On the eve of a century

by Randy Rice || AHL On The Beat Archive

Pavol Demitra was the first Grand Rapids Griffin to graduate to the NHL.

On March 17, 1997, Pavol Demitra became the first-ever Grand Rapids Griffins alumnus to play in the National Hockey League, suiting up for the St. Louis Blues.

Nearly 12 years later, the Griffins are on the cusp of celebrating their 100th NHL graduate.

Grand Rapids has sent 99 players to – or back to – the NHL over the course of its 13 seasons. During that time, the team has seen many of today’s NHL stars shine first as Griffins, while fans have also had the privilege of watching legendary players such as Chris Chelios, Curtis Joseph, Manny Legace, Chris Osgood and Darren McCarty skate at Van Andel Arena during conditioning stints.

The aforementioned Demitra, whom Griffins general manager Bob McNamara believes is perhaps the best player to ever come through Grand Rapids, is in the middle of his 15th NHL season. Although Demitra’s time with the Griffins during their inaugural 1996-97 season was brief, his 50 points (20 goals, 30 assists) in 42 games helped him springboard back to the NHL for a permanent stay.

A few years later, during Grand Rapids’ three-season affiliation (1999-2002) with Ottawa, long-time Senators tough guy Chris Neil made his pro debut as a Griffin. He went on to log 129 games with the club and still stands fourth on the team’s all-time list with 655 penalty minutes.

Between the pipes, Joey MacDonald, Grand Rapids’ all-time leader in games played (164), minutes (9,208), wins (88), shutouts (16) and saves (4251), was named the NHL’s Third Star for the month of November. The current New York Islander made 14 consecutive starts from Nov. 3-29, posting an 8-5-1 record with a 2.64 goals-against average and a .916 save percentage, while leading all goaltenders in games (14), minutes (842), shots faced (439) and victories (8, tied) during the month.

When mentioning Grand Rapids’ notable NHL alumni we must not forget the Stanley Cup winners, whose ranks grew to 12 last summer when the Detroit Red Wings captured Lord Stanley. Niklas Kronwall, Jiri Hudler, Valtteri Filppula, Darren Helm, Darren McCarty, Brett Lebda, Chris Osgood, Tomas Kopecky and Derek Meech each earned the right to have his name engraved on the cup, either by playing in the Stanley Cup Final, appearing in at least 41 games during the regular season (Kopecky), or being petitioned for the honor by the Red Wings (Meech).

These players joined three who previously went on to win a Stanley Cup after playing for the Griffins, including Carolina’s Kevyn Adams in 2006 and Tampa Bay’s Dmitry Afanasenkov and Darren Rumble in 2004.

Needless to say, the Griffins have held up their end of the bargain when playing the role of a development club, something McNamara takes great pride in.

“It is really gratifying to see and speaks volumes for our organization,” said McNamara, who last summer spearheaded a locker room renovation at Van Andel Arena that included the addition of the names of every Griffins NHL graduate to a wall above the stalls.

Jimmy Howard made his Red Wings debut in 2005-06.

“I knew we had quite a few guys, but when you step back and look up at all the names on the wall, it sometimes surprises you. It is really significant for the Griffins to have had such success sending guys to the NHL, and some of the names really jump out at you.

“I could go on for a while, but guys like Demitra, Michel Picard and Shane Hnidy have had great NHL careers since playing here,” McNamara continued. “And of course, with the Wings’ affiliation, there are also many names on that wall that have played for or are right now playing with the Red Wings.”

Of course, a few of the names high on the wall still appear on name plates on the stalls below. Young players like defenseman Jonathan Ericsson and center Darren Helm, whom many argue are NHL-ready, continue to develop their skills in the AHL due to the great depth of the Red Wings. But when asked, both profess to prefer playing 20-plus minutes a night, a least for time being, and feel Grand Rapids is the perfect place to do just that.

“I really enjoy being here,” said Ericsson, who made his NHL debut on Feb. 22, 2008 as the 90th Griffins alumnus to play in the NHL. “It is a great place to play, especially in the Red Wings’ organization with Detroit being so close. Management is here watching us a lot, since it is just a couple hours’ drive, and the conversations I have with Ken Holland, Jiri Fischer and other guys help me know what to improve on.”

Proximity to the parent NHL club definitely helps when developing players to be the next Henrik Zetterberg or Niklas Lidstrom. Not only can it be used to reward an AHL player with a taste of big-league action or to boost confidence in a budding star, but it also helps when a call-up is needed on short notice.

Helm, who last season made his pro debut with the Griffins, became their 92nd alum in the NHL and won the Stanley Cup in a whirlwind year, knows the I-96 route between Grand Rapids and Detroit all too well, having been back and forth quite a few times during his two seasons in the organization. But for now he’s having fun in West Michigan playing for the Griffins and feels it is a great stop on his way to what’s projected to be a long NHL career.

“Being in Grand Rapids gives me a great opportunity to work on my speed, which is an area where I feel I can set my self apart from others,” Helm said. “I also get the chance to be around guys that know what it takes to be a professional day in and day out, whether it’s my veteran teammates or Red Wings management that stop by the locker room after games.”

Niklas Kronwall was one of nine ex-Griffins to win the Stanley Cup in 2008.

Grooming so many high draft choices and top talents into NHL players is one thing, but the Griffins take particular pride in having helped many players labeled as career minor-leaguers prove they have what it takes to compete at the highest level in the world.

“You would like to think that everyone that comes through here has what it takes to work on their game enough to one day play in the NHL,” said McNamara. “I think the one guy that came through here who probably was told by everyone that he would not make it to the NHL because of his skating was Matt Ellis. But every summer, he went home and worked on his foot speed and eventually made it to the NHL on shear will and desire.”

Ellis played four seasons with the Griffins, serving two as the team’s captain and totaling 153 points (69g, 84a) in 282 career games. Number 83 on the Griffins’ alumni list, he has 82 NHL games with Detroit, Los Angeles and Buffalo to his credit since making his NHL debut on Dec. 18, 2006.

One might think that, considering the Red Wings’ depth, players still trying to find their place on an NHL roster may hesitate to sign with the organization. However, with 99 graduates and in light of the franchise’s on-ice success, the Griffins have proven to be a great place for players to jumpstart their careers.

“We always have the goal of developing players in a winning environment, and we have done pretty well to establish a winning tradition here,” McNamara said. “Obviously, we would like to win a championship and feel we could in the near future. But overall we have had great success here and have been fortunate to have been affiliated with Ottawa and now with Detroit – two first-class organizations – which is attractive to players as well.”

“Aside from the hockey part, I think the opportunity to live in Grand Rapids is also what interests players in coming here,” McNamara added. “We have a great quality of life in this city, a vibrant downtown, and we continue to have some of the best fan support in the league.”

So who will become No. 100? A few possibilities that stand out include Griffins forwards Justin Abdelkader, Ville Leino and Aaron Downey, or even Manitoba Moose forward Mark Cullen, who played for the Griffins last season and could soon find himself in a Vancouver Canucks uniform – appropriately enough, as a teammate of Demitra’s. Whoever it may be, that player will mark yet another name on an ever-growing locker room wall and a milestone that the Griffins and their fans will not soon forget.