Steady as They Come
Story by Andrew Streitel/Griffins
Hockey fans come to games for the excitement of goals being scored and, perhaps, the occasional punch being thrown. However, some players fly under the radar with their ability to pass the puck at a high level rather than light the lamp or lead the league in penalty minutes. Taro Hirose is one of those players whom you may not notice on the ice scoring goals, but he has a massive impact on the success of the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Coming from Calgary, Alberta, Hirose found a new home in the state of Michigan after earning a scholarship at Michigan State University. Hirose blossomed under head coach Danton Cole and became the Big Ten Conference Player of the Year in 2018-19, in addition to being named a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award and earning a spot on the First All-American Team.
“It was one of those seasons when you get into a rhythm. I was playing with some really good players in [Patrick] Khodorenko and [Mitchell] Lewandowski, and as a line we were really clicking,” explained Hirose. “It was special to play with those guys and all the guys on that team were fun to be around and play with. The atmosphere was great for us and that led to everything else.”
Hirose’s play during his junior season at MSU turned some heads in the professional world, including that of former Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland. Detroit signed Hirose after the 2018-19 collegiate season and he made his NHL debut a week later in Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers, collecting an assist in the process. It may have been a precursor to his career, as the left winger went on to record a helper in each of his first five NHL games.
“I met with a couple teams, but Detroit really seemed that they wanted me and wanted me to play in the NHL right away. So, that was an option I really could not pass up,” said Hirose. “It was definitely a whirlwind; you are taking tests, going to classes, and then all of a sudden you are traveling to New York to play at Madison Square Garden. That was a crazy week after college, but it was a good experience for me.”
Hirose finished his busy 2018-19 campaign with seven points (1-6—7) in 10 outings with the Red Wings and 50 points (15-35—50) in 36 games at MSU, which ranked first in the NCAA. From that point on, Hirose became an important piece to Detroit’s organization and found a home in Grand Rapids with the Griffins.
Hirose has had at least 22 assists in each AHL season in his career and has ranked in the top three for assists on the roster in all four campaigns. This season, the 26-year-old places first on the Griffins with 35 helpers and 49 points, and he is on pace for setting career highs in both points (60) and assists (43).
“I look to pass first more than anything. So, I think it is just natural to make those plays for me. I try to get open for my teammates, and helping them succeed is something that I like to think I succeed at,” said Hirose. “Those things just lean into being a passer and I obviously have good teammates who can finish, too. I would not get the label of a power forward or anything with the size that I am. So naturally I just fit into that role of a passer, and I’ve worked on being that type of player.”
Hirose is certainly a high-level passer of the puck and his numbers back up that claim. With two assists on March 4, Hirose passed Jiri Hudler for the seventh-most assists in franchise history with 115. The former Spartan is now just four assists from tying Nathan Paetsch for sixth all time. Hirose was at a loss for words when asked what it meant to be one of the names on such a historic list.
“Honestly, pretty crazy. I had no idea that was anything even attainable but obviously to be mentioned with a name of Jiri Hudler, grew up watching him in Detroit and with the Flames for a little bit, is a honor and very special,” said Hirose.
Hudler last played for the Griffins during the 2005-06 season, while Paetsch competed in his last season with Grand Rapids in 2016-17. Hirose, now in his fourth full season in the Red Wings organization, knows that he is in a special place in Grand Rapids and does not want to take that for granted.
“The fans and the city, you can’t really beat it. We are packing Van Andel Arena every night and when we are in close games, the fans create a crazy atmosphere. That is something that any player would want to play in,” said Hirose. “Being around the city, there are good places to eat and lots of things to do, so lots of guys love it here. Too many big games, memories and fan experiences to pick out a favorite.”
Hirose re-signed with Detroit this past offseason on a two-year deal that will keep him with the organization through the 2023-24 campaign. Hirose will continue to climb Grand Rapids’ all-time assist leaderboard but he does not think about the future too much and always puts the team’s needs above everything else.
“You definitely have some [goals] in the back of your head but team success leads to personal success at the end of the day,” said Hirose. “I think that is the first thing you are looking at going into a season. What kind of team do we have and how can I help make this team succeed?”
The Canadian has been in the Great Lakes State for seven seasons now after beginning his journey as a 20-year-old freshman at MSU. Hirose has certainly made Michigan his new home and is ready to continue to rewrite the record book with the Griffins.
“I feel like I have been adopted by Michigan, being here for so long, and couldn’t have asked for more.”
Photo at top by Nicolas Carrillo/Griffins