Grand Rapids – You sense the excitement and anticipation growing around bustling downtown Grand Rapids as the AHL playoffs begin.
Griffins banners, pennants, posters and jerseys are sprouting all over. Everyone wants to see the Griffins repeat as Calder Cup champions.
“It was such a fun time,” said Katy Mikelewski of East Grand Rapids. She was wearing a Griffins jersey while walking near Van Andel Arena with her friends.
Mikelewski was talking about the Griffins’ successful championship run last spring and the excitement it generated around Grand Rapids.
“We went to a few games, and it was so exciting,” Mikelewski said. “We’re all hoping they can win it again.”
Hockey season ended around Detroit several weeks ago. In a sense, though, it’s just starting in the western part of the state.
The Griffins, the Red Wings’ AHL minor-league affiliate, are beginning defense of the Calder Cup – they also won the Cup in 2013 – Saturday in Manitoba in Game 1 of the best-of-five first-round series.
The first two games are in Winnipeg, before the series shifts to Van Andel Arena Wednesday for Game 3.
For what was an already great hockey market, last season’s championship run only solidified the Griffins’ standing in west Michigan and made the postseason party time around Van Andel Arena.
The weather helped, too.
“It was 80 degrees; this year’s there’s snow (outside),” defenseman Joe Hicketts said earlier this week.
But excitement over the possibility of another long playoff run trumps any kind of weather.
“We felt that fan support,” said Hickett, a Griffins defenseman who was promoted to the Red Wings late in the season. “Whether it was the banners on restaurant walls or being recognized around town, this is a city that really supports its hockey, just like Detroit.”
The Griffins are owned by Dan DeVos and David Van Andel, whose fathers started Ada-based Amway Corp., and are from two of the most influential families in west Michigan.
The Griffins began play in the now-extinct International Hockey League in 1999, instantly filling a void for pro sports in the region.
In 2002, the Griffins and Red Wings signed an affiliation agreement that has become the perfect marriage for both sides.
The Griffins have made the playoffs seven consecutive years, providing a great atmosphere for Red Wings’ draft picks to develop.
Several Griffins players believe Grand Rapids is the best AHL city. The Griffins averaged just under 8,000 fans (7,960) per game this season (Van Andel Arena seats 10,834), ranking sixth in the 30-team league.
Van Andel Arena, which opened in 1996, is generally credited with being the spark that triggered a remarkable construction boom around downtown Grand Rapids.
Crowds in the last two rounds of last year’s playoffs were near sellouts, and the area around Van Andel Arena was abuzz with fans spilling out of restaurants and bars.
Griffins coach Todd Nelson said his wife and friends arrived for games last spring before 5 p.m., visiting some hot spots before entering the arena for 7 p.m. starts.
“People make an evening out of it,” Nelson said.
A former player with the Griffins, Nelson has long seen the passion west Michigan has for pro hockey – and specifically the Griffins.
“Fans around here have been here for us many, many years,” Nelson said. “It was real exciting last year to be part of something special, and to win it at home and see the support we had throughout the city, it was incredible.”
Nelson does see an extra layer of excitement around the rink this time of year from the fans in the seats.
“Playoff time is a special time of year, not only for the players, but the fans get excited because the games mean so much,” Nelson said. “It’s more exciting and intense, and the people of Grand Rapids are pretty educated toward the game. They know the game and they want to come to a game that’s hard-working, physical, intense and exciting.
“Our fans have been very good to us and hopefully we can repay them with a long playoff run.”
FIVE KEY GRIFFINS PLAYERS
Evgeny Svechnikov, F – Coming on strong the second half of this season, including getting a taste of the NHL with the Red Wings, Svechnikov seems primed to have a big playoff season, taking over a role Tyler Bertuzzi had in recent seasons. Svechnikov is confident, healthy and wants to be a leader.
Joe Hicketts, D – He impressed in a short audition with the Red Wings, and should be a leader in a position of strength for the Griffins. Hicketts has plenty of experience in world junior tournaments, last season’s Calder Cup run, and thrives in these situations.
Filip Hronek, D – After a spectacular regular season, how will the 20-year-old defenseman handle the pressure of the playoffs?
Ben Street, F – The Griffins’ leading scorer (65 points) need to keep producing offense on a team that isn’t as offensively deep as it was last year.
Jared Coreau, G – Coreau was the starting goaltender through last season’s playoff run, but coach Todd Nelson isn’t saying whether Coreau or Tom McCollum is starting Game 1 in Manitoba.
CALDER CUP PLAYOFFS
CENTRAL DIVISION SEMIFINALS
Grand Rapids Griffins vs. Manitoba Moose
Saturday: at Manitoba, 3 p.m.
Sunday: at Manitoba, 3 p.m.
Wednesday: at Grand Rapids, 7 p.m.
x-Thursday: at Grand Rapids, 7 p.m.
x-Monday, April 30: at Grand Rapids, 7 p.m.