'Grew as a group': Griffins appreciate shortened, productive AHL season

Ted Kulfan
The Detroit News
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Detroit — It was a strange hockey season for the Red Wings and the rest of the NHL.

But you can argue it was even more unusual for the Grand Rapids Griffins, the Wings’ American Hockey League affiliate, and the other teams in the AHL.

With the pandemic still raging during the fall, the Griffins didn’t even know they’d be playing until it was announced on Jan. 4. The Griffins only got to play 32 games and ended their season Saturday with a 4-1 victory over Cleveland, one of four other teams in the Central Division the Griffins played exclusively.

Givani Smith had 15 points in 25 games with the Grand Rapids Griffins this season.

There will be no AHL playoffs, as the Calder Cup will not be awarded for a second consecutive year (the AHL ended last season in March 2020).

But know what? Everyone had a chance to play hockey, get better, prove their worth to NHL organizations, and earn a paycheck.

“I remember sitting at home itching to get back playing,” said forward Givani Smith, who also saw some time with the Wings this season. “Just going back on the ice and scoring a goal or being in a fight or skating down the ice.

“Really, it was nice we had this, these three or four months to play.”

The Griffins finished with a 16-12-4 record, finished third in the Central Division, and promoted several prospects to the Red Wings, including Smith, Michael Rasmussen, Joe Veleno, Gustav Lindstrom and Dennis Cholowski.

More: Grand Rapids report: Joe Veleno has two assists in Griffins' final game

On and off the ice, Griffins coach Ben Simon felt this particular group learned and grew as professionals through the restrictions of the pandemic.

“This year was just really different,” Simon said. “With all the protocols and the parameters set in place, and all the hoops that we had to jump through just to make this season happen. You had to have a group of guys to have that commitment of being all in.

“We asked them not to socialize, not to go out to restaurants. It was pretty much to the rink and back. …The sacrifices that their families made.”

That made the Van Andel Arena, or whatever rink the Griffins were at, sort of their escape from what else was going on.

Simon felt the Griffins also became a closer group because of the time they actually had at the rink.

“Their kind of happy place was here at the rink,” Simon said. “The two to three hours that we were here, I just felt this group of guys, because of that, it just led to a lot of healthy competition. These guys pushed each other every day. We have some talented players on this team, but I liked their competitive nature every game and I liked our competitive nature every practice.

“For the most part, our resolve as a group, our growth as a team throughout the season from Day 1 to where we are right now as a group, as individuals, everyone has improved.”

It was also, said Simon, one of the closer and most competitive groups he’s had to coach. Players pushed each other in a positive way.

“The guys genuinely cared for each other and had fun doing it,” Simon said. “That healthy competition, it was reflected in games, reflected in our record. You’re going to have a couple off nights but all in all, on a consistent basis, this was one of the most competitive groups we’ve had.”

More: Jakub Vrana's desire to be a complete player a positive for Red Wings

The inability to socialize away from the rink or on the road (the Griffins traveled to most road games the day of the game) made for more interaction — as much as allowed — at the home rink.

Whether it was on the ice or areas where socialization was allowed, players took advantage of that time with teammates.

“It’s difficult,” defenseman Donovan Sebrango said. “Most years you go out for lunch, you see everybody outside of the rink, but this year it was difficult. You just kind of saw them when you’re at the rink and you talk or sit down or have a quick conversation. It’s definitely hard.

“Definitely tougher than a normal year to be close and see each other.”

Not being able to develop bonds with teammates, though, was only part of it.

There were also the protocols and safety measures at the rink that were appreciated and respected but made it a strange hockey season.

"Getting swabbed up our nose every day," Smith said of one of the more "interesting" parts of playing through the pandemic. "That was probably the toughest thing, and not being able to really (mingle) with teammates outside of the arena as much. That was one of the bigger things.

"It was definitely an interesting season. But four months ago, if we had any sign of hockey being played, we'd have taken whatever we could get (to get back on the ice). So, we were pretty lucky to even be playing this year with COVID."

Simon credited the Red Wings' and Griffins' ownerships, the management teams from both organizations and "a lot of behind-the-scenes staff, a lot of people that probably don't get a lot of thanks" for putting the season together.

Simon felt many players had an opportunity to develop and grow that they wouldn't have had if there wasn't an AHL season.

"The development that happened over the last five months was beneficial not only for the individuals but the organization moving forward," Simon said. "Some guys got a lot of key experiences and showed tremendous growth in their games. I'd like to think as we're walking out of here that from the beginning of January to the middle of May, we're walking out of here as better hockey players and had good experiences and grew as a group."

And, again, where the AHL basically was almost a year ago, with an uncertain season and players who weren't sure where they'd be earning their next salary, the value of having this season wasn't lost upon anybody.

Nobody took the short, awkward season for granted.

"It put a little higher appreciation," Simon said. "We're sitting there for eight months not knowing whether we're going to play. We had 32 games this year and the guys valued those 32 games. It gave them a better appreciation for their craft."

ted.kulfan@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tkulfan

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