Tomas Tatar reflects on the Griffins’ first championship and how winning the Stanley Cup would be nothing short of perfect.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
It was a split second in time but it captures the essence of the moment.
The photo shows a victorious Tomas Tatar on one knee, a big grin on his face while posing with the spoils of war – the Calder Cup, the first championship in the history of the Grand Rapids Griffins organization, and the Jack Butterfield Trophy, the award he accepted as the postseason MVP.
His jersey, like the cap on his head, is backward.
Seeing his last name across his chest may seem odd to the unknowing observer. To those who had followed Tatar’s journey from being the AHL’s youngest player in 2009 to becoming Calder Cup champion and playoff hero four years later, it perfectly captures the ethos of an electrifying performer who has always had a palpable love of hockey.
“Looking at it now, I’m a little embarrassed,” he said of the reversed uniform. “It was a spontaneous moment. I didn’t mean to disrespect the jersey or anything like that. It was nothing like that at all. It was just very spontaneous. There was nothing behind it.
“It was just pure joy and being in the moment. We won because of the organization and they gave us the opportunity to reach our goal together and I was just living in the moment. I have no other explanation. It was just joy, to be honest.”
Even though the moment came a decade ago, Tatar remembers the experience like it was yesterday.
Now a member of the New Jersey Devils, Tatar is playing for his third team since leaving the Red Wings organization in 2018 at the trade deadline, when Detroit dealt him to the Vegas Golden Knights for three draft picks (a first-round pick in 2018, a second-round pick in 2019, and a third-round pick in 2021).
Tatar has now played more than 750 NHL games, but none more memorable than the 24 games he played during the 2013 Calder Cup Playoffs when he scored a league-best 16 goals.
“Like in any sport, it’s not easy to win, but we had a great group of guys,” Tatar recalled. “It was a special year. I felt like we had a great team right from the start.”
Tatar began his unforgettable 2012-13 season in his homeland of Slovakia.
The previous May, Tatar had played for Slovakia at the 2012 IIHL World Championship, where he was the youngest player on the roster. Tatar skated in all 10 games for the silver medal-winning Slovakian team, which finished a surprising second to Russia after defeating the Czech Republic in the semifinals.
With a potential delay in the NHL season due to a looming lockout, Tatar requested permission to stay in Slovakia before returning to North America to play for Jeff Blashill, the new Griffins head coach who was replacing Curt Fraser.
“After our team finished second at the World Championships, there was a big hockey boom in Slovakia, so I talked to Kenny Holland and Jim Nill at that time and asked if I could play in Slovakia until training camp started,” Tatar said.
“I don’t know if Blash was too excited about that, to be honest, but they let me do it, which was super nice. By the time I came to the Griffins’ camp, I felt like I was already in season mode. I had already practiced with the men’s team back home and had played almost 10 games, so I felt very confident when I came to Grand Rapids.”
Tatar spent most of the year in Grand Rapids, where he had played for Fraser the previous three seasons. “Curt helped me a lot,” Tatar said. “I liked him as a coach and as a person. He was good at taking care of us and helping us get to the next level.”
Having originally come to the Griffins at the age of 18 as a second-round draft pick of the Red Wings, Tatar had practically grown up in Grand Rapids.
Thirteen seasons later, Tatar, 32, is the second-oldest player on the New Jersey roster. Only defenseman Brendan Smith, 34, his former teammate in Grand Rapids and Detroit, is older.
“It’s always great to see a guy you played with when you were younger,” said Tatar, who jokes that Smith’s English was better than his back then. “Smitty helped me a lot in Grand Rapids, but I need to give credit to a lot of guys who helped me out, whether it was chores around the house, taking me somewhere, or teaching me English.
“It’s not easy for a foreign guy to be in a different country where there’s a little bit of a language barrier. All of the guys were great and Smitty was one of those guys who helped me. By the time we got to the championship, I was feeling like I was at home in Grand Rapids.
“All credit to the guys who helped me along the way to become the person I am today.”
Tatar is also appreciative of the confidence that Blashill put in his play.
“Blash did a tremendous job and he showed why he earned the right to be the Red Wings’ coach,” Tatar said. “I had one of my most fun years under him. He was good and the experience brings back a lot of good memories.”
Tatar was recalled by the Red Wings in early February 2013 and played 18 games with Detroit before returning in mid-March to Grand Rapids, where he would finish the regular season and playoffs. In total, Tatar played 111 games during the 2012-13 campaign.
Judging from his finish, he was no worse for the wear. “I was a young guy who wanted to play the most games possible,” he said. “At that age, you just want to play and enjoy the game and I think that’s what happened.”
Tatar was happy to be playing into the postseason after missing the playoffs during his first three seasons in the AHL.
