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Steps to Success

Alumni of the Griffins’ front office have graduated to a variety of positions in other sports and leagues.

Story by Mark Newman

Most fans know that the Griffins serve a vital role in preparing players for the Detroit Red Wings. As the top developmental league of the NHL, the American Hockey League is a hotbed of talent.

But there’s a team behind the team with similar goals. The Griffins have a robust intern program that is designed to develop young professionals for other organizations, other leagues or even other sports.

“In the same way that we take pride in our players being promoted to the National Hockey League, we take pride when our staff gets elevated to whatever job is the next step in their career,” said Griffins president Tim Gortsema. “We’re a developmental hockey team for our players and we’re a developmental hockey franchise for our office staff.”

The Griffins have sent alumni from their front office to every level of the sports world, from major universities to major league franchises. Their jobs run the gamut from ticket operations and community affairs to digital content and media relations.

Rich Meyers, for example, recently completed a five-year stint as director of event presentation with the Edmonton Oilers. Basia Wojcik is the director for global and Olympic consulting at The Marketing Arm, a sports marketing agency; and Rachel Filippini is the director of brand strategy and strategic partnerships at LW Branding, a boutique branding and marketing agency that specializes in working with professional athletes (both are based in Chicago).

The Red Wings’ front office now includes several employees who got their start in Grand Rapids. The most recent graduate is Michael Spruit, a video producer/editor with the Wings who started as a part-time production intern in 2014.

Spruit literally grew up with the Griffins. His father was one of the franchise’s original season ticket holders.

“We shared a season ticket package with another family the first few seasons, so we went to a lot of games,” he recalled. “We used to sit in section 223, row B, seats 1 and 2, and I could watch the benches, so I always wondered what it would be like to go back in the tunnel and see what it was like behind the scenes. When I got hired by the Griffins and was able to see all that, it was awesome.

“Getting to work for the Griffins was like a dream.”

Spruit Bertuzzi Mantha
Michael Spruit mans the camera to shoot a video with the Red Wings’ Anthony Mantha and Tyler Bertuzzi.

Like many other former Griffins interns, Spruit remains appreciative of the fact that he was able to learn his craft in an environment that fostered creativity and collaboration. Being a part of the “team behind the team” allowed him to experience the synergy of a sports franchise that is driven to deliver the best fan experience possible.

“Everybody in the Griffins organization helps each other,” Spruit said. “It’s fun to come to work every day and be around hockey. We get to do something that we enjoy and it’s something different every day. It’s not just another job.”

Mike Blanchette was looking for career direction when he was an intern with the Griffins during his junior and senior years at Grand Valley State University.

“Sports has always been a huge part of my life,” Blanchette said. “I wanted to love what I did. For the amount of time that you commit to a career, it almost defies logic to be doing something that you didn’t love. If you can grind it out, why not find something you can enjoy?”

Blanchette became a ticket sales, service and database intern with the Griffins. He supported account executives, which meant that he did everything from assembling ticket packages to researching potential group nights and generating new leads. He also assisted with the Griffins’ early implementation of social media.

“On game days, I was given the opportunity to wear a lot of hats, whether it was working in the main ticket office, answering ticket questions on the concourse, or helping out during the intermission activities,” Blanchette said.

“It was a great way to get a broad perspective of the operations but I swear my roommates never saw me. I committed myself that this was the path to what I wanted to do, so I fully immersed myself in the work and tried to soak up as much as I could. My internship became my No. 1 priority.”

Blanchette Championship
Mike Blanchette (left) shares the Big 10 Tournament championship trophy with Steve Lambright, who was U-M’s director of ticket operations until his recent retirement.

His Griffins experience allowed Blanchette to land a position with the University of Michigan athletic department nearly eight years ago. He is now associate director of annual giving programs for the Wolverines.

Focused on the fundraising efforts of the school’s athletic department, Blanchette stays busy planning and implementing direct mail and solicitation appeals as well as coordinating digital marketing and social media efforts related to fundraising. He also oversees premium seating for football, basketball and hockey games, in addition to parking operations for football and basketball.

