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Jon Merrill elated about returning to Michigan, playing for hometown Red Wings

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News

Detroit — The excitement and anticipation in Jon Merrill's voice was easy to notice.

The Grand Blanc native is a veteran defenseman in the NHL, having played 356 games between New Jersey and Vegas.

But signing a one-year contract with the Red Wings Friday, his hometown team, the one the 28-year-old cheered for as a kid, this felt good.

Defenseman Jon Merrill has 12 goals and 49 assists in 356 NHL career games with New Jersey and Las Vegas.

"It's endless," said Merrill, of his hockey memories growing up. "Going down to the Joe (Louis Arena) as a kid, playing for Little Caesars. Playing Michigan State (Merrill played at Michigan along with Luke Glendening) in the GLI."

There was one more memorable thought that popped into Merrill's mind.

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"I was one of the flag bearers (skating onto the ice) in the playoffs when I was 13-year-old," Merrill said. "A ton of memories. It's really exciting for me and my family."

Merrill grew up in Grand Blanc and moved to Brighton in eighth grade. He played his youth hockey with Little Caesars.

Merrill was part of the Plymouth Township-based U.S. National Development Team Program, and played college hockey at Michigan, alongside Glendening.

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"He (Glendening) was one of the first people to reach out and say congratulations," Merrill said. "(UM) was incredible memories I'll never forget, and friendships that'll last for a whole lifetime. It was a great experience. I'm excited to be back and get back on campus because I haven't been back so much.

"(USNTDP) was extremely instrumental for me as a player and person. Even though it was only a few miles down the road, you're away from home in a sense. The training regimen they have there is something I wasn't used to and it was crucial to spend those two years in Ann Arbor (now Plymouth Township-based)."

Fresh start

After being bought out of his contract in Ottawa after last season was officially ended  due to the pandemic forward Bobby Ryan felt the disappointment was going to linger.

But the veteran free agent — who signed a one-year, $1 million contract with the Wings Friday — got an important pep talk from his wife.

"It was my wife who finally said 'you're going to get an opportunity for the first time in your career to dictate where you live and go play next," Ryan said. "I don't think it had dawned on me."

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Ryan was excited to join the Wings, a team that needed his right-hand shot and ability to score goals.

Ryan will come into camp — whenever that'll be — in some of the best shape of his career. He's used the time off because of the pandemic to train, get healthy, and said he's lost approximately 10 pounds from last season (down to 204).

He was on a Zoom call Friday with Detroit reporters from Nashville, where Ryan was participating in power skating workouts.

"Ultimately I'd like to prove to myself I have more in me," Ryan said. "I know there's going to be naysayers because of my age and my feet and things like that. I can't address age but I'm trying to address speed and go from there and show the hockey world I have something left in me."

Ice chips

What may have been the clinching point in Ryan joining the Red Wings?

"My daughter found out there's free pizza," said Ryan, of the Little Caesars at the arena. "Major selling point, major selling point. My four-year-old, free pizza, we're in."

…Merrill's family became internet sensations when a video his wife posted of Merrill returning from the bubble (his Vegas team reached the Western Conference Finals) and surprising the kids went viral.

"I was shocked," said Merrill, of the response. "It was a long time in that bubble. It was exciting to see the reaction of the girls, priceless."

...What attributes about Ryan's game that he and general manager Steve Yzerman talked about that appealed to the Wings?

"It wasn't skating," laughed Ryan, at the question. "We talked about my ability to shoot the puck. I certainly can still do that.

"This is one of those relationships that will work for both sides. The Wings are a little lean on right-handed shots and there was an opportunity to slot in there and possibly play with Dylan Larkin, or Tyler Bertuzzi, or (Anthony) Mantha or (Robby) Fabbri. There's high-end skill there."

...The Wings added minor league depth in Grand Rapids, agreeing to terms with forwards Kyle Criscuolo and Riley Barber and goaltender Kevin Boyle to one-year contracts.

Criscuolo, 28, returns for his second stint in the organization after starting his pro career with the Griffins at the end of the 2015-16 season and winning a Calder Cup championship in 2016-17.

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tkulfan