by Mark Newman || AHL On The Beat Archive
In hockey, like other sports, players are given preference in their choice of uniform numbers based on age and seniority with the team, particularly in the case of a number that is already taken. It’s no different with all-star teams.
When 23-year-old Grand Rapids Griffins defenseman Derek Meech was named to the 2007 Canadian AHL All-Star Team, he learned he wouldn’t be able to wear the familiar number 28 that he has worn for the past three seasons with the Griffins.
Griffins equipment manager Brad “Dogg” Thompson offered a solution.
“Dogg asked me, ‘What’s your mom’s birthday?’ I said, ‘The first of April,’” Meech recalled. “He said, ‘What year?’ and I told him, ‘1947.’ He said, ‘How about 47?’ I thought it was a great idea.”
Now taking your mom’s birthdate as the basis of your jersey number in an all-star game might not seem like that big of deal, but it is when you lost your mother to cancer at the age of 11.
“Obviously, it had a huge effect on my life,” Meech said. “I was just at that age where I was old enough to know what was going on and how big a deal it was. It forced me to grow up a lot faster than I think most kids experience.”
It brought Derek closer to his father, Dennis, and brother, Travis, who was six years older. “Travis was huge in helping me along and providing support, as was my dad. It was a tough time for all of us, but going through it, I think I became a better person and a little stronger.”
To this day, he holds a special place in his heart for his mom’s memory. Whenever he needs a little extra inspiration, he knows where to turn.
“I think about her all the time, every day,” he said. “Throughout my career, whether it’s getting called up or playing in an all-star game, I think about how proud she would be of me.”
There’s no question that this season has been special for Meech, starting with his promotion to alternate captain, his recall to Detroit on Dec. 7 for a four-game stint, and later the honor of playing in the 2007 Rbk Hockey AHL All-Star Classic in Toronto.
The opportunity to join the Red Wings was totally unexpected. Meech was recalled to replace Danny Markov, who broke his right hand when he was hit by a shot.
“There was a little disbelief at first, but when I got the call, my heart was pounding,” he said. “I was pretty excited. I think the adrenaline was already rushing.”
Griffins general manager Bob McNamara called Meech in the early evening, giving the young defenseman time to pack his bags and get to Detroit in time to play the next night against the St. Louis Blues.
First, he had an important phone call of his own to make.
“I called my dad right away,” Meech said. “I think he was probably more excited than even I was. He was just ecstatic to hear the news that I was going to Detroit.”
Dennis Meech, a retired schoolteacher and football coach, had always played a big part in his son’s life, even before tragedy had struck the family and especially in the years that followed.
“Being a coach and a teacher, he knew how to really motivate me and teach me to become a coachable young man,” Meech said. “Going through life, I learned to listen to him. He didn’t always say a lot but he could set me straight pretty quick.”
His father had some simple advice for his NHL debut.
“He said, ‘Just keep playing the way you’ve been playing and you’ll be fine,’ and I took his advice and tried not to psych myself out too much. I kept telling myself that it was just another hockey game.”
When the game rolled around, Meech found himself still waiting for his first shift 12 minutes into the game.
“I was just trying to stay in the game on the bench. During timeouts, I’d go out on the ice just to keep my legs fresh. When I finally got out there, I felt good. I just tried to stay calm and make plays.”
Meech was paired mostly with Chris Chelios during the eight shifts that he got to play in his first game. “I had played with him in training camp through the years, so I knew he was a player that supports you well on the ice. It was definitely good to get out with him on my side.”
It also helped that there were more than a few friendly faces on the Red Wings’ bench, considering that several former Griffins are now in Detroit.
“Seeing some familiar faces like Jiri Hudler, Tomas Kopecky and Joey MacDonald – guys I had played with the past couple of years – helped a lot in terms of making me feel a part of the team,” Meech said.
Entering the Red Wings’ dressing room for the first time is a humbling experience for any rookie.
“You see all the names and the pictures of past players, and the tradition that goes with that room is unbelievable. That kind of stuff throws you back a bit, but you’ve got to be able to set that aside.”
Meech’s comfort level and confidence increased with each subsequent game. He was even given a little power play time late in one contest. “They were trying to get me my first one, but I kept passing the puck, passing the puck. Everybody was telling me, ‘Shoot it, shoot it,’ but I was just trying to make the right plays. I got a couple of shots on net but they just didn’t want to go in.”
He counts playing against the Toronto Maple Leafs at home as a big thrill. “It was Hockey Night in Canada back home and everybody was watching, so that was a special feeling.
“Ever since I was three years old and strapped on the skates for the first time, I wanted to play in the National Hockey League. To get the chance to do it with a first class organization like Detroit was a very big thrill for me.”
Another big thrill was getting to play in the 2007 AHL All-Star Classic for the Canadian team, which faced the PlanetUSA squad captained by Griffins teammate Kip Miller.
“It was a big honor, especially being selected by all the coaches from all the great players throughout the league,” he said. “It was pretty cool and an all-around good experience for me.”
Meech was able to spend time in Toronto with his dad and stepmom Faye, who flew in for the weekend from Winnipeg. “They kept me busy, that’s for sure. My dad got to come to the luncheon and hear Don Cherry talk and that was great because he really loves that kind of stuff.”
Competing in the skills competition and game was fun, but Meech will especially remember all the players he met during the weekend. “I didn’t know too many guys on the team very well, so it was good to meet a lot of new faces,” he said.
The Red Wings promotion and all-star appearance seemed to invigorate Meech’s play.
After recording only one assist in his first 18 games and a total of three points in his first 26 contests, he began scoring at nearly a point-per-game clip.
“When the team’s playing well, things usually start to go your way,” he said. “I think we’ve just been playing a lot better defensively, and that’s been translating into a lot of offensive chances.”
To the casual observer, it might appear that Meech is trying to prove that the recent accolades and honors are no fluke, but he contends that his motivation is less personal.
“I just want to help Grand Rapids win,” he said. “That’s my #1 concern. If we do well, I know it can only help me in the long run.”
Meech has been a member of winning teams before coming to the Griffins.
In 2000-01, he won the Memorial Cup as a member of the Red Deer Rebels (WHL). “That year is kind of a blur now,” he said. “It was my first year of junior hockey and I didn’t know what to expect.”
Playing hockey at a higher level was one challenge. Moving away from home to Alberta, a 15-hour drive from Winnipeg, was even more of a test, according to Meech. “It was scary at first, but fortunately I had some great billets (host families).”
Meech also found a mentor in head coach Brent Sutter, who played 18 seasons in the NHL. “He not only taught me about the game but also a lot about being a good person off the ice.”
He was also surrounded with a host of great players. “It was pretty amazing, but probably 90-95 percent of them are playing somewhere in pro hockey or the NHL,” he said of a championship team that included Martin Erat, Jim Vandermeer, Kyle Wanvig, Doug Lynch and Jeff Woywitka.
More recently, Meech helped Canada capture the silver medal at the World Junior Championships in Finland in 2003. He was paired on the ice with Calgary defenseman Dion Phaneuf, his playing partner from their days in Red Deer.
“Playing against the top lines helped me gain confidence to play my game,” Meech said. “Looking back now, I think it was the turning point in my career.”