by Randy Rice || AHL On The Beat Archive
The sight of a Grand Rapids Griffins player speeding down the ice is hardly unique. But when he’s doing it while sitting down and competing against teenage sled hockey players, or at 4 a.m. alongside fans on a frozen January night in downtown Grand Rapids, it’s certainly something special.
Images like these are made possible through the Grand Rapids Griffins Youth Foundation, formed by Griffins co-owner Dan DeVos and his wife Pam back in 1995, more than a year before the team took the ice for its inaugural 1996-97 season. The mission of the foundation is to expand the opportunities for participation in ice skating and related sports and activities, and to encourage academic excellence, community involvement and healthy lifestyles among the youth of West Michigan.
In conjunction with partners such as the City of Grand Rapids, Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital, Girl Scouts of Michigan Trails, and Clancy Street Ministries, the foundation provides numerous programs to underserved and at-risk youth in the community free of charge. Most are based at the Griffins’ practice facility, Griff’s IceHouse, located a stone’s throw north of downtown.
Bob Kaser, the team’s executive director of broadcasting and community relations, was elected president of the foundation last summer and heads up much of its fund raising and event planning.
“In West Michigan, we have been very fortunate with numerous corporations willing to give back to the community through our many Youth Foundation and Griffins-related programs,” said Kaser, who looks at each event and situation as a win-win opportunity. Not only do the children of Grand Rapids benefit immensely from the programs, but Griffins players and coaches find great joy in them as well, as people get a chance to have face-to-face interaction with them.
“Most players understand the importance of getting out in the community, which is great,” the voice of the Griffins said. “It also helps us improve the perception of hockey players. Even though we are a hockey market, there are many people who have never come into contact with players and may have a perception of them being toothless and unintelligent, when most of them are well educated, articulate and just darn good people.”
Nearly 300 kids play in the foundation’s 1-2-3, 46er, 79er and Girl Scout Hockey programs, and the organization supports another 25 members of the “Sled Wings,” founded six years ago as Michigan’s first sled hockey team. During the summer, dozens of other children participate in the foundation’s ice hockey camp, roller hockey program, and inner-city high school skills camp.
With equipment and ice time costs in excess of $400 per child per year, providing for the foundation’s finances requires a lot of fund raising and planning. Throughout the year, the Griffins host an array of events where players and coaches can be seen volunteering and participating.
“The Youth Foundation is such a great program for giving people from many different walks of life the opportunity to be involved in hockey and organized youth sports,” said Griffins head coach Greg Ireland. “Participating in these events is more than just worthwhile time, it is an investment in people’s future, which to me is the greatest gift you can give.”
The lineup begins in August with the foundation’s annual Golf Classic, which invites fans to play alongside some of hockey’s greats. In addition to Griffins coaches and players, other celebrities of the hockey world in attendance have included Florida Panthers defenseman Joel Kwiatkowski, Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland, and Ken Morrow and Jack O’Callahan from the “Miracle On Ice” 1980 USA Olympic hockey team. One of the largest charitable events in all of West Michigan and the foundation’s biggest fundraiser, the 2006 tournament raised in excess of $92,000.
The Sled Wings, a team of physically challenged youth who play hockey on specially designed sleds, were formed by the foundation in partnership with Mary Free Bed Rehabilitation Hospital. On Dec. 5, for the second straight year, Griffins players faced off against the Sled Wings in a rousing but friendly game of sled hockey before an estimated 500 fans at Griff’s IceHouse. The kids from the Sled Wings get the extraordinary chance to play hockey against their favorite pro players, but it is the Griffins themselves who find inspiration through this heart-warming and fun event.
“The first year I did the event, it really moved me,” said Ireland. “When our guys are done playing, we get up and walk away. But you take a look down at the Sled Wings team, and their parents are physically lifting them out of the sleds and into their wheelchairs. It makes you take a step back and realize how lucky we are to be doing what we are doing for a living.”
For third-year defenseman and Griffins alternate captain Derek Meech, the Sled Wings game is his favorite community event.
“To get out on the ice and actually interact with them and play against them is a real pleasure,” said Meech. “It puts you in their perspective for a while and gives you an idea of just how great of a program it is. It makes you feel good that you are part of supporting that.”
If the first snow of the season hasn’t fallen by the Sled Wings game, it will shortly after. To many Grand Rapids citizens, this means the opening of the outdoor skating rink at Rosa Parks Circle in the heart of downtown. Maintained by the Griffins organization on behalf of the city, skating is free of charge, while each pair of rental skates – donated by the Youth Foundation – can be used for a $1 contribution.
Every winter, the Griffins host “The Great Skate”, a 24-hour skating marathon that serves as another big fundraiser for the foundation. Every Griffins player and coach skates for at least one hour each around the clock, joined by hundreds of fans. The Great Skate has a history of raising upwards of $14,000, but this season’s event – slated for Jan. 13-14 – has the potential to be much bigger. Thanks to the support of several new corporate partners, this year’s goal has been set at $25,000.
The future of the foundation is very bright. “We have undergone some internal restructuring of the board of directors,” said Kaser, “adding some remarkable people who share the passion that has always existed among those involved with this great organization.” Newcomers to the board include Randolph Flechsig, president of Davenport University; Tim Masek, CEO of TMB Industries; Scott Jacobs, general manager of Dean Foods; and Randy Cleves, who has served as the Griffins’ public relations director since 1999.
“And we can’t talk about the foundation without mentioning the name Rabaut,” added Kaser, referencing former president Lou Rabaut and his wife Lynn, a former Grand Rapids City Commissioner who joined the foundation earlier this year. “Lou’s commitment as past president and continuing work on our planning committee is unmatched, and we are thankful to have his wife Lynn as our new executive director.”
A great impact: exactly what a professional sports team should have on its community. On the ice is where players entertain fans, but it’s off the ice, through organizations such as the Griffins Youth Foundation, where they often have the greatest influence.
For more information on the Grand Rapids Griffins Youth Foundation, visit griffinskids.org.