Springboard to "The Show"
Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill looks back on his years in the AHL as invaluable time spent honing his craft.
Story and photos by Mark Newman
Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill went straight to the NHL from the college ranks after his predecessor in Detroit, Mike Babcock, plucked him from Western Michigan University, where he had been the head coach of the Broncos during the 2010-11 season.
Blashill became an assistant coach for the Wings, a position that he had held for 10 years between Ferris State University and Miami University (Ohio). His head coaching experience was limited to the USHL’s Indiana Ice during two seasons, winning the league championship in 2009.
So when the Red Wings organization tabbed him to become head coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins in 2012, Blashill embraced the opportunity.
“When I looked around the NHL, almost all of the coaches had worked in the American League at some point,” he said. “When I was offered the opportunity to go to G.R. after my first year as an assistant in Detroit, it was a no-brainer. For me, it was a decision that really paid off.”
From his perspective, any time spent in the AHL is invaluable, whether one is a coach or a player.
“I think the American League is one of the best training grounds for coaches anywhere,” Blashill said. “Although they are not exactly alike, there are so many similarities with the National Hockey League, from dealing with NHL general managers to working with NHL prospects.”
His first year in Detroit was also his first year in pro hockey, so Blashill admits that he was unsure what kind of experience he was going to encounter in Grand Rapids when he took over the Griffins’ head coaching duties from Curt Fraser, who had accepted an assistant coaching position with the NHL’s Dallas Stars.
“I honestly didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “I felt I had a good base of experience to draw upon, but I didn’t know what level of hockey to expect. I certainly didn’t know how difficult three games in three nights could be, so in some sense, I had to learn as I was going.
“In the end, the experience was awesome. You play tons of games in really tough environments, not just from a building standpoint but also from a travel standpoint. You have to learn how to manage everything, from managing your practice time to maximizing your players’ abilities, all of which is similar to what you do in the NHL.”
The Griffins captured their first Calder Cup championship during Blashill’s first year behind the bench.
“Winning the first year didn’t make me think it was easy. I knew how hard it was,” he said. “We certainly had some things go our way during that run and that’s what has to happen sometimes. The league is so close with so many teams having a chance to win that sometimes things have to go your way. I knew the challenge to win was great.”
That viewpoint was underscored during the next two seasons following the successful run to the title. The Griffins lost to the eventual Calder Cup champion Texas Stars in the Western Conference Semifinals in 2014, then lost to the Utica Comets in the Western Conference Finals in 2015.
“I have incredible respect for the league, whether you’re talking about the coaches or the players,” he said. “There’s an unbelievable amount of sacrifice necessary to win in the league.”
Blashill forged his reputation for working with young talent during his three years in Grand Rapids, helping develop players like Gustav Nyquist, Tomas Tatar, Luke Glendening and Petr Mrazek.
“Teaching is certainly important in the AHL,” he said. “It’s why NHL teams invest money in the American League to help players develop to the very best of their abilities, so they can ultimately become future NHL players and help their NHL club.”
Of course, getting the most of your players is important at any level, and the AHL is no exception.
“It’s critical to help your players to become the best they can be and that’s something that I certainly don’t think is exclusive to the AHL or NHL,” he said. “There are lots of ways to maximize their abilities, whether it’s practice, skills sessions or just holding them accountable. When they do something right, you give them ice time. When they don’t, they lose ice time.”
Bench management skills are especially relevant in the AHL, where roster moves can become almost daily occurrences.
“The one thing you learn is that you never know what your lineup will look like from one night to the next,” he said. “There are days when you get someone called up and you learn to roll with the punches.
“You learn that you have to adapt. You can’t complain or whine about it because it doesn’t do any good. You have to find ways to win with the group that you have, regardless of what happens. That lesson has served me well, not only in Detroit but also while coaching the U.S. National Team in tournaments.
“In my second year in the AHL, Detroit had a ton of injuries so we had a lot of people called up, but we didn’t look around and make excuses. We just tried to find ways to win. Trying to find ways to win serves any coach well at any level.”
During his time in Grand Rapids, Blashill learned the value of veterans in not only providing leadership but also in mentoring those young prospects who can benefit from being shown the right way to play.
“I was very lucky during my time in the AHL to have veterans like Jeff Hoggan, Nathan Paetsch, Brennan Evans and Triston Grant. Those guys were excellent at helping our young players be the very best they could be.
“They were veterans who weren’t worried about the young guys taking their jobs. Certainly, they still wanted to play in the NHL, but they did an unbelievable job of showing what it takes to win. Having the right leaders in your room is a critical part of an organization’s long-term success.
“Veterans, of course, are important in the NHL, too. What is unique in the AHL is that you have young prospects who need to be mentored by veteran players who are are not only okay with young prospects enjoying success but who, in fact, encourage it.”
Obviously, there are other differences between the AHL and NHL.
“The game is the game and managing people is the same at every level,” he said. “One of the biggest differences is the schedule. Even though the NHL is only six more games, the schedule is more relentless. In the American League, it’s more binge hockey. You often play three games in three nights with some time to practice. In the NHL, you are often playing every other night.
