by Randy Rice || AHL On The Beat Archive
For an NHL team to successfully develop its players in the American Hockey League, it takes a watchful eye, plenty of feedback and exceptional conditioning programs. Fortunately for the Grand Rapids Griffins, Chris Chelios and Aaron Downey have been added to the mix this season to help with just that.
The Detroit Red Wings over the summer added Chelios to their staff as an advisor to hockey operations, while Downey was hired as a strength and conditioning coach for their minor league affiliates. Familiar with Grand Rapids, each played for the Griffins during the 2008-09 season, as Chelios had one assist and two penalty minutes during a two-game conditioning stint, and Downey tallied nine points and 126 PIM through 65 games.
Both will be spending a fair amount of time at Griffins practices during the 2010-11 campaign as they settle into their post-playing careers. They will join the likes of Detroit personnel Jiri Fischer and Jim Bedard in assisting with on- and off-ice drills throughout the season. Fischer began his career as the Wings’ director of player development upon retirement in 2006, while Bedard has been the parent club’s goaltending coach since before Grand Rapids and Detroit became affiliated in 2002.
Obviously, Chelios’ NHL experience speaks for itself, as he stands fourth all time with 1,651 regular season games played between Montreal (402), Chicago (664), Detroit (578) and Atlanta (7). Not to mention, he leads the way in Stanley Cup playoff appearances at 266 (Montreal – 98, Chicago – 65, Detroit – 103) between 1983-2010. Chelios played the majority of his final professional season last year with AHL Chicago, notching 22 points (5-17—22) in 46 games with the Wolves, while his seven games with Atlanta capped off a remarkable 27-year NHL career.
Just having Chelios watch practice would be enough motivation for young AHL players to strive their hardest to improve, but it means even more to have him on the ice providing feedback between drills.
“When he comes down here I take full advantage of using him during a drill or having him work with our guys on the ice,” said Griffins head coach Curt Fraser. “Having a player with the longevity in the NHL that he had, working with our guys, is fantastic. He has been following our games closely to get to know the players more, and to have him around our locker room is a huge bonus for us.”
As part of his new front-office career, Chelios aims to travel to Grand Rapids once or twice a week to check up on Detroit’s young prospects. Still settling into his new post-playing career role, he has found the transition rather smooth due to familiar surroundings.
“It’s a lot of the people I have been with for the past 10 years, since I have been with Detroit, and that made it a lot easier transition from retiring,” said Chelios. “So far it’s been a lot of fun working with the young kids, and I’m looking forward to getting more familiar with them. I think I’m going to really enjoy it.”
Like any transition time, Chelios’ jump from player to advisor is a feeling-out process that will take some time.
“The biggest thing for me right now is getting to know the guys, their strengths and weaknesses. Then, the things I was taught when I was young I hope to bring to the table, and when players are struggling I like to think that I could help them out,” Chelios commented. “I’ve also known Curt Fraser and Jim Paek for a long time and know what they are trying to accomplish, so I’m learning from them also.”
The main things head coach Curt Fraser is looking to accomplish are winning hockey games and, ultimately, a championship. To win, off-ice conditioning is just as important as what happens on the ice, which is where Downey’s new role comes in.
Perhaps one of the most knowledgeable players when it came to off-ice conditioning, Downey was released by Detroit during training camp but jumped at the chance to work within the Red Wings’ organization and pass down the knowledge he has obtained to the players who will one day wear the winged wheel.
“It’s an honor to get a job within the Wings’ organization and I feel really fortunate to be where I am right now,” said Downey. “I enjoy bringing some education to the players about the mechanics of certain workouts and how they fire within the body. We never had someone around for that when I played in the minors, to put us through workouts, so I would just like to bring a good energy to the club.”
Downey wasted no time putting his stamp on the team. During his first week, he had the team split up into groups for intense sessions either on the bikes or in the gym following each practice. He even introduced the team to yoga one day, taking them to a class at a local studio to challenge them to stretch and use muscles they may not have used much before.
“You’ve got to factor in those long bus trips in the minors and playing three games in three nights, so it only makes sense to stretch out your posture. Yoga really helped me during my career, to never have groin or hip injuries,” Downey told media following the class.
Being challenged by Downey is something Griffins players will come to know all too well throughout the season, but the former NHL bruiser is not out to push players too far beyond their limits.
“The main thing with off-ice training is doing something that gets to the point,” said Downey. “Whether you’re a big-minute guy or don’t play big minutes, it’s important to get in the gym for about an hour during the season a few times a week and have a fast-paced workout and get the heart rate up. That is the key.”
As far as hockey-specific workouts, Downey has plenty to share.
“What we focus on is multi-functional training and getting everything working in unison,” said Downey. “Sometimes you will see guys’ upper bodies moving differently or working against their lower bodies, but with the changing of the speed and transitions of the game, everything is about multi-function and multi-tasking. So if you can get everything in your body working together it helps out a lot.”
Fraser is really glad to have Downey on board as a strength and conditioning coach, not only for his previous playing experience, but also because he feels this is an area where Downey excels and could have a long future.
“I thought it was important for Aaron to get into this on his own after his playing career and start conditioning players, because he does such a good job and is such a good guy,” said Fraser. “Then we got an opportunity to bring him on board with us and help our players, which I thought was a really great idea. It couldn’t be a better situation for us.”
Players have enjoyed the help off the ice thus far as well, despite the added soreness.
“It’s awesome having him here,” said Cory Emmerton. “His workouts are really good and when your doing them, you can really tell that they are going to help you out. I know the first week I was pretty sore from the workouts, but its good to have them and I felt great on the ice that weekend.”
By adding Chelios and Downey to the mix of Detroit personalities already seen around the Griffins’ locker room on a regular basis, the trickle-down effect from the Red Wings affiliation is in full force this season. For the players, coming to the rink every day and being able to learn and get feedback from them will make their path to the NHL just that much quicker.