Grand Rapids — The hockey playoffs are alive and well in Michigan, just not where they usually are, at Joe Louis Arena.
Judging by the crowds outside Van Andel Arena, around all the trendy restaurants and hangouts in downtown Grand Rapids, the party has moved to the west side of the state.
And Griffins fans are loving it.
“I love hockey, and there’s no place I’d rather be than here,” said Dana Bueche, of Allendale, decked out in Griffins gear 90 minutes before the puck dropped Wednesday for Game 3 of the AHL Western Conference Finals against San Jose. “The atmosphere inside here is great. It’s extremely family-friendly.
“Like I said, I love hockey. And this is the place to be right now.”
The Griffins are the Red Wings’ minor league affiliate — they have been since 2002 — and their niche in the west Michigan market is growing.
“I might be biased, but this is the best American Hockey League city there is,” said Griffins forward Mitch Callahan, whose late third-period goal Wednesday snapped a 2-2 tie. “The other night I was out to dinner; a guy bought me an appetizer and wished me good luck before we went to California.
“The city is behind us and the support is amazing. Hockey is pretty big in Michigan. With the success we’re having, it’s fun being around here.”
Capacity, or near-capacity crowds, are expected for Games 4 and 5 Friday and Saturday at the 10,834-seat Van Andel, with a possible trip to the Calder Cup Finals at stake. The Griffins, who won the Calder Cup in 2013, lead the series, 2-1. This is their fifth consecutive year in the playoffs.
Ron Stonehouse will be there this weekend, as the 72-year-old usually is for Griffins games.
Stonehouse has been a season-ticket holder since 1996, when the Griffins were born.
“It’s kind of gone the way I thought it would after we got a hockey team here,” said Stonehouse, who used to commute to Detroit to attend Red Wings games at the Olympia. “It’s just gotten bigger and better and the fans love it. Grand Rapids needed a pro hockey team.
“When we got one, and they built Van Andel, and the downtown area around here got built up. It’s all come together nicely.”
Stonehouse was with a large table of family and friends at Peppino’s Pizza, a popular pregame stop around the corner from the arena. Jacob Durso, Peppino’s general manager, estimates business increases by 40 percent on game nights, or playoff viewing parties when the Griffins are on the road.
People were standing and waiting for a table a little over an hour before the 7 p.m. start.
There were plenty of Red Wings jerseys. But, overall, there was more Griffins’ apparel.
“I love the Griffins,” said Ron Stonehouse’s grandson Zack, 9, whose overgrown hair resembles his favorite Griffins’ player, Tyler Bertuzzi. “They’re my team.”
The Griffins ranked fifth in the 30-team AHL in attendance, averaging 8,245 fans, but ending a seven-season stretch of increases by roughly 200 fans.
Wednesday’s crowd of 6,009, for the Griffins’ 4-2 come-from-behind victory over San Jose, was the third-largest conference finals crowd in Griffins’ history (20 games), and their largest non-weekend conference finals attendance. Weekend AHL attendance is always better.
The Griffins are owned by Dan DeVos and David Van Andel, whose fathers began Ada-based Amway Corp., and are two of the most influential families in west Michigan.
The Griffins started in the International Hockey League without an NHL affiliation until linking with the Ottawa Senators in 1999. When the IHL went defunct before the 2001 season, the Griffins switched to the AHL, the NHL’s primary minor league.
The Griffins and Red Wings signed an affiliation agreement in 2002, an arrangement that’s been beneficial both ways.
“A match made in heaven,” said Bob Kaser, the Griffins’ vice president of community relations and broadcasting. “From a geographic standpoint, you have two franchises that do it right, but also, to be affiliated with that (Red Wings) brand.
“It’s been a great fit.”
Twelve rookies on the Red Wings this season also saw playing time with the Griffins.
“That’s one of the reasons why the Griffins are so popular,” said Aaron Case, of Grand Rapids, in the din of Peppino’s. “We’re like the Toledo Mud Hens (the Tigers’ top minor league team). There’s a good chance these guys are going on to the Red Wings and playing there. It’s not a long shot these guys are going to make it.”
Most of the Red Wings’ current stars played for the Griffins, including Jimmy Howard, Niklas Kronwall, Tomas Tatar, Justin Abdelkader and Andreas Athanasiou.
“It’s good quality hockey,” Case said.
Playoff tickets range from $22 to $41, but with promotions such as playoff four-packs, a buyer can save as much $12 and get $2 hot dogs and beer from 6-8 p.m.
“We’re trying to create a fun, entertaining environment,” said Tim Gortsema, team president, one of approximately 10 front office personnel who have been with the Griffins organization since its start. “We’re creating memories. For some of our fans, they might be attending that one game the entire season.
“We want it to be memorable and exciting.”
Gortsema is credited with reigniting the in-house, game-night presentation several years ago, which breathed new life into the evenings. Be it the concession specials, in-house entertainment, music choices, or staff attire, it worked.
“It was a concerted effort to change things up and change the mindset,” Gortsema said.
Fans have responded.
“Extremely reasonable,” said Terry Stadtfeld, of Portland, who bought a season ticket for next season. “I used to go to Red Wings games with my husband, but when he passed away a couple of years ago, I started coming here, and it’s been so much fun.
“It’s local, the arena is fabulous, and it’s such a fun atmosphere. The cost is reasonable.”
Van Andel Arena has won numerous awards, including being ranked No. 1 for “Best Stadium Experience” in 2014 by Stadium Journey. The metric for the award FANFARE included food and beverage, atmosphere, neighborhood, fans, access, return on investment and extras.
The arena is generally considered the trigger for the rebirth and sprawl of downtown Grand Rapids.
“I’ve worked downtown since 1990, and before the arena, you can really say at 5:15 p.m. the sidewalks were rolled up and there wasn’t much going on,” Gortsema said. “Now, there are restaurants, bars, entertainment options, retail, springing up everywhere.”
Tom Payne basically schedules around the Griffins games at Van Andel Arena. He lost his wife approximately five years ago; both were Griffins fans.
Payne still attends every game with his puppet, a monkey wearing a Griffins jersey, or a referee outfit, and entertains kids sitting nearby.
“It’s the most fun you can have,” said Payne, of the hockey games. “The atmosphere is second to none. For me, there’s nothing better.
“And as we keep winning this season, it only gets better.”
Griffins vs. Barracuda
What: Grand Rapids Griffins vs. San Jose Barracuda in best-of-seven AHL Western Conference finals series
At stake: Spot in Calder Cup finals
Home games at Van Andel Arena
Game 1: Grand Rapids 3, San Jose 1
Game 2: San Jose 4, Grand Rapids 2
Game 3: Grand Rapids 4, San Jose 2
Game 4, Friday: at Grand Rapids, 7 p.m.
Game 5, Saturday: at Grand Rapids, 7 p.m.
Game 6, Tuesday: at San Jose, 10 p.m.
Game 7, Wednesday: at San Jose, 10 p.m.