“In the NHL, you don’t get as much time to practice as you’d like and that’s been a learning experience for me. Certainly managing all your different thoughts about your team is something you have to learn as well.
“In the NHL, you have to be really convicted in what you believe. You still want to listen and learn, but you don’t really change your fundamental beliefs. Even so, you better adapt and get better, so there’s a fine line there.”
Blashill believes the AHL offers coaches the chance to hone their head coaching techniques.
“The league offers coaches the opportunity to think outside of the box, to try new ideas, because you’re not under the same microscope as when you’re in the NHL,” he said. “It’s a huge advantage when you’re able to try new things. When you get to the NHL, you better know the way you want to play. If you’re doing trial and error at the NHL level, it’s tough to win.”
Blashill insists that prospects should look at their time in the AHL as the best thing for their development.
“The one mistake many young players make when they go to the AHL is they think it’s going to be easy and it’s not at all,” he said. “It’s super hard and I think that causes a lot of guys to struggle, but I think that struggle is a great thing in the end if they can keep their head above water. If they can keep improving, they’ll be way more prepared mentally to have success in the NHL.”
One of the benefits of the AHL is that it allows players to learn from their mistakes far from the glare of the National Hockey League.
“There is no spotlight like the NHL,” he said. “It’s the biggest spotlight, for sure, and there’s a learning process for coaches and players alike. A little less spotlight allows for players to develop without the every-single-day pressure that they would face in the NHL, especially when they’re not ready to be real impact players.”
Blashill has no problem with keeping a player in the AHL until they’re ready to perform up to NHL standards.
“I think both Ken Holland and Steve Yzerman subscribe to the belief that it’s better not to put young players on rollercoasters where they’re up and down. Sometimes it’s unavoidable and sometimes you get to the point where you feel that a player can manage that emotionally. With most young players, however, you’re better off leaving them in one spot until they’re ready to succeed at the next level.
“If guys play in the NHL too early and they struggle, it can really rock their confidence. One of the best things that can happen is for them to play in the AHL and even if they struggle, they find a way to build their confidence so when they come to Detroit, they’ve gone through the ups and downs a little bit so they can handle the tough times that almost every player will face.
“The best way to know when a player is ready is when they’re having great success at the level where they are playing. It’s rare to find a guy who struggles in the AHL and then enjoys great success in the NHL. The goal should be to prove you’re a great player in the AHL and then come up and be ready to be an impact player in the NHL.”
How much time should a player need in the AHL? Invariably, it all depends, according to Blashill.
“There’s no set timetable for a player,” he said. “Sometimes it depends upon the opportunities that are available in the NHL for your particular position. Sometimes it depends upon the particular player’s maturity, both as a person and as a player. The more trustful you are as a player, the quicker you can play in the NHL.
“Everybody is ready at a different rate. Not everyone is going to grow at the same pace. We – as coaches, as management, as fans – have to be okay with that. We have to understand that everyone has their own path and it’s important that we allow each player to take that path.”
It’s important that the organization practices patience when it comes to the development of its prospects in the AHL. Teams should avoid the temptation to sacrifice long-term goals for short-term success.
“If guys are ready, they’re ready. If they’re not, they’re not,” Blashill said. “If we need a scoring left winger, for example, and we have a young player who’s not ready, you can’t rush things. By forcing it, you might take a minor step ahead but could hurt the player in the long term. We have to make sure that we do what’s best for our players. I’m not sure every player always understands that.
“At the end of the day, we’re looking out for their long-term development. We want them to be the very best players they can be long-term. That might mean spending more time in the AHL than they would like. They might not understand that it’s the right thing for their careers now, but ultimately they’ll look back and understand it.”
Promotions from the AHL to the NHL, it should be noted, are not determined by numbers alone.
“Success, in no fashion, is completely determined by statistics,” Blashill said. “We’re interested in developing winning hockey players. Certainly, goals and assists are a big part of any team’s success. You have to make plays and you have to score, but if you’re getting points by playing the wrong way and playing what I would call losing hockey by cheating to get points and not playing good defense, you won’t help us win. We’re looking for guys who want to win. There’s a huge difference.”
One of the best ways for players to learn to win is by participating in the playoffs.
“One of the great things that the AHL can provide is the opportunity to go through the Calder Cup Playoffs,” he said. “Players get the chance to learn the level of sacrifice necessary and understand the level of commitment it takes while developing the ability to handle the emotional rollercoaster of a playoff run. It’s all about learning to be a winning player.”
Blashill stresses that players need to learn the importance of continuing to work hard every day, regardless of whether they happen to be in the AHL or NHL.
“Certainly one of the messages is to control what you can control and that’s your play,” he said. “You don’t have to like the decision to play in the AHL, but you don’t make the decision, so don’t spend two seconds worrying about it. Spend time worrying about whether you’re playing good hockey. The best way to end up where you want to be, which is the NHL, is to play great hockey.”
Ultimately, the AHL can provide a solid foundation for both coaches and players alike. “I wouldn’t have wanted to coach in the NHL without first having spent some time in the AHL,” Blashill said. “My years in the league provided a huge resource for me to rely upon as I’ve coached in the NHL.”