Griffins' Blashill waits in Wings for NHL opportunity
Grand Rapids — One thing of which Jeff Blashill is certain, he wants to coach an NHL team.
Others are nearly as certain he will be good at it. But, like playing in the league, the proof is in the doing.
If the Red Wings are looking to preserve their winning culture, something other franchises have long sought to replicate, based on Blashill's resume and appraisals of him, they could scarcely do better.
He is intimately familiar with the Wings, as a former assistant hired by Mike Babcock and coach of the Griffins at a time when nearly half the current roster in Detroit developed in the AHL.
He also has won immediately as a coach in juniors, college hockey and in what many hockey people consider the finest development league in the world, the American Hockey League. His players say they are consummately prepared. Communication is direct, clear and critical to success.
It was Babcock who surprised many by hiring a largely unheralded Blashill as his assistant in 2011.
"He's a good man and a good coach and he's going to get an opportunity in the National Hockey League," Babcock said, watching the Griffins rebounding from a two game deficit to beat the Toronto Marlies last weekend in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs.
"He's an intelligent guy. He speaks well, and he presents well.
"I'm proud of him. He does a good job."
General manager Ken Holland undoubtedly will receive phone calls from teams requesting permission to talk to Blashill, unless Holland turns to him first before the exclusive rights to hire Babcock expire June 30.
Until that is decided, Holland says, teams pursuing Blashill can go fish.
He does not want to lose Babcock and Blashill in the same late spring without giving Blashill vigorous consideration as Babcock's replacement.
"I've said all along, I think Jeff is an NHL coach in the making," Holland said, between the second and third periods of the Griffins' big win.
"I think he's done a fabulous job. He's been an important guy in our organization in overseeing the development for the future."
After three years as an assistant at Ferris State and six at Miami, Blashill took the coaching job for the Indiana Ice of the USHL, the premier junior league in the country.
He not only selected Torey Krug in the draft, over the objections of others who counseled against the future Spartans and Bruins defenseman because he is small, the Ice won the Clark Cup, the USHL championship, for the first time in their fourth year of existence.
Two years later he went to Western Michigan, which had no winning seasons in the previous eight and had not been to the NCAA Tournament for 14.
Under Blashill, the Broncos went 19-13-10 and to the Tournament in his first and only season.
Then, Babcock recruited him. After a season, Holland talked to Babcock about moving Blashill to Grand Rapids.
After consecutive seasons of finishing seventh, sixth and fourth and out of the playoffs, Blashill helped bring their first Calder Cup in history in his first season.
But success, even at all previous levels, does not dictate it in the NHL.
Another factor is desire. And Blashill, in his calm, understated, cerebral way, fairly burns with it.
"My ultimate goal is: I'd like to be a head coach in the NHL," Blashill said, sitting his painted-cinder block office in the depths of Van Andel Arena.
It is an ambition of long gestation.
"I got a head start on coaching because in my mind I wasn't a good enough player," said Blashill, who spent the last two years, 1997 and 1998, on the bench at Ferris State.
His coach, Bob Daniels, asked Blashill if he wanted to return after graduation as a volunteer coach.
"It was something I had been thinking about, and that kind of pushed me over the edge," Blashill said.
Daniels had long before noted his average-at-best goaltender was keenly intelligent and articulate.
Blashill graduated with a 4.0 in finance.
"Through four years, he just struck me as having a really good personality and a really good feel for team hockey and a good knowledge of the game," Daniels said. "He was very outgoing, and I think you need to be to be a successful coach."
Relying on his seniors to help him coach, Daniels said, Blashill was impressive.
"He was very clear and concise when he was imparting information to our players at that time. It hit me that, hey, this guy has what it takes to be a very good coach."
Daniels said he is little surprised by Blashill's success except perhaps for the immediacy.
"It was amazing how quickly he turned around both Indy and the success he brought to Western Michigan," Daniels said. "And I think a lot of that is just due to he is an extremely detailed person and his exceptional ability to communicate.
"Those qualities come out quickly."
After all the plaudits for Blashill's coaching, Daniels responded to a question about his goaltending with a chuckle.
"You know, a much better coach," he said.
"I think his playing days probably highlighted the fact that you need to have a good goaltender to have a successful team."
Shades of Babcock
If not for coaching, Blashill says, his performances on the ice and in the classroom likely would have landed him in law school. But he would not be the first so-so goaltender to be a good NHL coach.
As with catchers in baseball, goaltenders have a unique perspective on the game that informs their coaching.
Babcock cast a wide net for assistants, in 2011. He caught Blashill, who struck many around the NHL as unknown.
Now, many say when they hear Blashill speak, it is as if Babcock is talking.
Blashill is bit less fiery than Babcock, according to a unanimous appraisal.
Who is not?
Saying they do not confuse fieriness with desire and forcefulness, his players say Blashill brings plenty of passion.
His club was on a roll last weekend. Their high-flying, play-all-200-feet style is as much like the Red Wings as their detailed preparation. And for the first time in history, the Griffins rebounded from a 0-2 deficit in the playoffs to win a series.
Task at hand
Blashill, 41, was born in Detroit.
He remained for about 18 months. His dad was a Detroit police officer who left to start the law enforcement program at Lake Superior State.
He could return as coach, or he might go to another team. It would not be in the Red Wings style to stand in Blashill's way, if they sign Babcock, despite Blashill having two years left on his contract.
As for their similarities, Blashill said it precedes working with Babcock.
"I would say that Babs and I have real similar philosophies on how to play hockey," Blashill said. "I'd say we have real similar philosophies on how to coach and train people," he said.
"I think that was one of the reasons that attracted Babs to me in the first place, in order to hire me."
Amid the maelstrom some perceive as swirling him, Blashill seems utterly calm.
His task, he said, is the one at hand. Well done, it likely leads to better things.
The Griffins players talked about their high level of confidence, particularly at this juncture of the season, and the degree to which their coach will prepare them.
Blashill seemed utterly in the moment.
"I've always believed like doing the best job you can in the job you are in, and thinking about not what's next but what's right now," he said.
"And that if you do a great job in what's right now, other things take care of themselves."
He sounded like Babcock when he said it — Babcock, without the fierceness.