Hockey In A Parallel Universe

By | February 28, 2013

Feature

Grand Rapids Griffins captain, Jeff Hoggan

Grand Rapids Griffins captain, Jeff Hoggan

“A young team.” That was the phrase an NBC sports commentator actually used a few weeks ago to describe this year’s Detroit Red Wings. Given that one of the most familiar and irritating refrains for the last few seasons has been how old the team is—translate: past their peak, over the hill, too old to contend for a Stanley Cup—the characterization of the team as “young” must have come as a surprise to many Wings’ fans. But with the retirement of future Hall-of-Famer Nicklas Lidstrom, the loss of veteran Brad Stuart to San Jose, and a rash of early-season injuries, the team in Detroit does indeed look like a lot different—and younger—this year. So who are the new Detroit Red Wings? Well, almost without exception, the new crop of reinforcements has come by way of Grand Rapids, as in the Grand Rapids Griffins, Detroit’s minor-league affiliate in the American Hockey League. Peruse the Griffins roster and you’ll find an eclectic mix of the Wings’ top prospects and never-say-die veterans—all of whom are perpetually working their asses off for their own shot in the NHL. Some of the names—Tatar, Nyquist, Lashoff—you may already know. Some—like the Griffins’ new 35-year-old journeyman captain, Jeff Hoggan—you probably don’t. But visible or invisible, known or unknown—every one of these guys in an AHL uniform is an indispensable part of bringing championships to Hockeytown.

*    *    *

Somewhere deep inside Joe Louis Arena, 20-year-old rookie goaltender Petr Mrazek is putting on a Red Wings sweater for the first time it’ll actually count. He’s been called up from Grand Rapids to make his first NHL start opposite Detroit’s Central Division rival, the St. Louis Blues—a team who, if rookies had choices in such matters, would likely head up a list of teams you’d rather not make your NHL debut against. Just two weeks earlier, the Blues, who are a favorite to contend for the Stanley Cup this year, welcomed back their lockout-weary, hockey-starved fans with a thoroughly satisfying 6-0 dismantling of the Red Wings in the season opener. And the Blues were opposite the Wings the last time Detroit took a chance on a rookie goalie back in 2011. That night, Thomas McCollum got yanked from the net after yielding three goals on just eight shots on the way to a 10-3 humiliation that left Wings fans wishing hockey had a mercy rule. So all things considered, no one’s really going to cry if Mrazek crumbles tonight. Plus, this audition is more about giving Wings’ all-star goalie Jimmy Howard a night off. Healthy, Howard will be watching things unfold from a stool next to the Wings’ bench, ready to sop up the mess if the kid totally melts on the ice.

But Mrazek doesn’t implode. Right from the puck drop, he seems comfortable, confident—even out of net, showing off his precocious puck-handling skills while pushing the puck up ice to defensemen whose names he might not even know yet. He makes the saves he supposed to make, and even a few that are worthy of the nightly local news. For their part, the Wings help the kid out, offering up their first solid defensive effort of the season. At the end of 60 minutes, Jimmy Howard still looks comfortable on his stool. And Petr Mrazek skates away with a 5-1 victory—his first in the NHL.

The Red Wings have great faith in their finishing school in Grand Rapids. On average, Detroit prospects spend more time ripening in the AHL than those of any other NHL team.

It’s an unexpected bit of good fortune for Detroit, who struggled to find a suitable backup to Howard last season. For Mrazek’s team back in Grand Rapids, however, it’s the kind of thing you start worrying about. That’s because, for better or worse, the AHL-NHL universe is still very much a Newtonian one. And that pesky and unmalleable Third Law of Motion dictates that one of the likely “equal and opposite reactions” of the rookie goaltender’s sick performance tonight is that he might not be posting any near-shutouts for his Grand Rapids comrades any time soon.

“We actually joked about that when he got the call up,” says Tim Gortsema, the Griffins’ senior VP for business operations. “Mrazek was playing really well; even got named AHL player of the week. So when he got the call, in the back of your mind, you’re thinking: It’d be great for him to go up and get the win—but maybe he could’ve won 5-3, instead of 5-1. That way, maybe they send him back down.”

