by Randy Cleves || AHL On The Beat Archive
In the hierarchy of hockey leadership, it is rare for a younger player to be named captain or alternate captain. Such an honor is usually reserved for the grizzled vet, a distinguished player whose lengthy resume and considerable accomplishments give ample credence to his knighting.
The Grand Rapids Griffins broke tradition last season by naming Matt Ellis – then just 24 years old – the youngest of seven captains in their franchise’s history. Their trust in youthful leadership paid off, as Ellis helped guide the Griffins to the AHL’s 2005-06 regular season championship.
That anomaly officially became a trend for Grand Rapids in early October, when third-year defenseman Derek Meech was chosen as an alternate captain. At the tender age of 22, he is the youngest player in team history to wear the “A.”
Certainly, a birth date is not a primary consideration for Griffins head coach Greg Ireland when anointing his leaders.
“I look at guys like Steve Yzerman, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, the impact they had in the game and, more importantly, on their team at such a young age,” said Ireland. “You can’t label a leader. I don’t think age has everything to do with it. I think experience does, obviously, and Derek’s had some great experience.”
Meech was just 17 when he capped off his first season in the Western Hockey League by winning the 2001 Memorial Cup with Red Deer. For the next three seasons, he and 2006 Calder Trophy candidate Dion Phaneuf were paired together on the Rebels’ blue line, maintaining that partnership as they helped Team Canada win a silver medal at the 2004 World Junior Championship.
“He’s played with some tremendous players and had a large impact on every team he’s been on,” said Ireland. “Derek knows us. He knows what we expect, and knows the foundation that we’ve implemented. I’m sure he’ll follow that to a ‘T’ and make sure his teammates understand and follow along.”
While wearing a letter is a new experience for Meech as a pro – he served as Red Deer’s captain in 2003-04 – he seems unfazed by the additional responsibility.
“I was a little bit surprised (to be chosen), but I was wanting to take on a leadership role,” said Meech. “Whether or not I would have got it, it wasn’t going to change the player I am or the person I am in the room. Having a letter on your jersey is an honor, especially for a club like the Griffins, but I don’t think it would have changed the way I am or the way I play.
“I am not a too vocal of a guy, but I like to keep the energy up in the room. Hopefully I can lead by example every time I am on the ice. If someone needs a pick-me-up, I can grab that guy and talk to him. But I don’t want to change too much about myself, being the player and person I am.”
His hockey experiences aside, much of Meech’s maturity and level-headedness can be traced to his adolescence. He was only 11 years old when his mother passed away after a long battle with cancer.
“It kind of forced me to grow up a little faster than most guys,” he said. “Through the whole thing, I think my father and my brother and I, we were a pretty tight group. We showed a lot of courage going through it, especially my dad. I don’t know how he did it, going through all that and keeping me and my brother focused on the future.
“It was a tough thing to happen in my life, but I have learned a lot from it and I think it has made me a stronger person in the long run.”
Detroit’s seventh choice in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Meech has been a steady, reliable force on the back end for the Griffins since turning pro in 2004. He missed only two games during his rookie campaign, both due to injury, and his 2005-06 season saw him play in 95 of Grand Rapids’ 96 regular-season and playoff contests. He sat out just one game while serving a league suspension.
With durability an established hallmark, consistent playing time alongside veteran Bryan Helmer – a former alternate captain now with the Phoenix organization – helped Meech make tremendous progress in his overall game last season. After a sluggish start, Meech was arguably the Griffins’ best defenseman from January on, and he registered a team-high plus-four rating during their run to the Western Conference Finals.
“I knew it was a big year for me, and I think at the beginning I might have put a little too much pressure on myself to try to do too much out there,” said Meech. “When I sat out in Houston halfway through the year when I was suspended, I got to look at the game in another perspective by sitting in the stands. That helped me out a lot. After that, I tried to settle down and not do too much while I was on the ice.”
Meech’s transformation did not go unnoticed by the Griffins’ coaching staff.
“(I’ve seen more) poise and confidence, the ability to battle and really establish his game down low in the defensive zone,” said Ireland. “More importantly, I see a good two-way game out of him. He knows when to jump in, and he’s done a great job on the power play and on the penalty kill early this season.”
The strides that Meech made last year played a key role in his ascension to an alternate captain.
“He’s a guy that was ready for leadership, just watching how his season progressed,” said Ireland. “He struggled early; not through lack of effort, but things just didn’t bounce for him. But he fought his way through it, and he worked hard to get his game right and be one of our best defensemen in the second half.
“On the other side of it, we had four rookies (on defense) last season. He and Helmer were the veterans on the back end, and on a lot of nights, Meech had to be a leader back there for us. That experience spoke volumes to us.”
Meech’s 20-point output in 2005-06 was only a slight improvement over his 14-point production as a rookie. But when it comes to his offensive skills and statistics, don’t confuse “hasn’t” with “can’t.” A strong skater who’s smart with the puck, Meech tied a franchise record for defensemen by scoring four points (one goal, three assists) in a game at Cleveland early last season.
“Over the past few years we have had pretty good teams, and sometimes you have to fall into a role,” said Meech. “I didn’t play a lot of power play last year. But I thought I had an important role playing against tough lines in the playoffs alongside Helmer. I took pride in shutting those guys down. I have been trying to establish myself as a guy that can take care of his own end and can be trusted to be put on the ice in many situations.
“One thing I would really like to start improving in my game would be my offensive numbers. I need to start shooting the puck more. That is something I’m trying to work on,” he said.
“Derek’s really rounding into form to be a good two-way defenseman at this level and knock at the door to play some games in the NHL,” said Ireland.
For a Winnipeg native who grew up watching the Jets, playing in the NHL for the Red Wings would be a dream come true for Meech.
“I’ve worked very hard over the past 15 years of my life; it’s still a goal,” he said. “I’m not there yet, so I’m just trying to work hard at becoming not only a great player on the ice, but a great person off the ice as well.
“This year it is starting to roll the right way. I got the assistant captain and that says a lot about people expecting leadership and good things from me. Right now I am just focused on Grand Rapids and doing well here, and hopefully things will turn out in the future.”