📝 by Mark Newman | AHL On The Beat
In a quarter of a century of Griffins hockey, fewer than three dozen players have spent at least parts of five seasons in Grand Rapids.
If you reduce the ranks to those who have logged five seasons of at least 20 games and who came to the organization as undrafted free agents ― players who were discovered without the pedigree of being a prized prospect of any NHL team ― you can count those players on less than two hands.
Turner Elson is one of those rare examples.
Now in his fifth year with the Griffins, Elson joins Brian Lashoff, Dominik Shine, Joe Hicketts, Colin Campbell, Francis Pare, Joey MacDonald and Dave Van Drunen as the only players to claim that distinction. His longevity speaks to his value to the organization.
“He’s a hockey player ― he loves the game of hockey,” said Griffins head coach Ben Simon. “He’s a versatile guy that you can use on the wing, at center, on the power play or the penalty kill. He can play different styles. Whatever you need, he’ll do. He doesn’t ask questions. He doesn’t ask why. He just works and he works hard.
“He’s one of those guys you know what you’re going to get because he competes. And he cares. He cares if the team wins or loses, which is not to say that the other guys don’t care, but he’s a soldier. He’s the kind of guy you go into a foxhole with.”
Elson fully appreciates the advantages that come with relative job security.
“At the start of my career I bounced around, so I know how it’s hard to get to know new people, new systems, new coaching staffs. You don’t know who is going to like you. It’s all of the unknowns. There are so many factors that can determine how your season might go,” he said.
“Being able to come back to Grand Rapids, I know where I stand. I know what they want from me as far as a position of leadership, my role on the team, and what they expect from me. It makes things so much easier when you’re able to come back to the same organization. I get to focus on my game.”
For his part, Elson takes nothing for granted. Being able to re-sign with the organization year after year is directly dependent on his ability to excel ― and that means nothing has changed for someone who has always thrived on his capacity to beat the odds. Give him even a little chance and he’ll turn it into a bigger opportunity.
This is the player whose favorite book is Lone Survivor, the heroic story of a U.S. Navy Seal who managed to survive an ambush by Taliban fighters. This is the player who finds inspiration in the quote “A trying time is no time to quit trying,” because he is determined to show that surrender is not part of his vocabulary.
Elson has had that unflagging conviction for a long time. The fourth of five boys growing up in Alberta, Canada, Elson inherited his indefatigable spirit from his maternal grandfather, a marathon runner who competed in 30 marathons after finishing his first at the age of 50, and who also battled bladder cancer and a form of ALS.
It was that same never-give-up attitude that drove a 17-year-old Elson to call Western Hockey League teams in an attempt to talk his way into a tryout. When he got a camp invitation from the Red Deer Rebels, he literally fought for his place on the roster.
He did the same thing in Calgary, earning an NHL contract as a free agent by fighting to get noticed.
“I felt like my junior experience inspired me,” he said. “It was working, so I kept doing it.”
Elson played sparingly during his rookie pro season with the AHL’s Abbotsford Heat in 2013-14. He played limited minutes, tallying two goals and an assist in 37 games before the Flames sent him to the ECHL.
In typical Elson fashion, he looked at the move as an opportunity rather than a demotion.
“I was just happy to play because I was barely playing in the AHL,” he said. “In Abbotsford, I was in and out of the lineup, playing only three minutes a night sometimes. I didn’t have the confidence to play in the AHL at that time, so I was happy to go down and play. Plus I knew the team had the potential to win the Kelly Cup.”
Elson finished the regular season with 15 points in 18 ECHL games before adding seven goals and four assists in 21 playoff games to help Alaska capture the 2014 ECHL championship.
“Playing with that team was probably one of the most memorable experiences so far in my career,” Elson said. “Ever since winning that championship, I want to touch [a Cup] again.”
Elson spent two more seasons in the Calgary organization, moving from Abbotsford to the Adirondack Flames in 2014-15 and the Stockton Heat in 2015-16. He recorded 30 points each season, tallying 17 goals with the Flames and 14 with the Heat while playing 59 and 63 games, respectively.
At the end of 2015-16, Elson fulfilled a lifelong goal by getting to play in Calgary’s final game of the season. It is his only NHL game to date, which means that it remains his proudest achievement.
“It was pretty awesome,” he said. “I didn’t think I played that well ― nerves got in the way ― but I did get an assist.”