Gortsema can make conflict-of-interest jokes because, in reality, there aren’t any such conflicts. In fact, nearly everyone on the Griffins is essentially a Detroit Red Wing anyway, as it’s the Red Wings that actually scout, hire and pay Grand Rapids’ coaches, trainers, and almost all their players. This being the case, when a player like Peter Mrazek is called up to fill a hole, the team is really only borrowing an asset that was always already its to begin with. It’s no easy way to win hockey games if you’re on the AHL end of that partnership, where players—and almost always your best ones—are constantly being pulled from your roster any time the parent team needs them. But in a hockey universe that’s ruled by irony, a good measure of success in the AHL isn’t necessarily how many games you win; it’s whether you can create players who are so good, it actually invites the dismantling of your team by someone whose wins matter more than yours.

“The AHL is a developmental hockey league, and everybody here gets that,” Gortsema says. “At this level we are here to develop guys in a winning environment, and Detroit wants guys that know what that’s like. But at the end of the day, they’re more interested in winning their games than they are in winning mine.”

For those within the Griffins organization, the inescapableness of this truth might take some of the sting out of what happened to the team after goalie Petr Mrazek’s call-up and successful debut in Detroit. The Wings did decide to keep Mrazek in a Wings jersey, and during the Griffins’ subsequent weekend trip to Oklahoma City, Grand Rapids scored eight combined goals, gave up 11, and left town with back-to-back losses. Meanwhile in Detroit, with Wings’ starter Jimmy Howard healthy and playing well, the only additional NHL experience Petr Mrazek accrued was a precise accounting of what the view looks like from an NHL bench.

*    *    *

This year’s NHL lockout was almost universally a disaster. When the players finally did get back on the ice after reaching a new collective bargaining agreement with the owners in January, 625 NHL games had already been lost—more than 50 percent of the regular season. It was bad for fans. Bad for players. Bad for hockey in general, which finally seemed to be making some substantial inroads with American sports fans.

If one was searching for beneficiaries of the late-blooming NHL season, though, AHL teams like the Griffins (and their fans) might be counted among the winners. That’s because while some of the NHL’s elite players kept in shape with well-publicized stints in various European leagues, many up-and-comers who, last year, were playing for NHL teams suddenly found themselves down in the minors again. As a result, the AHL was flooded with talent and became, at least temporarily, the place to see the most elite hockey in the world. Some teams, like the Oklahoma City Barons, the AHL-affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers, found themselves with nearly three lines’ worth of players who had played in the NHL last season. In fact, OKC winger Jordan Eberle and the highly-touted rookie defenseman Justin Schultz were still were leading the AHL in points even a month after their post-lockout call-ups to the NHL.

The Griffins didn’t get dealt quite the lockout windfall Oklahoma City did, inheriting only a couple players from a Detroit roster that’s comprised mostly of veterans. But the Griffins managed a quick start anyway—the best in recent years—in part because of some uncharacteristically good goaltending and some new-found veteran leadership. In the off-season, Grand Rapids brought in 35-year-old Jeff Hoggan, a journeyman winger with over a hundred games of NHL experience spread over three teams, to be the new Griffins captain and add some character to a group that many feel has underachieved the past three seasons.

In a league where wearing the captain’s “C” is less about how many goals and assists you have and more about instilling the idea that perseverance and patience can pave the way to the NHL, Hoggan has plenty of natural authority. Undrafted and unnoticed as a junior, he took a chance on playing hockey at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, a school that was just inaugurating its program the year he was recruited. At that time, college hockey wasn’t seen as the viable pathway to a pro contract that it is today. But what he calls “constant, blind determination” earned him an All-American nod his senior season, after which a pro-team, the Minnesota Wild, finally took notice. The Wild sent him down to the minors to cut his teeth with their AHL affiliate in Houston, where, during his first season, the Aeros won the Calder Cup (the AHL’s equivalent of the Stanley Cup). In three seasons in the Wild system, though, Hoggan was never able to work his way into an NHL uniform, and the following year, he opted for a tryout with the St. Louis Blues, where he made the team as a third- and fourth-line energy guy. By the time he finally got the call to play in his first NHL game, he was already 28—old by hockey standards.

If one was searching for beneficiaries of the late-blooming NHL season, AHL teams like the Griffins  might be counted among them. That’s because while some of the NHL’s elite players kept in shape with well-publicized stints in various European leagues, many up-and-comers who, last year, were playing for NHL teams suddenly found themselves down in the minors again. As a result, the AHL was flooded with talent and became, at least temporarily, the place to see the most elite hockey in the world.

