By Kyle Kujawa –
The Grand Rapids Griffins enjoyed a year full of ups and downs, finishing the 2011-12 season outside the playoff picture but seeing several individual players achieve success. After a summer of big changes, the team is trending up heading into 2013, building off the successes of the previous season to jump out to a fast start in 2012-13.
10. GRAND RAPIDS SHIFTS MIDWEST
A slight division realignment in the AHL this summer saw Grand Rapids shift from the North Division to the Midwest Division, joining Milwaukee along with the three Illinois teams: Chicago, Peoria and Rockford. In addition to reducing the number of miles the Griffins will log on the road going forward, the move also restores the team’s rivalry with the two clubs it has played most: the Chicago Wolves and Milwaukee Admirals.
9. CONKLIN LIFTS GRIFFINS
Petr Mrazek may have broken the record, but it was Ty Conklin who first tied a 12-year old mark by starting 5-0 after joining the Griffins in February. Conklin became the first netminder since Mathieu Chouinard in 2000-01 to start 5-0 when he helped the team to a five-game winning streak – its second longest of 2012. The veteran’s time in Grand Rapids was short-lived, as injuries in Detroit saw him rejoin the NHL, but the team earned points in nine of his 12 starts (8-3-1-0) from Feb. 22-March 17.
8. PARE REWRITES RECORD BOOKS
No Griffins player hit more milestones in 2012 than Francis Pare. Most recently, the fifth-year Griffin passed Kip Miller and now sits third in franchise history in points, behind only Michel Picard (380) and Travis Richards (238). Pare entered the calendar year sitting seventh all time in goals and assists and was not in the top 10 in games played, but now ranks second in goals, fifth in assists and third in games played. Pare’s climb was due in part to a 10-game point streak in March, which was the longest of any Griffin during 2012 and tied the seventh-longest streak in franchise history.
7. GRIFFINS EXTEND AFFILIATION WITH RED WINGS
On March 7, the Griffins and Red Wings announced a five-year extension on their affiliation agreement, ensuring that the relationship between Michigan’s premier hockey teams will continue through at least the 2016-17 season. The 11-year-old affiliation has helped produce a Stanley Cup and an AHL regular season championship, along with multiple division titles for both teams. During the 2011-12 season alone, Gustav Nyquist, Brendan Smith, Joakim Andersson and Riley Sheahan made their NHL debuts, helping the Griffins list of NHL alumni swell to 125.
6. GLENDENING MAKES HIS GRIFFINS DEBUT
On Dec. 19, Luke Glendening made his AHL debut, a memorable feat for any professional hockey. Yet this wasn’t your average debut. Glendening, the former captain of the Michigan Wolverines, became the first Grand Rapids native to play in a game as a member of the Griffins. The moment was made even more special when Glendening scored on his first shot – on his first shift – in front of his hometown fans.
5. EIGHT-GAME WINNING STREAK
After starting the 2012-13 season 1-3-0-1, the Griffins began to click on offense and defense, culminating in a dominating month of December that saw the team rattle off eight straight wins. The streak served as the fourth- longest in franchise history, behind a pair of nine-game runs and a franchise-record 11-game stretch from March 5-21. It also vaulted the Griffins into first place in the Midwest Division, which marked the first time since Feb. 2, 2009 – a 1,377-day stretch – that the club held sole possession of first place.
4. CHRIS MINARD’S COMEBACK
The feel-good story of the year from Grand Rapids was the comeback of Chris Minard, who missed the Griffins’ first 36 games of 2011-12 while dealing with the continuing after-effects of a concussion suffered during the 2009-10 season. Minard made his season debut on Jan. 15, scored two goals in his second game of the season and went on to a 21-goal season in an abbreviated 39 games, including three hat tricks. The veteran forward captured Reebok/ AHL Player of the Month honors for February and was further recognized by the league in April. Minard received the Fred T. Hunt Memorial Award as the AHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of sportsmanship, determination and dedication to hockey. Minard has continued his good year in Germany, where he is among the DEL’s leaders in goals.
3. MRAZEK’S BEST-EVER START
Petr Mrazek started his first professional season with the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye, but he was brought up to the AHL in early November. The 20-year-old netminder enjoyed a very successful Griffins debut, setting the franchise record for the best-ever start by a Griffins goaltender at 6-0. After his first 10 starts, Mrazek sported a 7-3 record and ranked among the league’s goaltending leaders with a 2.39 goals against average (10th) and a 0.915 save percentage (17th).
2. NYQUIST SETS ROOKIE SCORING RECORD
In what could have been his final game in a Griffins uniform – he spent the rest of the season with the Red Wings and was slated to get a long look at training camp this season – Gustav Nyquist recorded two goals and an assist in a 5-3 win over Hamilton on March 17 to become the highest-scoring rookie in franchise history. Nyquist notched 58 points (22-36-58) in 56 games with the Griffins, which earned him a spot on the AHL All-Rookie Team. He also spent 18 games with Detroit, recording a goal and six assists, in addition to appearing in four playoff games for the club.
1. BLASHILL TABBED AS HEAD COACH
Jeff Blashill was named the ninth head coach in Griffins history on June 25, one week after Curt Fraser, the longest-tenured and winningest coach in franchise history, departed Grand Rapids to join the NHL’s Dallas Stars as an assistant coach. Blashill was tabbed by the parent Red Wings after serving as an assistant coach to Mike Babcock during the 2011-12 season. He joined the organization with ties to the area and the state as a whole, as he was born in Detroit and raised in Sault Ste. Marie before playing goaltender for Ferris State. Blashill also served as an assistant coach for the Bulldogs (while commuting from Grand Rapids) and eventually as a head coach for the Western Michigan Broncos.