AHL championship especially sweet for Michigan natives



Chad Billins was one of four Michigan natives on the final roster for the Griffins' AHL champion squad. (Jennifer Leigh/MiHockey)

By Matt Gajtka -

SYRACUSE, N.Y. - With their 5-2 win over the Syracuse Crunch on Tuesday night, the Grand Rapids Griffins brought the Calder Cup to the Calder City after 12 seasons in the American Hockey League.

Moreover, the Game 6 triumph ended 25 total years of championship frustration for Grand Rapids-based pro hockey clubs, the first 13 of those in the IHL.

The significance of the moment clearly wasn’t lost on 24-year-old rookie center Luke Glendening, who was born and raised in Grand Rapids before playing four years at the University of Michigan.

“This is special…I couldn’t be more proud,” Glendening said. “We’re happy to bring this title back to Grand Rapids. They support us so well.”

After serving as Wolverines captain during his senior year in Ann Arbor, Glendening started the season with the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye, then earned a December call-up. He accumulated 32 points in 77 AHL games, postseason included.

Glendening lamented that the Griffins couldn’t raise the Calder Cup in two chances at Van Andel Arena last weekend. Syracuse resisted elimination twice after Grand Rapids won the first three games of the best-of-seven series.

“We were so close in ‘GR,’” he said. “We shouldn’t have had to come back [to Syracuse], but here we are, and we won it.”

Defensemen Dan DeKeyser (Detroit) and Chad Billins (Marysville) were the other two Michiganders to lift the 77-year-old trophy at Onondaga County War Memorial Arena. Both played NCAA hockey in state, with DeKeyser just completing a successful three-year stay at Western Michigan and Billins 12 months removed from a four-year stint at Ferris State.

“It’s been pretty great to play close to home and Ferris,” said Billins, 24. The rookie pro provided offense from the blueline in the regular season (10 goals, 27 points) and the playoffs (12 assists, 14 points).

“A lot of friends and family came to games [in Grand Rapids] and some of them are here tonight.”

Home was also on the mind of first-year Griffins head coach Jeff Blashill. The 39-year-old Sault Ste. Marie native and former Ferris State goalie had his thoughts immediately drift west after his team claimed the prize.

“I couldn’t wait to call my wife and family,” Blashill said. “They’ve made a lot of sacrifices over the years.”

Grand Rapids is Blashill’s fourth home in the last four years, as he moved from a title-winning effort with the USHL’s Indiana Ice to the head spot at Western Michigan and an assistant position in Detroit in quick succession. He signed with the Griffins last summer.

Despite the relatively short amount of time he’s lived in town, Blashill gushed about Grand Rapids after helping provide an indelible memory to its hockey fans.

“It doesn’t get a lot of attention nationally, but it’s a great place,” said Blashill outside the boisterous Griffins dressing room. “Everyone who lives in that city deserves a moment like this.”

Going out on top?

Griffins captain Jeff Hoggan memorably said “we get to share this for a lifetime” after lifting the Calder Cup with his teammates late Tuesday night. For the 35-year-old Hoggan, who has more than a decade of pro experience, his hockey lifetime may be nearing its end.

“I could see my last days coming at the start of the year,” said Hoggan, who played two straight years in Germany’s top league before returning to North America last fall.

Hoggan signed a pro tryout deal with the Griffins in late September. Two weeks later, he started the season wearing the ‘C.’ Hoggan has played nine seasons in the AHL and has won two Calder Cups, as he was part of Houston’s title-winning club in his rookie year of 2003.

The 6-foot-1 British Columbian skated in all 24 postseason games this spring, recording five goals and seven assists. Hoggan had five points (four assists) against Syracuse in the Final.

In the afterglow of victory, Hoggan allowed that the experience has softened his retirement thoughts.

“We battled all the way through,” he said. “When you do something like this, you want to keep going.”

Paek back in the winner’s circle

Jim Paek’s eight years of service make him the longest-tenured coach in nearly two decades of Griffins hockey. The former NHL defenseman joined the team in 2005 and has held an assistant coaching spot since.

Paek signed a contract extension with the team last summer, hoping to be part of a moment like Tuesday night.

“It’s incredible,” he said after getting his turn to hoist the Calder Cup overhead. “This is absolutely what you dream of.”

It wasn’t the first championship for Paek, as the 45-year-old won a pair of Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the early 1990s, becoming the first Korean-born person to play in the NHL and lift its top prize.

He also won two Turner Cups while skating in the IHL, one in Muskegon, Mich., and another with Houston.

“This one ranks right up there with those,” said Paek when asked to compare the emotions of his first Calder Cup with previous titles. “Every time you win a championship, it’s fantastic.”