“What makes the University of Michigan unique is that we’re able to draw on our history and tradition and tap into the passion that people feel toward the school even when things are not always the very best. I really enjoy what I do.”

Denver Parler was a public relations intern with the Griffins during the 2004-05 season before he did a series of internships with NFL teams, including the Cleveland Browns (2005), NFL Europe’s Berlin Thunder (2006), Denver Broncos (2006), and Baltimore Ravens (2008).

Parler also worked Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa, then interviewed two days later at the University of Florida in Gainesville, where he has spent the past 10 years. His first two years were spent as the secondary contact for the football program before he became the communications director for the Gators’ men’s basketball program eight years ago.

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Denver Parler cuts the net after Florida defeated Dayton to advance to the Final Four in 2014. (Photo by Tim Casey/UAA Communications)

An English literature student at Cornerstone University, Parler worked for the Griffins during his senior year.

“It was halfway through college that I realized that pursuing a career in sports could be a possibility,” he said. “I loved sports and when I was searching for internships, I checked out the Griffins website and saw the media relations internship.”

Parler said working closely with Randy Cleves and Dave Gaylinn in the Griffins’ PR team provided him with invaluable experience upon which he still draws today. “They were incredibly generous with their time and their contacts helped me find other opportunities in the profession,” he said. “Without my Griffins experience, I wouldn’t have been able to get on the path that I did.”

Evert Geerlings is another graduate of the Griffins’ public relations department.

A Calvin College graduate, Geerlings followed his time in Grand Rapids with internships with the Detroit Lions and New York Jets during consecutive seasons. He also worked three straight Super Bowls, starting in 2014, for the NFL.

Today, Geerlings is the media relations coordinator for the Oakland Raiders. His myriad duties include coordinating and facilitating all team interviews and appearances, in addition to working hand-in-hand with Raiders quarterback Derek Carr for all his local and national media appearances and interviews.

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Evert Geerlings (right) works hand-in-hand with the Oakland Raiders’ Derek Carr to coordinate all of the quarterback’s local and national media appearances and interviews.

“Honestly I always loved hockey, but I never really thought about working in hockey,” he said. “When the opportunity for an internship with the Griffins arose, it was clear as day that this was the way I was going to get my start in sports.

“I couldn’t have started with a better group of people,” Geerlings continued. “The work environment created within the organization is so positive that the Griffins became a benchmark in my sports career in terms of what I wanted to do and what I aspired to be.”

Geerlings said his Griffins experience set the tone for what was to come.

“Everything I learned with the Griffins was beneficial so that I was able to eventually connect the dots,” he said. “My internship provided the blueprint for me to be successful because you do many of the same things in sports PR wherever you go: you work with players, you facilitate interviews, you interact with the media, and you handle credentials, along with all of the other responsibilities associated with the work.”

Over the years, the Griffins have sent a number of people to major league franchises.

Nicole Madigan is currently a consumer sales account executive with the Detroit Lions after serving as an inside sales representative with the Griffins during the 2016-17 season.

A native of Mackinaw City, the Grand Valley State University graduate did everything from making cold calls to pitching season tickets to handling various game day duties during her time with the Griffins. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do in school, but once I got the internship, I fell in love with the business,” she said.

She was a hockey fan growing up, so the Griffins provided the perfect introduction to the sports industry.

“I love the Griffins organization,” Madigan said. “When you look at all the great people who have worked there, there’s something to be said for the work environment that they create, which starts from the top on down. When you see Tim Gortsema pushing around pretzel carts at season ticket members events, that’s huge.”

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Nicole Madigan (right) poses on the field with her colleague Jen Babcock from the Detroit Lions’ sales and service team.

Madigan got her first full-time job on the strength of her internship experience. After the Griffins, she served as a group sales account executive for the AHL’s Texas Stars for one season before returning to Michigan to work for the Lions. “I tell people that if I could sell hockey in Texas, I can sell anything,” she said.

