Grand Rapids — As celebrations go, this one was as good as it gets on any level of sports.
Minutes after the Grand Rapids Griffins had won the AHL’s Calder Cup on Tuesday night, 4-3 over Syracuse, Van Andel Arena was rocking as players skated around the ice with the Cup, confetti fell from the rafters, and music blared.
Evgeny Svechnikov, the Red Wings’ first-round pick in 2015, was attempting to store the feeling forever.
“I was looking at the people (in the stands) and couldn’t believe how happy they were,” said Svechnikov, 20, who could be headed to the Red Wings next season. “This is one of the best feelings in my life.
“I’m never going to forget this.”
Tuesday’s victory was the Griffins’ second in five seasons — both against Syracuse, and both in six games.
Three players remained from the first title run, captain Nathan Paetsch, Brian Lashoff and Mitch Callahan.
Paetsch was emotional after Tuesday’s victory, talking about how how the city of Grand Rapids has become home.
“This town has adopted us,” said Paetsch, 34, a 14-year pro. “I’ve been moving around for 14 years because of hockey and this has been one of the most stable places I’ve ever been. They’ve adopted me and my family, and it’s a special place.
“It’s great we could win here, in front of our fans.”
The win, as expected, didn’t come easy.
The Griffins trailed 3-2 after two periods and Syracuse had been controlling the play much of the evening.
But Tyler Bertuzzi — who was named Most Valuable Player of the playoffs — scored his nith goal (and 23rd career of the playoffs, becoming the Griffins’ franchise leader) just 3:50 into the third period, tying the game.
Martin Frk’s goal at 12:41 broke the tie, pushing the Griffins into the lead, and eventual victory.
But it was Bertuzzi’s goal which sparked the Griffins, getting the key goal they felt they needed.
“We knew if we could get that one (goal), the fans would push us through,” Bertuzzi said. “They were with us the whole third period and it was unbelievable playing in front of them.”
Though trailing entering the final 20 minutes, there was no panic, said coach Todd Nelson and numerous Griffins players.
A characteristic all season about this team has been its ability to persevere.
“We’ve done it before this season; we’ve been down a lot of times and we’ve come back in this building,” Paetsch said. “If we could get one (goal) we could get our crowd back in it and they took over, the emotion took over.”
Nelson gave credit to the Griffins’ character, a strong leadership group, and the team’s resiliency.
“We came together as a group real early this season,” said Nelson, who happens to be the first player the Griffins ever drafted in 1996, coming full circle in the organization. “We have great character guys. We have four first-year players who were captains for their respective teams last year. Our leadership group was unreal in that room.
“Our closeness as a team got us through.”
The team was tight, as was the bond between the Griffins and the city of Grand Rapids.
Tuesday’s sellout crowd of 10,834 was the second capacity crowd of the series at Van Andel Arena, and was another example of how the city has become Hockeytown West.
Fans remained in the arena long after the game had ended, not wanting to let the championship feeling disappear.
“What a fun year,” said Tomas Nosek, who had three assists Tuesday for the Griffins. “These are great guys. I wish that every player can feel the moment after the buzzer and raise the Cup.
“It was unbelievable.”
Not that raising the Calder Cup was easy.
“Heavy,” said Nosek, of the task. “It was heavier than I thought.”