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Photo: Grand Rapids Griffins

Griffins’ Great Skate Winterfest is back

by Jason Pearson | AHL On The Beat

The Grand Rapids Griffins have no shortage of popular community events, but one of their most well-liked and certainly most well-attended events, the Great Skate Winterfest – which returns to downtown Grand Rapids in less than three weeks – does not have a storybook origin.

Bob Kaser, president of the Griffins Youth Foundation, in the early part of this millennium was simply looking for a way to increase funds for the aforementioned foundation that started in 1995, a full year before the Griffins franchise took to the ice in the now-defunct International Hockey League.

“We were trying to get creative and figured that we have a golf outing (annually in August) that’s our biggest fundraiser and probably always will be, but what else can we do to draw not only attention to the foundation but raise more funds,” said Kaser, who is also the vice president of community relations and broadcasting for the Griffins. “We came up with this idea of doing a 24-hour skate, and that’s how it began.”

Voila. Inaugurated in 2002, the Great Skate took off as a 24-hour skate-a-thon with Griffins players, coaches and support staff participating to benefit the Youth Foundation.

The Griffins Youth Foundation supports 350 local children boys and girls, including many who are underprivileged, at-risk, underserved or have other special needs, by giving them the opportunity to play hockey at no cost. The foundation, which includes a division for girls as well as a sled hockey program, promotes academic excellence, community involvement and healthy lifestyles among the West Michigan youth, enhancing their lives through hockey and ice-related sports.

From the outset, the buy-in from the organization to promote the Great Skate as a whole was nearly unanimous, and getting commitments from players and coaches to skate during the wee hour shifts was far easier than one might expect.

“It helps to have athletes that are willing to do just about anything to advance a cause or get out in the community and help,” Kaser said. “The one thing I was questioning early on was how the heck were we going to cover those 3 a.m., 4 a.m., 5 a.m. slots. Early on it was the coaches who volunteered and over time it’s transitioned into the first-year players drawing those early morning shifts.”

Despite the Great Skate gaining significant traction by the third year, it was still a far fetch from what the event has become today: a 34-hour festival in downtown Grand Rapids celebrating winter in the city and allowing fans the opportunity to connect with their favorite Griffins during the 24-hour skate.

Kaser noted that from day one he felt the event would be sustainable for many years to come. In 2009, the Winterfest element was added to the Great Skate which allows for 10 additional hours of winter-themed activities ranging from sled dogs to live ice sculpting to demonstrations from local figure skating clubs and other winter sports athletes to a heated family activity tent with local museums and the John Ball Zoo. This is not to mention the tremendous support from sponsors and community partners.

“It didn’t take long for us to recognize that this could be a much bigger event than just a 24-hour skate,” Kaser said. “The Great Skate part of it will always be the focus but the Saturday events provide some nice family activities and serve as a great build up to the 24-hour skate.”

This year’s edition will begin at noon on Saturday, Jan. 20. The Griffins host the Rockford IceHogs later that day at 7 p.m. and the 24-hour skate begins with the first shift at 10 p.m. All 34 hours will take place with Rosa Parks Circle, positioned smack dab in the heart of a vibrant and ever-growing downtown Grand Rapids, as the backdrop.

The Great Skate Winterfest has raised more than $25,000 in each of the last four years, including last year’s event that was postponed and then eventually – and reluctantly – cancelled due to temperatures broaching 50 degrees in two separate mid-winter weekends.

“The Great Skate Winterfest income has grown over the years thanks to our sponsors and the Griffins players collecting pledges,” Griffins Youth Foundation executive director Lynn Rabaut said. “Our program has grown right along with it. The income we raise from this event has helped us expand the number of college campus visits we make each year. We have also been able to increase the number of hours of ice we rent. We now offer a learn to skate program and extra instruction time for our ever-increasing number of goalies.”

While there are still a handful of die-hard volunteers that set aside time for the entire 24-hour Great Skate, Rabaut estimates it takes 200 volunteer hours or 50 volunteers to make the event run seamlessly. And that doesn’t account for the contributions from sponsors, community members and Griffins front office personnel, most notably Randy Cleves, the team’s senior director of public relations.

Of course, the event still isn’t what it is without the players.

“The foundation and its players know that without the Griffins’ players and coaching staff this event would not be the huge success that it is each year,” said Rabaut, who has held her position since 2006. “The fact that the Griffins organization supports us in this way makes our players feel very special and their efforts are greatly appreciated by everyone.”

Tom McCollum, Grand Rapids’ all-time goaltending leader in games played, minutes and saves, is in the midst of his eighth season in Grand Rapids and has been a part of his fair share of Great Skate Winterfests, including a 4 a.m. shift during his rookie season. It’s also worthwhile to point out McCollum is not only a fan favorite, but is also the Griffins’ only three-time AHL Man of the Year nominee.

“My favorite part about the Great Skate Winterfest is just being able to interact with the fans the entire time we’re on the ice,” he said. “You get to meet a lot of different people and play games with the little kids, it’s just a great time to be outside.”