Players and coaches from the Griffins’ 2013 Calder Cup-winning team now make up a good portion of the Detroit Red Wings. Courtesy Grand Rapids Griffins
(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Tim Gortsema says he marks time by his children.
All three children of the president of the Grand Rapids Griffins have been born since he started with the hockey team in 1995.
Now as he and the Griffins look to celebrate the team’s 20th anniversary, Gortsema reflects on the past two decades.
“With any job, as you get older, you mark time with your kids. Even though we feel like we’re staying the same age, our kids keep getting older,” Gortsema said. “My oldest is starting college. That’s a sobering reality. At the end of the day, it’s a blessing of stability of being at a place I enjoy working.”
The Griffins begin their 20th season on Friday in California, with games against the American Hockey League’s new Bakersfield Condors and San Diego Gulls, before hosting the home opener Oct. 16.
The team has come a long way since its beginning in the International Hockey League, when Dan DeVos and David Van Andel purchased a franchise in the minor hockey league for $7 million. Discussions began because the under-construction Van Andel Arena needed a major tenant.
“I knew just enough about hockey to be dangerous,” DeVos said. “They kept talking about it and we decided hockey would be a good way to go.”
The change in downtown Grand Rapids since the arena was built and the Griffins started playing is significant, Gortsema said. He began working downtown in 1990 in the Frey Building and said when 5 p.m. rolled around, there was a “mass exodus to the suburbs.”
Seeing the vibrancy that has come to downtown sums up how Gortsema feels about how the arena has helped drive development.
“It’s been really cool to work downtown for 25 years and see the development of what’s going on,” he said. “The landscape has changed so much as the arena spurred development where, before, to the south and north, that was non-developed.
“The B.O.B., Big Old Building — it was Big Old Vacant Building. Now it’s awesome to see the entertainment multiplex it has developed into and all the other bars.”
Fitting also, is the fact that the team’s new head coach, Todd Nelson, was the Griffins’ first player. Gortsema remembers that day fondly.
“We were out in the bowl of the arena — then a concrete shell and on a hot day,” he said. “We said, ‘Here’s our guy. We’re going to build the team around him.’”
The first several seasons in the International Hockey League were as an independent team, but the Griffins were able to secure several contracts with NHL-caliber players. The high-quality hockey is the reason the ownership team went with the IHL over the AHL as it started up.
The two entities were competing leagues just beneath the National Hockey League. Gortsema said both were considered, but the IHL appeared to be in larger markets with higher profile players and the AHL seemed to have teams concentrated in Eastern U.S. small markets.
The IHL was capturing NHL players on the way down, while the AHL was developing them, Gortsema said.
“We wanted to go with the highest level of hockey we thought we could sustain in the market and we felt the IHL was a better fit based on that,” he said. “In hindsight, knowing what we know now, maybe we would have been better off going straight into the American league.”
In 1999, the Griffins became the Ottawa Senators’ minor league affiliate. The deal was put in place to help Grand Rapids win. Gortsema said the Senators are a great scouting team, so the deal often filled the Griffins with good players. The players who were eventually promoted to the NHL, however, lacked visibility in West Michigan.
“It was out of sight, out of mind,” he said.
Grand Rapids played for the IHL championship — the Turner Cup — in 2000 but lost to the Chicago Wolves.
Then the IHL imploded. Expansion into cities with an NHL presence shifted those affiliations away. Affiliation and expansion fees, which helped subsidize some teams, began to dry up, Gortsema said.
The league folded in 2001. Six teams, including Grand Rapids and Chicago, were admitted to the AHL.
“Some of the teams were masking some of their financial difficulties with those funds,” he said. “When that started to dry up, it was like, ‘OK, can you roll on your own?’ Some teams could, some teams couldn’t.
“The league got into a little trouble as a whole, and some teams just said, ‘We’re backing away.’ Some bumped down to the East Coast Hockey League; some got out altogether. The strongest, best teams are the ones who made the jump.”
The teams making the jump helped the AHL close in on a 1:1 team ratio with the NHL and make affiliations easier. At the time, the Detroit Red Wings had prospects sprinkled through several teams.
In 2001-2002, the Red Wings and Griffins began their affiliation, still in place today.
“It makes a ton of sense geographically,” Gortsema said. “In this market, fans are hockey fans, but they’re Detroit Red Wings fans. Now they see our players play here on Wednesday and there on Friday.”
Griffins players from the 2013 Calder Cup Championship team now make up a good part of the Red Wings roster. The coaching staff is mostly made up of coaches from the previous three seasons in Grand Rapids. Fans can now appreciate the amount of formative time spent in Grand Rapids, Gortsema said.
“The affiliation between the Detroit Red Wings and Grand Rapids Griffins has been incredibly important in helping the Red Wings develop NHL-ready players,” said Ken Holland, executive vice president and general manager of the Red Wings.
“The Griffins have a passionate fan base and have become a model franchise that is very important to the success of the Detroit Red Wings," said Holland.
Between the beginning of the affiliation and the 2013 championship season, the Griffins suffered some tough years in the win-loss column. Still, attendance stayed steady and has grown until the recent continued success in the playoffs.
“Some of those years, we weren’t very good,” Gortsema said. “Our guys in the back were selling the heck out of the experience. We want fans to buy into the name on the front of the jersey, not the individual on the back. But at some point, the game has to be competitive.
“Then all of a sudden, the stars aligned and the team made a great run.”
The Calder Cup is tops among a whole heap of great memories from the 20 years, DeVos said.
“It was just great to see the city engage with the team and hear the talk,” he said. “It drew a lot of interest back to Grand Rapids on the sports map.”
DeVos said the investment in the Griffins was well worth it, especially when he looks beyond the financials.
“Any sports team, you have your ups and downs,” he said. “Since Day 1 with all the sellouts, the ups and downs, the community has been supportive of us. And that’s what it’s all about — the community and to be a part of the growth of the community.”
Gortsema said the investment in employees and the community is what has helped make the Griffins special. He said turnover is especially low in comparison to other minor league teams, with about half the staff being there for at least 10 years.
Meanwhile, the Griffins’ community relations team has won the league’s Community Relations Department of the Year twice.
“We’ve had some lean years and not doing the numbers we needed to, but that never significantly deterred the ownership from investing in their people,” Gortsema said. “We want to deliver a great product and a bottom line return, but it’s a lot more than that. Why do we have a team? It’s about connecting to the community and making Grand Rapids great.”