-0 on the same date.

"I wasn't able to go to his first game, but my wife was there," Gruden said. "I did go to his third game when Monty gave me a day where I could go watch them play Ottawa in Pittsburgh, which was nice, so that was an exciting time for him and our family."

The 23-year-old center, who is currently playing in the AHL for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, made his father proud.

"I was there at times for him when he was younger, but I know how hard he works in the summer. I know he gets up every morning and he eats right, and he's gone out of the house by seven o'clock in the morning every day in the summer. I know he works and he wants it and he loves it. Most of the time, we just talk father to son, but I told him if he ever needs anything or any advice, don't be afraid to ask, because I'm there to support him in any way I can.

"When he got called up last year, that was a proud moment."

And now Gruden is focused on doing the same for his Marlies. "Coaching is all about helping players become better pros," he said.