She looks back at her time with the Griffins as the perfect start to a career that she hopes will eventually take her to an Original Six team in the NHL.

“The Griffins help set you up for success,” Madigan said. “One of the most important things to me is how invested the management is with their interns. They care about you finding a job just as much as you do. They provide great mentors, put you on the front lines and really help you fall in love with the industry.”

Brandon Scherzer is now employed by the Detroit Tigers as a community affairs coordinator. He oversees year-round memorabilia donations and coordinates pre-game on-field ceremonies with various groups and organizations in addition to working with Tigers wives’ initiatives.

Scherzer also helps connect Tigers players with the community, whether that means hospital visits or school reading programs. He is also responsible for organizing the annual Tigers player caravan that tours the state every January.

“The caravan is our biggest event every year,” he said. “We start planning in October and a lot of hours go into making sure that every second is detailed for the participating players and coaches so that we’re all on the same page.”

An Aquinas College grad who majored in sports management, Scherzer was a community relations intern under Bob Kaser, the Griffins’ vice president of community relations and broadcasting, during the 2016-17 season.

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Brandon Scherzer (top left) poses with Detroit Tigers front office staff during an inner-city volunteer event.

“Going into my internship, I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said. “During my internship, I was able to see a lot of departments, which opened my eyes to all the different options that might be available. I think it did wonders for helping me focus on what I wanted to do.”

As a college hockey player, Scherzer had experienced what it meant for professional athletes to interface with fans. “It’s a blast connecting a team to the community,” he said. “I am very appreciative of what the internship experience meant for my career. Working for an organization with great leadership helped set the standard.”

Having grown up in Sparta, Scherzer has to pinch himself when he walks around Comerica Park and sees baseball legends like Al Kaline and Willie Horton on a regular basis. “Having all that history around the office, you just can’t beat it,” he said.

All of the former interns agreed that there’s a certain allure to working in sports.

“You work with people you grew up idolizing,” Geerlings said. “They become your friends and you develop bonds that you don’t find in other jobs. When you get to know athletes, you see that they’re human. The only difference is when they make mistakes, they can’t just disappear.”

“Any time you can work for a home team, it’s awesome,” Madigan said. “I grew up a Lions fan, so I think I can understand where fans’ love and passion comes from. There’s something about Detroit – there’s a soul in the city – that goes far beyond any negative things you hear.”

Working in sports is especially enjoyable when a team is successful.

“Everybody loves winning,” Parler said. “My job, of course, is similar, win or lose. No matter the outcome, there are certain responsibilities and media obligations that I always have to take care of with regards to our coaches and players. What changes is that everybody is in a much better mood when your team is winning.”

But a career in sports does not come without sacrifice.

“Working in sports is not easy,” said Blanchette, who works all of U-M’s home games. “It is a fantastic, exciting career where you love going to work every day, but a lot of people don’t think about all the nights, weekends, holidays and long hours that are required.”

“A career in sports can be a grind and you’ve got to be willing to put in long hours,” Madigan said. “A lot of people think it’s glamorous, but it’s hard work, too. At the same time, I walk into Ford Field every day for work and that’s awesome.”

“When you work in sports, your Saturday nights are not usually spent hanging out and having a good time,” Parler said. “When you’re dedicated, you’re committed to being at the arena on Saturday nights, which is a sacrifice that not everyone is willing to make.

“I’m glad that my internship with the Griffins not only showed me the enjoyable parts of the profession but showed me the realities, too.”

Ultimately, it’s the work that makes the difference.

In his video role, Spruit said there is never a dull day. One moment he might be creating a stop-action short (his work on a Lego-inspired video won a national award for the Griffins) and another day he’s shooting footage for Tyler Bertuzzi Bobblehead Night. “It’s fun to come to work every day,” he said. “I get to do something that I really enjoy.”

To a person, all of the Griffins’ graduates say their internship in Grand Rapids is something they would not trade for anything. Getting their feet wet was the best way to see if they really wanted to delve into the world of sports.