“Every year, it’s the goal of almost every team to make the playoffs but it’s not easy in the AHL because there are a lot of moving parts, with guys getting called up or sent down,” he said. “It felt like that year, everything was clicking. I was confident that we could have a good run.”
Scoring 16 goals in 24 postseason games was better than good, a stretch that still stands out as the best in his 14-year pro career.
“When the team does well, individuals stand out with it,” he said. “I was just taking each game period-by-period. Every period brought something new and a new challenge, and I was fortunate to find the puck in the net. We kept changing lines. When Gus [Nyquist] and Joakim [Andersson] came back from Detroit, we started playing together as a trio, and we had success.”
The Griffins were considered underdogs to beat Syracuse, who came into the finals with an 11-1 playoff record. The Crunch’s roster included several players from the Norfolk Admirals, who had steamrolled their way to the Calder Cup the previous season.
The Syracuse team featured several players from Eastern Europe, including Tatar’s fellow countryman Richard Panik; Ondrej Palat, Radko Gudas, and Andrej Sustr from the Czech Republic; Dmitri Korobov from Belarus; and Vladislav Namestnikov from Russia.
“They seemed pretty dominant but I was very eager to beat them because I had some friends on the team,” Tatar said. “They had already won one Cup but we felt like we were right there in the mix with them. It gave me extra motivation to beat those guys and become a champion as well.”
As a team, Tatar said the Griffins were motivated to bring the first Calder Cup to the city.
“Grand Rapids is such a good environment,” he said. “You can tell hockey is big with sold-out arenas, and the whole environment, from the facilities to the people, is outstanding. To reach the finals with the organization was very exciting.”
Tatar is sensing a similar excitement around his current team. At press time, the Devils had the best road record in the NHL this season (21-4-3) and were battling Boston, Carolina, Toronto, Tampa, and the New York Rangers for playoff positioning in the Eastern Conference.
It’s been a remarkable turnaround for New Jersey, which was 27-46-9 last season, finishing ahead of only the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens.
“Last year was a little frustrating considering the strength of our talent,” Tatar said. “We didn’t finish well and it weighed on me through the summer. I wanted to come back and help more because I could see the potential. We had some new additions and I think this is the outcome. We are having a lot of fun.
“We are playing well, but there is still a long way to reach our goal.”
New Jersey is paced by former No. 1 overall draft pick Jack Hughes, 21, who leads the team in scoring. Tatar has found himself playing on a line with Swiss-born center Nico Hischier, 24, who was the No. 1 overall pick in 2017, and Dawson Mercer, 21, who was a first-round pick by the Devils in 2020.
“We have a very talented team,” Tatar said. “These young guys have a tremendous amount of talent and they’re becoming more mature. They’re learning what it takes to win. So far we are working great as a group.
“The line between winning and losing in the NHL is very thin. Last season you could feel it in the locker room that it wasn’t good enough. I think everyone was expecting a lot more from themselves. We needed to sacrifice more and it was a big challenge. We wanted to come back and be better.
“As soon as this season started, players were dialed in and we were hungry to win. We have a lot of young talent and the older guys are trying to help make this a great environment for everyone. We are trying to play good hockey every day and it’s been a great season so far.
“With roughly 25 games to go, there is still a big task ahead of us to get to the place we want to be.”
Tatar would like nothing better than to get another crack at the playoffs. He became a healthy scratch in Vegas after the Golden Knights traded for his rights and he found himself sitting on the bench when the Canadiens reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2021, a year after he had been Montreal’s leading scorer.
“I cannot explain what happened in Montreal,” he said. “It was a hard pill to swallow because we were playing good hockey. It was the coach’s decision and I had to respect it, but I was super happy that the guys were doing well. I think I could have helped in the finals, but unfortunately, that was not the case.”
The experience taught him to appreciate every day for what it is.
“I’m always trying to enjoy my time – smile, have fun,” he said. “Over the years, I have found that hockey can be frustrating but that’s something that everybody goes through. Sometimes things don’t go your way but you learn there will be up times when everything is going your way and then you have down times and it’s just a matter of how you will deal with it.”
And so he is enjoying every minute with the Devils as they make their push to the playoffs.
“We’re playing well and we want to pick up as many points as we can,” he said. “I’m very hungry for the playoffs, especially after we didn’t make it last year. We still have some tasks to complete before we get there and we want to focus on that.”
Being on a winning team again rekindles fond memories of Grand Rapids and the Griffins’ Calder Cup run.
“When I was up and down with Detroit, I had to be patient, but at the same time I didn’t mind because I was enjoying my time in Grand Rapids,” he said. “With great teammates and all the great people around me, I was having a lot of fun.”
Tatar knows it’s a long road to winning a championship, but it’s a journey that pays huge dividends in the end. “I was fortunate enough that we did it in Grand Rapids, and it would be a dream to do it again in the NHL.”