by Jason Pearson | AHL On The Beat
As the Grand Rapids Griffins are on the verge of a franchise-record seventh consecutive Calder Cup Playoff appearance, it is not often members of the team will openly, and with a smile, admit someone skated circles around them.
That is, until the annual sled hockey game, which this year was held on Tuesday evening at the recently upgraded Griff’s Georgetown in Hudsonville.
The 14th edition of the event featured the Griffins intermixed with members of the Grand Rapids Sled Wings junior team for a friendly, yet spirited, contest. The Jr. Sled Wings are a talented team of children and teens with physical disabilities who are sponsored by the Griffins Youth Foundation in partnership with Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital.
Players sit on bladed sleds and use shortened hockey sticks with a blade on one end and a pick on the other, which they use to scoot themselves across the ice.
The majority of the Griffins roster has been on skates since as early as they can remember, but sled hockey is a different animal. Balancing on two blades and the upper-body strength required to maneuver provide a unique feel to what players are normally accustomed to.
“My favorite thing about the Sled Wings game is just going out there and trying something that’s new,” said defenseman Joe Hicketts, who has participated in three of these games. “A lot of us obviously haven’t been in a sled before so it’s always fun watching some of the first-timers. You see it on TV and you think it’s easy. It’s a lot harder than it looks and you get a newfound respect for these guys.”
Veteran blueliner Brian Lashoff, who in his 10th season now in Grand Rapids, has spent his fair share of time in a sled.
“It’s fun to get out there and see our guys struggle with something like that against those guys, who have been doing it for a while. It’s fun to see them kind of take it to us.”
The Sled Wings were founded in 2001 and became the first junior-level sled hockey team in the state of Michigan upon their inception.
As far as initially setting up a game between the Griffins and the Sled Wings, the idea was the brainstorm of neither the organization’s front office nor the Griffins Youth Foundation.
“Interestingly enough, it was one of our former coaches, Greg Ireland, who first brought the possibility of a game involving his Griffins players and the Sled Wings to our attention,” Griffins vice president of community relations and broadcasting Bob Kaser said. “He was very impressed with our Youth Foundation and the Sled Wings program really seemed to pique his interest. He wondered how he and his team could provide support and, after some internal discussion, the Sled Wings versus Griffins game was born.”
The inaugural game was held during the 2005-06 season and the two squads went head to head for several years thereafter.
The Sled Wings have developed six players for U.S. National Teams, including goaltender Taggart VanderMolen, who was selected to the U.S. National Development Team for this season. The Sled Wings captured their first Division A national championship in 2015 and have finished as national runners-up four times.
Needless to say, given their national success, several of the initial matchups between the Griffins and Sled Wings ended up lopsided in favor of the latter, so the squads were melded together and then separated into two from there.
“When we went to the mixed format, it really made it a lot more fun. It’s a lot more even game,” 11th-year head coach of the Jr. Sled Wings Steve Kozlowski said.
That’s not to say the game isn’t played with a little extra pride on the line.
“These younger kids really know how to play,” third-year Griffin and second-year captain Matthew Ford said. “Getting out there, especially us being athletes, there’s this competitive nature about it, but it’s obviously for a good cause. It’s something that this group and the guys who have done it before all look forward to.”
Ford’s captain counterpart on the Sled Wings, 16-year-old defenseman and seventh-year Sled Wing Jake Nelson, agrees.
“It’s a fun game to be a part of and I enjoy how it’s pretty competitive.”
No matter how the teams are constructed or what the final scoreboard shows, it’s the camaraderie between the teams that remains at the forefront.
“They obviously try and beat us and they do little circles around us which is kind of embarrassing at some points,” Hicketts said. “We’re out there having a good time and they’re having a good time and that’s what it’s all about.”
“They’re happy to be out there with us and we’re happy to be out there with them,” Lashoff reiterated.
With the extensive media coverage at the event and the overall popularity of the Griffins in West Michigan, the game also offers an opportunity to increase the pervasiveness of sled hockey.
“Our team really enjoys this because if you look over the years who they have gotten to play with, a lot of them are on the Red Wings now or in the NHL,” Kozlowski said. “It’s fantastic, and I think the Griffins have a lot of fun with it and develop a new respect. These players are from all over the world, so it just helps when they go back home or talk to people at home, they talk about sled hockey and help raise awareness.”
Not to mention, the annual game truly embodies and clearly displays what the Griffins Youth Foundation, started a year before the Griffins took the ice in 1995, is built on.
“The Sled Wings program is one which we are incredibly proud of, and we are so thankful to have Mary Free Bed as a partner,” Kaser, president of the Griffins Youth Foundation, said. “This game draws attention to a version of hockey that is not necessarily top-of-mind within the hockey community, therefore it gives our Foundation an opportunity to showcase the core value of our mission, which is to provide hockey for everyone regardless of race, religion, gender or disability.”