“I think my total experience with the Griffins helped prepare me for where I am today. The lessons I learned about hard work, accountability and time management were invaluable,” Blanchette said. “For anyone considering a career in the sports industry, I would highly recommend doing an internship.”

Like the AHL prospect who learns whether he has what it takes to play in the NHL, there’s always a college student on the Griffins’ staff trying to see if they have the capacity for a career on the business side of sports.

“My advice is to take advantage of every opportunity you can, whether it’s volunteering at a local high school or helping run an event,” Parler said. “There’s no replacement for good experience, and more experience will lead to new opportunities.

“As far as I’m concerned, the Griffins offer a fantastic introduction to the whole sports business.”

Top photo by Tim Casey/UAA Communications

GRIFFINS FRONT OFFICE ALUMNI THROUGHOUT THE SPORTS WORLD

MIKE BLANCHETTE
University of Michigan: Associate director, Annual giving program
Griffins: Ticket sales, service and database intern (2009-11)

LOGAN BUCKLEY
United States Soccer Federation: Digital content coordinator
Griffins: Public relations intern (2011-12)

MELISSA DARUSZ
Miami Dolphins: Account manager, Event sales
Griffins: Ticket sales, service and database intern (2013-14)

MIKE EPSTEIN
West Michigan Whitecaps: Ticket operations coordinator
Griffins: Game night intern (2014-15)

RACHEL FILIPPINI
LW Branding: Director of brand strategy and strategic partnerships
Griffins: Game night intern (2015-16), Ticket operations intern (2016-17)

KEVIN FISHER
Detroit Red Wings: Manager of game presentation
Griffins: Game operations intern (2011-13)

EVERT GEERLINGS
Oakland Raiders: Media relations coordinator
Griffins: Public relations intern (2013-14)

ALYSSA GIRARDI
Vegas Golden Knights: Senior manager of communications and content
Griffins: Public relations intern (2013-14)

NATE HONE
San Jose Sharks: Digital media production manager
Griffins: Digital media producer (2013-15)

EMMA KAZIAN
Colorado Eagles: Game operations manager
Griffins: Game operations intern (2017-18)

KYLE KUJAWA
Detroit Red Wings: Communications professional
Griffins: Public relations intern (2010-11), Public relations manager (2011-13)

NICOLE MADIGAN
Detroit Lions: Consumer sales account executive
Griffins: Inside sales representative (2016-17)

ANN PACIONE
Chicago Wolves: Group account executive
Griffins: Game night intern (2015-16), Fan services intern (2017-18)

DENVER PARLER
University of Florida: Communications director, Men’s basketball
Griffins: Public relations intern (2004-05)

KELSEY PENLAND
Grand Valley State University: Assistant athletic director, Sales & marketing
Griffins: Public relations intern (2012-13), Corporate sales fulfillment coordinator (2013-15)

LEAH PLETCHER
Detroit Red Wings: Foundation assistant
Griffins: Game night/Fan services intern (2016-18)

CLARK ROWEKAMP
Detroit Red Wings: Group sales manager
Griffins: Group sales account executive (2009-11)

ANDREW RUBINSTEIN
Lehigh Valley Phantoms: Director of group sales
Griffins: Group sales account executive (2012-14)

COREY SCATURRO
Minnesota Lynx: Sales and service account executive
Griffins: Game night intern (2017-18)

BRANDON SCHERZER
Detroit Tigers: Community affairs coordinator
Griffins: Community relations intern (2016-17)

MICHAEL SPRUIT
Detroit Red Wings: Video producer/editor
Griffins: Video production intern (2014-15), Digital media production assistant (2015-17), Digital media production manager (2017-18)

BASIA WOJCIK
The Marketing Arm: Director for global and Olympic consulting
Griffins: Tickets sales account executive (2000-01), Ticket sales account manager (2001-02), Corporate account manager (2002-06)

With apologies to any full-timers we may have inadvertently omitted.

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