Inside Track: A simple goal: doing it right and getting better every day
Grand Rapids Griffins head coach Jeff Blashill measures success as far more than winning championships.
Five winning seasons and two championships isn’t a bad way to start a head coaching career.
Detroit Red Wings General Manager Ken Holland has made it known he desires to keep Jeff Blashill within the organization. That’s because Blashill has proven results on the ice.
In his two seasons at the helm of the Grand Rapids Griffins, Blashill has won a Calder Cup championship as the best team in the American Hockey League, and he took this year’s team to the Western Conference semifinals, all while developing nearly a dozen players who contributed at the National Hockey League level with the Red Wings, the Griffins’ parent club.
Although the Griffins lost to the Texas Stars in their quest to reclaim the Calder Cup, Blashill said it was still a successful season. While the ultimate success is holding the trophy at the end of the season, Blashill said he recognizes that’s not something that can happen every year.
Success can be more than winning the championship, he said.
“It’s about how you define success,” he said. “I think we improved as a group of individuals — as a team — and we did get better every day.
“There were a lot of elements that you could call a success. The truest success is holding the trophy, but we also respect and understand how hard that is.”
Blashill looks at the Red Wings as the model of success in both sports and business. The team has gone to the Stanley Cup playoffs 23 years in a row, with four Stanley Cup championships sprinkled in the streak.
“If you only judge yourself on that, I don’t think you’ll progress and continue to get better,” he said.
“Long-term success is one of the hardest things to gain. If you look at Detroit, that longevity of success shows that the focus is on the bottom line, but it’s also about doing it right every single day and getting better every day.”
Blashill was born in Detroit and grew up a Red Wings fan in Sault Ste. Marie. He lived out a great experience three years ago when he was asked by Red Wings coach Mike Babcock to join the Detroit coaching staff. Blashill then was placed in Grand Rapids to lead the team’s minor league affiliate.
That year-long stint in Detroit was a big learning experience.
“I got an opportunity to work with some of the best in their profession, whether it’s Ken Holland, certainly considered one of the best general managers, Mike Babcock, one of the best coaches, or Nick Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk or Henrik Zetterberg — some of the very best players,” Blashill said.
It wasn’t a short journey for the 40-year-old to get where he is now — he fell in love with hockey when he was about 7.
“My parents didn’t play hockey, but when you grow up in the Soo, there is hockey everywhere,” Blashill said.
His father was a professor at Lake Superior State University, so Laker hockey games were a regular occurrence for the young Blashill.
He grew up with a group of kids his age who also developed into great hockey players, he said. He took on the role of goalie during his younger years, mostly because none of the other kids wanted to do it.
After high school, Blashill attended Ferris State University, where he earned the starting goalie spot during his freshman and sophomore years. But he lost hold of the spot in his junior year and never won it back.
That ended up being a blessing in disguise. During Blashill’s senior year, Ferris State head coach Bob Daniels asked him if was interested in getting into coaching. At the time, Blashill was considering heading to law school or joining the financial industry. But Daniels’ question made him think.
“There were certainly things in the financial world and in law school that excited me,” Blashill said. “But in the end, coaching was too strong a draw. At that time, I wanted to stay around hockey and I enjoyed the leadership part of it as a player and wanted to see if I could become a good coach.”
Blashill’s last year of college hockey became a good jumpstart to his coaching career, he said. Following his senior season, Daniels asked him to join his staff. He spent four years in Big Rapids before heading to Miami University in Ohio for six seasons as an assistant coach.
In 2008, Blashill was named head coach and general manager of the Indiana Ice, a Tier I junior hockey team in the United States Hockey League. In his first season he led the Ice to a Clark Cup championship. The next year, the team lost in the semifinals.
In April 2010, Western Michigan University signed Blashill as head coach. In his lone season coaching the Broncos, Blashill led the team to its best finish in 15 years, including a top-four finish in the Central Collegiate Hockey Association, a CCHA championship game, and a first round appearance in the NCAA Tournament. Several organizations, including College Hockey News, named him Coach of the Year.
After the season, Blashill took an unexpected phone call.
“The NHL is a hard world to break into if you don’t have NHL experience — which I didn’t, but (Babcock) gave me a call and ultimately hired me and wanted me as a guy who wasn’t an established guy,” Blashill said. “That’s certainly the biggest career break for where I’m standing right now.
“I wouldn’t be here without that phone call being made and without him ultimately hiring me.”
Blashill said it was a hard decision to leave Kalamazoo, but once he did, his goal was to become an NHL head coach. He doesn’t see it as a race to the top, however; instead, he looks forward to each new day and improving on what he did the day before. He knows plenty of other hockey coaches have the same vision to lead a team at the highest level.
Right now, he’s focused on leading the Griffins for another season.
Although he won the Calder Cup in his first season as Griffins head coach, he won the AHL’s Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the league’s most outstanding coach this season.
In two seasons, the Griffins have an 88-48-2-12 record under Blashill. He looks forward to continuing to build on that success.
“At this time of year, as a coach, you always worry if you’re going to be good enough when the time comes in October,” he said. “So you work as hard as you can to get the right pieces in place.”
Much of the roster is filled with future Red Wings players, but AHL teams can still sign pieces to fill out the roster. He said with the returning AHL players — at least captain Jeff Hoggan and defenseman Nathan Paestch — and a crop of Red Wings prospects, it’s clear the Griffins could be very good once again.
“The only thing I always caution is, you win with great character and great talent,” he said. “If you don’t have either one of those, you won’t win at a high level. And we can feel like we have great talent coming into place, but we’d better not forget the character it takes to win.”