The construction – and challenges – of a high school hockey program at Grand Rapids Public

Photos courtesy of Jenn Bellgraph


By Pat Evans - 

During a break-out drill at a practice last month, Jeremiah Dubbink yelled out, “I got low,” as he skated.

For Dubbink, now an assistant captain on the Grand Rapids Public Schools hockey team, it was a huge step in improvement; especially for head coach Brian Bellgraph.

Bellgraph took the helm of the inner-city program that has never won a game last season. This season, he knew he had a captain in All-Conference forward Max Bultman, but beyond that the coach had limited choices.

Last season, Bellgraph was lucky if he heard more than a “Yes sir,” from Dubbink’s mouth. Now, the senior is leading practices as Bultman is out two months with a broken hand.

“He tends to work really hard on the ice,” Bellgraph said. “I pulled him aside and said, ‘I need you to be lead.’ We were really trying to get them to communicate and talk last year and he literally would not say a word. I needed someone who’s really been around and he’s really done it.”

A player such as Dubbink is a dream come true for Bellgraph, especially with Bultman sidelined. The team only has about eight players who actually play in games, with several more players at the varsity level just now learning how to skate.

With just two practices a week, it could take until February for the team to be where it wants to be.

But for a program in the building stages, Bellgraph is worried about a lot more than winning.

“Winning doesn’t even enter his five-year plan until year three,” Bultman said, talking about how Coach Bellgraph is implementing systems used by the Grand Rapids Griffins and Detroit Red Wings. “He has the forethought of creating that system and we really feel like he believes in us.”

To get to that third year with a chance of winning, Bellgraph knows it’s a culture that needs to be developed and a pipeline of kids who play hockey.

“If we get to the point going forward where all of our kids coming in have some experience, we’re pretty confident we can teach them what we need to teach them,” he said. “Even the kids who haven’t skated, we’ve seen remarkable improvement in a month.

“But it’s more than just hockey with our team. We’re trying to instill some life skills, some work ethic and camaraderie.”

In Bultman, Bellgraph already has a program player.

He recruited players when the team struggled to fill the ice. He speaks highly of the coach and what he’s been able to do in just a season. And he provides leadership and a high-level of play to team in dire need of someone who can put the puck in the net.

But Bultman nearly fell victim to the bug that’s pulling players out of the program.

“I almost decided to go the Catholic school route so I could play on Catholic Central,” he said. “But just having a hockey team and the academics that City has, I stayed.”

With athletes becoming more specialized, deciding at younger ages to focus on a single sport, schools are specializing in sports as well, especially away from inner-city schools with limited budgets. Bellgraph’s program has roughly $15,000 for the season, compared to some of the area’s other programs which nearly triple that.

“We have a black cabinet that our pucks and water bottles stay in and that’s basically it for a locker room,” he said. “Grand Rapids has no pay-to-play, so our kids pay nothing. In that, they get about two hours of ice time a week.”

Grand Rapids has a lot of the same struggles most inner-city school systems do – mostly financial. However, the school system does have excellent academic choices, like City High School, a school that has received U.S. News and World Report’s silver medal in its rankings of top American high schools.

Bellgraph said he ran some numbers and found that there are plenty of hockey players within Grand Rapids city limits, they just aren’t playing hockey at public schools. And that hurts his team’s talent.

“We hear about a team’s struggles, and we watch them play and think there are some things we can do against these guys, then they turn around and beat (a great team),” Bellgraph said, adding that most fourth lines have more talent than his team. “I’m scratching my head; even the coaches who express to me that they’re gonna be weak aren’t playing bad hockey.”

In his team’s first three games, the team lost 11-1, 8-0 and 11-0. Head to a practice, and Bellgraph said the team will look like a really good squirt team, with two separate practices going on: a system practice and a learn-how-to skate practice.

Fatigue is the largest problem the team faces now; with only eight players who can regularly skate, legs get tired.

“We came up with a defensive scheme to match our talent last year,” Bellgraph said. “We took great pride when we ran it and it worked and we shut down a team that had two All-State players on it for a good eight-to-nine minutes and they couldn’t figure it out.

“Once we got tired, it didn’t work anymore.”

With a limited selection of kids and an even more limited selection of talent, Bellgraph can only do so much. He receives help from opposing coaches who donate equipment for players who can’t afford the startup costs.

“Our reality is, if this program folds, it’s never coming back,” assistant coach Andrew Hall said. “A lot of the teams we play, they don’t want to see that happen. It’s a Grand Rapids team. We’ve gone from four teams to one.”

To keep the program from folding, Bellgraph knows he needs to start kids young and find more financial backing.

Soon, the coaching staff and team will start an elementary intramural floor hockey league, in hopes of generating interest of young students.

Bellgraph also hopes a co-op with the West Michigan Aviation Academy could help up the talent level.

“Hopefully the Aviation Academy could bring five or six kids next year,” he said. “That helps build a more solid base to continue to grow the younger ages and we can move forward and be more competitive and maybe notch that first win.”

That would put the program on the coach’s five-year plan. And his captain can’t wait to come back in a few years down the road.

“Everything coach has done is outstanding and we couldn’t do anything without him,” Bultman said. “It’d be nice if, a few years down the road when I’m in college, I can come back and catch a game and it’d be competitive.”