“My first game was against the Red Wings, of all teams,” Hoggan remembers. “It was almost surreal, with all the stars they had at that time. My third or fourth shift I was on the penalty kill, and Lidstrom slid back door on me. I was almost just watching him in awe rather than trying to check him. I mean, I had all these guys’ hockey cards. Obviously, when you get to the NHL, you’ve got to shake the awe factor pretty quickly.”

Hoggan played about 40 games with the Blues that season before breaking his collarbone and losing his role as a depth forward—a familiar scenario for players who make a precarious living on the semi-permeable NHL-AHL divide. The following couple of years he bounced around—first to Boston and then Phoenix—where both teams, because of his experience, used him as a two-way player. When there were injuries on the parent team he could occasionally work his way into an NHL uniform; more often, the organization called on him to mentor their younger prospects on their farm teams. For his leadership role at Phoenix’s AHL affiliate in San Antonio, they rewarded Hoggan with the captain’s “C”—a badge that simultaneously validated his valuable veteran skill set and signaled that his future playing days would mostly be in an AHL, not NHL, uniform. “They call it the kiss of death, actually” Hoggan says, laughing. “Some guys have to have that drive to be in the NHL beaten out of them when they’re losing a grip on an NHL job. No one had to tell me that they didn’t bring me in to carry a first-line or second-line job in the NHL.”

It’s a role that Hoggan is filling again in Grand Rapids. Now 35, and after playing for the last couple years in Europe, Hoggan was still hoping for an invitation to an NHL tryout this year. When one didn’t come, he decided to take the captain’s job with the Griffins so he could at least finish his career in North America. In addition to playing wing, he’s also doing things that only a veteran journeyman is qualified to do: like mentor players, many of whom are seeing their first big pro contracts, on how to manage their money; or help a guy who, already a few years in and has yet to see a game in the NHL, understand that it’s too early to cut his losses and head to Europe; or, as he had to do this season, help a few guys that got into some trouble off the ice get back on track.

“When stuff like that happens, you don’t write guys off just because they make mistakes,” Hoggan says. “You gotta help guys stay in line because ultimately, if you can’t, the team is not going to want a guy like me around.”

The new role, one that ultimately doesn’t promise a lot of hope for getting back to the NHL, is one that Hoggan says he accepts. And when he tells you that, you don’t have a hard time believing him. After all, this is a guy who, when looking back on his carrer, characterizes the four NHL games he got to play in 2008-2009 under Wayne Gretzky in Phoenix as a “reward for working hard and staying the course.” A guy who now doesn’t mind losing his spot on the power play or penalty kill to some of the Red Wings’ top prospects, who are a decade or more his junior. A guy who, with few chances for playing another game in the NHL in his career, isn’t bitter about being eight games short of an NHL pension.

“For me, I still feel like I can play in the NHL,” Hoggan says. “And as long as I’m in one piece, I’ll probably feel that way.”

“Early in my career, it was sometimes hard to watch guys get called up before me. But now, when they get their shot, it almost feels like me getting one because that’s my role here. The guys that make it—you really take satisfaction in their success.”

*    *    *

the laws of the AHL universe are once again in flux, and in today’s—and future—incarnations of the American Hockey League, there are likely to be fewer Jeff Hoggan’s still hanging in there. He says it used to be that a team might keep seven or eight veteran guys on a roster; now it might just be three or four. That’s because, more and more, the NHL teams are seeing their AHL affiliates as true farm teams whose purpose is producing new talent. And though you might keep a couple of veterans around to show the younger guys the ropes and make sure the level of play doesn’t fall too far for the fans’ sake, most of a team’s spots are going to be reserved for guys whose best days—and prospects for the NHL—are still ahead of them. In fact, slots on the Griffins roster may be harder to come by than on most NHL affiliates: the Detroit Red Wings, on average, let their talent ripen in the American Hockey League longer than any other team in the NHL.

This kind of tight relationship with the NHL is actually a good sign for AHL teams like the Griffins. After competing in the 1990′s with other triple-A hockey leagues, the AHL has now matured into the NHL’s one and only recognized finishing school. Every NHL team now has what the Griffins’ Tim Gorstema calls a “dance partner” in the AHL, and there are no unaffiliated teams that have any mission other than directly supplying an NHL parent with talent. In fact, for all the talk of the AHL being a “development league,” and stories about the Red Wings’ miraculous ability to find needle-in-the-haystack prospects in Europe (this year’s prime example being Damien Brunner), no one in the sport questions now that the AHL is the second-most elite place for hockey in the world.

