By Kyle Kujawa -
In a way, when the Grand Rapids Griffins officially introduced Jeff Blashill as their new head coach on June 28, it was a homecoming for the now-former Detroit Red Wings assistant. In another sense, virtually the entire state of Michigan is “home” for Blashill.
Born in Detroit and raised in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., Blashill has rapidly ascended hockey’s coaching ladder, joining his fourth team in four seasons now.
“I knew my next step in the coaching ladder was an American Hockey League head coaching job,” said Blashill at his introductory press conference. “If I was asked a month ago what the perfect scenario for my next job would be, I would have stated that it would have been the head coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins.”
However, one month ago, Curt Fraser was the Griffins’ head coach and was in line to return for a fifth season behind the team’s bench. Fraser wasn’t actively looking to leave, but an opportunity rose with the NHL’s Dallas Stars, and the Red Wings gave Fraser the green light to return to an NHL bench.
“Curt did an outstanding job here as head coach of the Griffins for four years,” said Ryan Martin, the Red Wings’ assistant general manager of hockey administration. “When Curt was hired by Dallas, Ken Holland, Jim Nill and I felt the timing and opportunity were perfect to bring Jeff to Grand Rapids.”
Martin said that at the end of the season, Blashill expressed interest in becoming a head coach at the professional level. While some thought the move was a demotion, the run of young AHL coaches being moved up to the NHL level over the past several summers indicates that success at the minor league level is a fast-track to an NHL head coaching job.
“This position was something I absolutely wanted,” said Blashill. “When I got the phone call that it might be available, I was extremely excited. It’s a highly coveted position by a number of people, because of the great passion the owners have for the team and community and for the great passion and professionalism that’s in place with the staff. It’s an outstanding city with an outstanding fan base.”
But as Martin explained, there was more to the decision than simply having an opening in Grand Rapids that they could fill with the closest person to the job.
“The AHL coach is a critical person in an NHL team’s organizational chart,” said Martin. “The AHL coach has to wear many hats – he has to be a leader, a disciplinarian, a guidance counselor, a parent, a psychiatrist and a teacher.
“Ken, Jim and I had the opportunity to work with Jeff last year in Detroit, and in our opinion, Jeff is one of the bright, young, talented coaches in all of hockey. He’s energetic, he has a tremendous work ethic, he’s competitive, he’s demanding yet compassionate, and he has great passion for the game of hockey. He was a perfect fit in what we were looking for in this spot.”
Blashill is no stranger to the Grand Rapids area. The former goaltender spent four seasons between the pipes for Ferris State University and began his coaching career there in 1999-00. He commuted to Ferris State while living in Grand Rapids, which is just under an hour south of Big Rapids. He also spent the 2010-11 season in Kalamazoo, coaching the Western Michigan Broncos and leading the team to their best conference finish since 1995-96.
“I’m a Michigan boy with strong ties to West Michigan,” said Blashill, who was a finalist for CCHA Coach of the Year and was named National Coach of the Year by College Hockey News, Inside College Hockey and USCHO.com while at Western Michigan. “It’s a perfect for me on a number of levels, personally and professionally. From a personal side, I have a lot of friends and family in West Michigan. I’ve already been welcomed with great enthusiasm and great passion, and I look forward to forging a great relationship with West Michigan in the next number of years.
As far as his coaching philosophy goes, Blashill credits Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock for teaching him a lot in one season. While playing closer to the Red Wings style will help many Griffins make quick transitions to the NHL, Blashill won’t be afraid to make adjustments to accomplish his goals.
“Having been with the Red Wings for the past year, this transition can be much smoother,” he said. “It allows me to say with absolute, full confidence that I know what it takes to be a Red Wing, and what it takes to thrive under Mike Babcock. I know that because I’ve seen the type of preparation Nick Lidstrom puts in, I’ve seen the work and competitiveness that Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have, I’ve seen the selflessness of Niklas Kronwall and Danny Cleary. Those are valuable lessons that I can pass on to our players here.”
All of the Red Wings hockey operations department hope that instilling a winning tradition in Grand Rapids will lead to more players making the jump to a full-time NHL position – a philosophy that Blashill understands well.
“Every year, every place I’ve been a head coach, the goals have been the same,” said Blashill. “First, we want to maximize player development. My promise to our players is that I’m going to do everything possible to maximize their development. Secondly, we want to win championships.
“I believe those goals go hand in hand,” he continued. “The more our players improve over the course of the season, the better equipped we will be at the end of the year. And the more our players experience winning, the more they’ll be ready to help Detroit in their goal to win a Stanley Cup.”
Winning is something that Blashill has experienced at every level. As a collegiate assistant, he helped build the CCHA’s Ferris State Bulldogs and Miami RedHawks into annual contenders, mentoring and recruiting three Hobey Baker Finalists, as well as current NHLers Chris Kunitz, Andy Greene, Ryan Jones and recent Stanley Cup champion Alec Martinez.
In his first year as a head coach with the USHL’s Indiana Ice, he captured a franchise-record 39 wins and a Clark Cup championship. In his lone season at Western Michigan, he doubled the team’s win totals and led the Broncos to the CCHA championship game for the first time since 1986.
“I don’t think winning takes rocket science, however, I do think there’s a simple formula,” said Blashill. “It takes more commitment, work ethic and attention to detail on a daily basis than most people are willing to give. Our players are going to have to give that special commitment, make those special sacrifices and give that attention to detail for us that champions do for us to have success.
“It takes having a talented group of players, whose character is defined by their inner drive to be great, defined by their highly competitive nature, and defined by their selflessness. I know those are the ingredients it takes to be successful – I saw it in Detroit. It was prevalent there, and it needs to be prevalent here.”
Blashill ended his press conference by thanking virtually every coach he’s worked with – including Ferris State head coach Bob Daniels and Western Michigan head coach Andy Murray – for helping him become the coach he is today. He also thanked his wife, Erica, and three children, Teddy, Josie and Owen, for allowing him to take advantage of the opportunities he’s been presented, as he certainly didn’t expect he would move up the coaching ladder as quickly as he has.
“Without their total commitment to hockey and to this lifestyle, I certainly wouldn’t be standing here today,” said Blashill. “Our houses are defined by the mascots of the team I work for. So now we’ve moved from the Bronco house, to the Red Wing house, and soon we’ll be looking for a Griffin house.”