At a crossroads, Elson decided to try his luck with a new organization. He signed a one-year, two-way contract with the Colorado Avalanche but appeared in just four games with the San Antonio Rampage before he was sidelined with a sports hernia. He ended up missing most of the 2016-17 season, appearing in just nine more games.
That lost year left him feeling like he had fallen off the radar of most teams. He was thrilled when the Red Wings offered him a one-year contract to play for the Griffins, who were coming off their second championship in five years. He celebrated his arrival with a four-point effort in the season opener when the team raised its second Calder Cup banner in Van Andel Arena.
While his point production slowed over the next four months, he continued to be a steady performer until February 2018. Out of the blue, he was struck with a mysterious ailment.
“My legs felt like I had no strength and I could barely walk,” he said. “It felt like I had done a thousand squats every day.”
Days turned into weeks and no answers were forthcoming. Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rapid-onset muscle weakness caused by the immune system, seemed a strong possibility, but was quickly ruled out.
“They did so many tests… some of them scary like multiple sclerosis and AIDS. Nothing came back,” he said.
Doctors wondered if Elson’s condition might have been similar to a condition experienced by marathon runners, but they were never able to pinpoint the cause.
“It was a scary time,” he said. “I had never felt that way or heard of anyone in hockey who had experienced something like that, so I was happy that I got out of the whole experience without any lasting effects.”
When Elson came back for the 2018-19 season, he was eager to erase any doubts about his hockey future. He proceeded to post career-best totals for goals (18), assists (21) and points (39). As usual, he was exceeding everyone’s expectations but his own.
“I knew I had to make an impact if I wanted to stay here,” he said. “Of course, you want to make an impact every year. I was fortunate to play with [Chris] Terry and [Matt] Puempel, which meant I got the opportunity to play with the team’s top unit on the power play ― guys who knew how to score.”
His totals during his third season reverted to numbers almost identical to those from his first year in Grand Rapids, but then the quality of his play has never been judged by numbers alone.
“I think my game starts in the defensive zone,” he said. “I’m that defensive forward who has a little bit of offensive upside where I can help put pucks in the net or help my linemates to score. I’m not all about offense.
“I start my play in the D-zone and then work my way up the ice. I think my role over time has developed where I am seen as defense first, offense next.”
Playing good hockey is not all about points.
“It’s blocking a shot or getting the puck out of the zone at a crucial time,” said Elson, who views Grand Rapids product Luke Glendening as the type of player he aspires to be. “There are lots of things that factor into a game that the average person might not notice – it’s not all about scoring goals.
“But scoring goals gets you paid.”
So Elson doesn’t mind when his shot occasionally finds its way into the net. While he has never been considered a pure goal scorer, he knows a strong effort will produce its share of points. Just because he was undrafted doesn’t mean he must go unnoticed.
“Talent will get you noticed, but work ethic will keep your job,” he said. “You can’t just work off talent a lot of the time. That’s why a lot of first-rounders end up out of the league in three years.”
Elson realizes that his ability to adapt and to be able to play in different situations has helped cement his place on the roster.
“I’ve played on a lot of fourth lines in this league, but in recent years, I’ve also played first, second and third,” he said. “I’ve been all over the map on the lineup sheet and I like that. I like new opportunities and new challenges every time I’m on the ice. Whenever I’m on a new line, I think about the ways that I can help the line better for the team ― but defensively first.”
Most of all, Elson aspires to be a good teammate.
“Guys come here to make the NHL,” he said. “I know I’m out of the conversation because I’m going to turn 30 next year. I need to help these kids learn how to become NHL players. I need to be a good leader – like [Brian] Lashoff and [Luke] Witkowski, for example ― and help the younger guys get to the next level.”
Being a leader is a role that he has wholeheartedly embraced.
“I’m enjoying the role of being a veteran,” he said. “I’m a positive person, so if someone gets sent down or they’re struggling, I want to keep things upbeat. I’ve been in that place where you feel like you’re down in the dumps and you need somebody to pick you up and bring you back to the love of the game. And I love this game and I love all of my teammates. It’s a culture I always want to be a part of.”
Elson hopes the organization’s winning culture yields another championship for Grand Rapids.
“I love this place,” he said. “Everyone, from the coaches to the whole staff, is so good here. I appreciate that I feel like I’m wanted here and I want to do whatever I can to keep playing here. I want to keep putting good seasons together so I can stay around.”