“This is not Slapshot,” says Tim Gortsema, referring to the 1977 comedy starring Paul Newman, which depicts minor league hockey as a violent, buffoonish, and financially insolvent enterprise. “This is a very skilled league; there’s a high level of hockey, and top draft picks from the NHL. The league’s got stats on how many current NHL guys—players, coaches, even referees—got their start in the American Hockey League, and it’s a staggering number. It’s certainly 80-plus percent, maybe even 90 percent.”

“This is not Slapshot. This is a very skilled league, there’s a high level of hockey, and top draft picks from the NHL. The league’s got stats on how many current NHL guys—players, coaches, even referees—got their start in the American Hockey League, and it’s a staggering number. It’s certainly 80-plus percent, maybe even 90 percent.”

Salaries have also certainly reached living-wage levels in the AHL. Though a shadow of NHL salaries, average player compensation in the AHL is now estimated at $85,000 a season, and high-skill veterans can often command a lot more. For prospects, every day in an NHL uniform also carries great rewards, with a player on average making four times his daily AHL rate for every day he’s called up. “You head up for a week, you might come back down with 14 or 15 grand gross,” Gortsema says. In contrast, a player at the next professional tier down might make just $300 or $400 a week.

As sophisticated as the AHL game has become in recent years, it still can be hard for Gortsema to fill the nearly 11,000 seats at Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids. Ask him about his October attendance, for instance, and he’ll laugh and tell you that’s a “mean question.”

“Maybe 3,000 people,” he says, humbly. “It’s always a little bit sobering because you wish more people were here. It’s the same product, the same level of competition on the ice. But a lot of people don’t flip the switch that it’s hockey season until there’s snow on the ground.”

To get people in the door, the Griffins deploy a grab bag of marketing tools familiar to fans of minor-league sports. Dollar-hot-dog and dollar-beer nights draw the younger, Friday-night crowds. And to attract families, which Gortsema estimates make up about 50 percent of Griffins ticket buyers, the team often brings in acts like the Zooperstars—a travelling troupe of sports mascots with names like Whale Gretzky and Clammy Sosa—who do schtick on the ice between periods. “Having been here as many years as I have, some of the routines I practically have memorized,” Gortsema says. “But we try to sell the experience of the game more than the product on the ice. The reason we do that is because we don’t always have a lot of control over the hockey.”

That’s certainly the case this season. The rush to get NHL players on the ice, post lockout, resulted in the cancellation of any meaningful training camp and all preseason games—a situation which many analysts argue has been responsible for the high level of injury this season. No team in the NHL has been hit harder than the Red Wings, who have lost over a hundred cumulative games between all their players through the first month and a half of the season. Of course, the Griffins, regardless of their great start, were called on to supply reinforcements. At the moment, six Griffins in all are doing their best to play the role of Red Wings, including Grand Rapids’ top four scorers, a goalie, and one of their best defensemen.

Despite this, the Griffins are still winning, and with about a third of the season to go and a healthy early-season lead in the Midwest Division standings still in tact, the team seems bound for their first playoff run in three years. Helping the cause: Petr Mrazek, who’s again back in the Griffins’ net after winning and then dropping a game during his two-week stint with the Red Wings. The guys who have been called up from the Toledo Walleye, the Griffins’ own version of little brother, also seem to be holding their own. And captain Jeff Hoggan is somehow managing to create harmony out of the game of musical chairs that is minor league hockey. The injuries in Detroit probably still won’t cut deep enough for the captain himself to get back on the ice at Joe Louis Arena, the place he made his NHL debut just seven years ago as a fourth-liner for the St. Louis Blues. But he may be rewarded with pro hockey’s next best thing: another run at the Calder Cup. Having won one AHL championship his rookie season, it would be a fitting bookend to a more-than respectable career, should he—or the fickle laws that govern the AHL universe—decide this season will be his last.

###

Lou Blouin is co-founder of Found Michigan.

 

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1 Comment

avatar

Nicolas on March 1, 2013 at 8:57 am.

Great article !!!! It was a real pleasure reading it.
It is obvious that the Wings would not be the team they are without the griffins having their backs, and it is probably even more so this season.
I know that a lot of Wings fans can’t wait to have the Jurcos, Tatar and Mazrek play on a more consistent basis for the Wings. It’s written all over Nhl.com, if you have any doubt ;)

Although it must be disheartening to see these guys go from the Griffins at times, I hope that Grand Rapids takes great pride in what they achieve to ensure that the Wings are, season after season, the greatest team in NHL.

Thanks a lot to the griffins and to you for this article

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