by Kyle Kujawa || AHL On The Beat Archive
When Jeff Hoggan arrived in Grand Rapids for his first day of training camp, he was armed with nothing more than a tryout agreement and a spot in the visiting team’s dressing room, where half the team had to change due to space availability in the Griffins’ main locker room.
Come October 12, when the AHL kicked off its 77th season, he found his jersey hanging in the home team locker room – with a familiar letter stitched near the top.
“I am who I am,” said Hoggan, who was named the team’s captain prior to the season opener. “I lead by example, and I’ve been a captain in the past. If that’s something that comes with the player that I am, it’s certainly an honor and I feel fortunate.”
It’s not unusual for a newcomer to become a captain in the AHL – Garnet Exelby wore the ‘C’ for the Griffins in 2011-12 in his first season with the team – and Hoggan’s resume certainly proves him a worthy choice.
“It’s something you have to come to the rink with every day,” Hoggan said. “[Head coach Jeff] Blashill talks about creating a winning culture. That’s something I pride myself on – bringing that positive attitude. We’re getting better and guys are looking forward to coming to the rink. The end result is unknown, but you’ve got to have an optimistic outlook.”
At 34, Hoggan is older than most of his Griffins teammates. Brennan Evans is the second-oldest at 30, and Nathan Paetsch will turn 30 later in the season. But Hoggan helped the Houston Aeros to a Calder Cup in his first professional season in 2002-03, making him a strong candidate to lead a Griffins team that has 11 first or second-year pros.
“Since it’s your first year, you think it’s easy,” said Hoggan, who captured the league championship under Todd McLellan, formerly an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings and currently the head coach for the San Jose Sharks. “That year was something special. I didn’t get a ton of ice ton or have a lot of points that year, though. But we were in a winning environment and everybody was rewarded at the end of the season.”
“Guys in this league sometimes worry about points too much,” he continued. “They think they have to get points to get to the next level. It’s not about points – it’s about doing things the right way. When the team does well, each individual will benefit.”
Hoggan recorded 11 points (5-6-11) in his first season with the Aeros but more than tripled that number the following season, with 36 points (21-15-36). His next AHL stop was with the Worcester IceCats in 2004-05, which propelled him to a full-time NHL roster spot with St. Louis the following season.
“That season was similar to this year,” said Hoggan. “With the lockout, the AHL was one of the best, if not the best league going. That’s when all of the eyes were on the AHL, and I imagine this year, a lot of the NHL brass and hockey people will be watching this league. Guys can benefit from that, you never know who’s watching each night.”
An 11th-year pro, Hoggan played in 107 NHL games with St. Louis and eventually Boston and Phoenix before looking overseas to Germany, where he spent the 2010-11 season with Wolfsburg Grizzly Adams and last season with the Hannover Scorpions.
“I just wanted the experience,” said the Hope, British Columbia, native. “There are only so many years you get to play this game. Europe plays fewer games, so I’d heard it’s a good way to prolong the career a little bit. It’s something I wanted to try while I was still healthy and could play at a high level.”
The experience rejuvenated Hoggan – primarily, in his desire to play in North America. While he found it to be a worthwhile challenge, and Germany treated his wife and two young children well, Hoggan came to appreciate the AHL ranks even more.
“This league’s a grind, but the coaching and officiating are just that much better here,” said Hoggan. Maybe I’m biased because I am North American, but the game itself is better here. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of talented players in Europe, it was great to try. I just have a thing for the North American game. With the smaller rink, things happen faster. It’s more of a physical game.”
Once he made the decision to return to North America, he just had to find a spot to play.
“I was going to try to get into an NHL camp and get a tryout there because it would be tough to get a contract at my age,” he said. “But I talked to a few contacts about different opportunities, and Blashill was familiar with me as a player. He said to come in and that Detroit would decide if there’s a role for me in Grand Rapids.”
The Griffins’ coaches, along with the members of the Red Wings’ management team that were present at camp, felt that bringing Hoggan on board was a no brainer. In addition to the leadership aspect, he offers a simpler offensive game that blends well with the team’s skilled forward group.
“It’s a developmental league, and you don’t want to take too much ice time away from the young guys,” said Hoggan. “If you are, you better be bringing something to the table. We have a lot of skilled guys here, but we have to be consistent from night to night. I might not be able to ‘out-skill’ a lot of these guys, but I can show them that I come to the rink hard and work hard every day.”