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Bootland is Griffins’ renaissance man

by Ryan Schuiling

Power plays, penalty kills, pugilism – Grand Rapids Griffins forward Darryl Bootland is the total package.

Opposing fans despise him, opposing players target him and opposing coaches view him as the bane of their existence going into every showdown with the Griffins, which is exactly why Bootland has been such a critical catalyst to his team’s success in 2005-06.

His number 27 jersey adorns legions of fans at Van Andel Arena, and his enthusiastic interactions with the crowd endear him to Griffins supporters nearly as much as his performance on the ice.

Bootland’s no-holds-barred, physical style has earned him the undying loyalty of teammates as well. Any attacks on a fellow Griffin will earn the offending party an exclusive dance invitation from the team’s on-ice warden of vigilante justice.

His renewed commitment to off-season conditioning and team play has garnered the respect and support of the coaching staff and front office, just one season after his future status in the Red Wings organization was both unsettled and uncertain.

Bootland has arrived as a complete player. Over the Griffins’ last 20 games, only AHL-leading goal-scorer Donald MacLean has more power play goals (eight) than Bootland (six). His emergence on an electrifying line with European whirling dervishes Tomas Kopecky and Valtteri Filppula has led to more ice time in critical situations. No longer relegated to fourth-line mucking and mop-up duty, Bootland has established himself as an essential ingredient on both the power play and penalty kill units.

“When he started the year with us, I think he had a lot to prove,” head coach Greg Ireland states candidly. “Nobody, including himself, was very happy with where his game was at last year.

“On and off the ice, we stressed for him to become a leader, and he stepped into that. He started in a fourth-line role and worked his way up, got into the power play and penalty kill, and now has become a potent force on both those units.”

By all accounts, the 2004-05 season was a major disappointment for Grand Rapids. As the Griffins disappeared from the playoff chase, head coach Danton Cole was dismissed and players began pursuing individual agendas and personal goals, rather than adhering to the framework of team accomplishments. Bootland was no exception, and both he and the team had reached a crossroads in charting his career path within the organization.

“Last year, he had a real off-year,” general manager Bob McNamara discloses. “He was more interested in some of the revenge-type things and less concerned about team success. He was more concerned with personal scores to settle.

“It’s just the evolution of a young kid finding his way in professional hockey. I think he went home last summer and really did some soul-searching, and tried to figure out what he needed to do in terms of giving himself a chance to play in the National Hockey League.

“He’s come back with a fresh attitude, a new outlook, and really has embraced the team concept. He’s been fantastic.”

Watching Bootland carefully, one can observe a more patient, mature, and measured hockey player – one who picks his battles more carefully, and one who prioritizes the team’s need for his presence on the ice above his personal interest in pummeling opponents. Unless, of course, those two aims are one and the same.

“You take a look in the summer, and you just realize what you’ve got to do to stay in shape,” Bootland reflects. “Four years in, you’ve got to learn how to be a pro. It takes a while to adjust to the lifestyle.

“Once you get it – with the ice time, and the coaching staff giving me a shot out there with two great linemates in Kopecky and Filppula – it’s just worked out.”

The line of Kopecky, Filppula and Bootland has been nothing short of outstanding since being united in early November, 12 games into the season.

Kopecky, a native of Slovakia and another four-year Griffins veteran, has been enjoying a breakthrough campaign with career highs in goals (24), assists (31), points (55) and penalty minutes (102), playing with a level of toughness which suggests some direct influence from his notorious wingman.

Filppula, the first-year Finnish sensation, has made a seamless transition to the North American game after two seasons in his country’s elite league. Compiling 17 goals and 41 assists, the center has already earned a call-up to Detroit.

Bootland has given as much as he has gotten on the line, lighting the lamp a career-best 24 times with 25 helpers, while still maintaining his status as one of the most-feared agitators on the AHL circuit. Not only did he record his first AHL hat trick on Mar. 8 versus Peoria, but he also has three “Gordie Howe hat tricks” (a goal, an assist and a fight) to his credit.

Bootland’s 317 penalty minutes rank second in the league and make him just the eighth player in AHL history – and the first in 11 years – to post 20 goals and 300 PIM in the same season. Further, his career mark of 869 PIM with Grand Rapids surpassed Bruce Ramsay earlier this season for the top spot on the team’s all-time list.

“I’ve always been a big believer – when you put three guys together – in having a mixture of guys that bring different traits to the lineup,” says Ireland. “You have a guy who’ll go in the corner and dig the puck out and be tenacious (Kopecky), a physical player who’ll be responsible defensively (Bootland), and a skill guy that can either dish the puck or finish (Filppula).”

For his part, Bootland agrees with his coach’s analysis, understanding and embracing the role to which he has been assigned.

“I think you need a little bit of everything on every line. You have a grinder with two playmakers. I just try to finish my checks and open up ice for them and hopefully bury the opportunities they feed me. They’re going to hit you when you get open. It’s been both a challenge and a lot of fun for the three of us.”

As for his role in the Red Wings organization, and his place in the team’s overall plans, McNamara believes Bootland’s window of opportunity may just be widening, due to circumstances surrounding the NHL labor agreement and Bootland’s place in that new working environment.

“I think it’s quite possible,” states McNamara. “You hate to say ‘yeah, he’s going to play there next year’, or ‘no, there’s no way he can play there next year.’ I think he’s put himself in a position to contend for a spot on that team, based on what he’s done this season.

“Certainly, he can play a fourth-line role. He can be physical, he can intimidate, he can fight a little bit, but he can also play some special teams, too. In the new NHL, with the (salary) cap, they’re looking for bargains and value guys that can contribute,” McNamara adds.

“That’s what you’re here for. You want to get to the next level, you’re trying to become an NHL player, and a regular at that,” offers Bootland. “I got a sniff (22 games with Detroit in 2003-04). Once you get a taste of the pie, you want to get the whole pie. It’s obviously my goal to get there, but to be there you’ve got to be a champion. So, hopefully, we can win a Calder Cup, and that’ll help out my cause.”

With his eyes on the prize, and an appetite for the NHL flavor burning within, Darryl Bootland is situating himself for a very important role in Hockeytown – and soon.