GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – In the 18 seasons that the Grand Rapids Griffins have played in since joining the American Hockey League in 2001-02 (and discounting the 2019-20 and 2020-21 seasons where the COVID-19 pandemic prevented the league from holding a postseason) the franchise had missed the playoffs only five times, with the last one coming in 2011-12. That consistent tradition of competing in the postseason made this past season’s result that much harder to swallow for the players, management, and fans that packed Van Andel Arena every night.
Immediately following the end of the season, Grand Rapids General Manager Shawn Horcoff got to constructing his roster to bring the Griffins back to the postseason. With an expected influx of young talent coming into the lineup in October, Horcoff worked to provide them with a cast of veteran players to lead the youth along properly and to show the kids what was to be expected of them as professional hockey players. Less than a month after the final game of the season, Horcoff re-signed veteran defenseman Brian Lashoff and forwards Dominik Shine and Tyler Spezia to contract extensions as part of the Griffins’ leadership core heading into 2022-23.
O Captain My Captain
Undrafted out of major junior, Lashoff will be entering his third season as team captain. In fifteen years of pro hockey, Lashoff has only ever known the Red Wings/Griffins organization as home.
“I came out of junior, Detroit was the one organization that gave me an opportunity to earn a contract.” Lashoff said. “Ever since then, I’ve had a good relationship with management and coaching staff. It’s been a good mix of getting an opportunity to play in Detroit and having good teams in Grand Rapids giving me the chance to win championships. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve developed into a role where I can help younger guys to come into the organization and give them the best opportunity to play in Detroit like I got. I think the city is amazing – my family loves it here, I love it here. It’s been a great ride so far.”
Lashoff embodies that spirit that the Griffins organization wants to see in its captain: a commitment to the team, the compete and drive to come in night in and night out and put the work in the succeed, and the consummate pro that does the right thing. It would be expected of anyone who’s earned the trust of a franchise to spend a decade and a half in the same home. Even after earning the ‘C’ on his jersey, Lashoff has no plans to change his game.
“I think when I was named captain I tried to make sure I didn’t change who I was as a person.” Lashoff explained. “It makes my job easier to have guys who are committed to winning in Grand Rapids. It’s been a good run so far but going forward it’s imperative that we have a good leadership group around these young players to expedite their development.”
Lashoff’s demeanor doesn’t go unnoticed in the locker room.
“He’s a guy who comes in, he’s quiet, he does the right thing all the time, and I really learn from him on how to be a good pro.” Shine said of his captian.
“Brian is a great leader. You don’t know what kind of personality you’re getting from the young guys but Brian is adaptable. He listens to everybody and he’s seen it all, so he always has some kind of story or experience to share.” Spezia said. “It’s huge to have him back.”
What’s left for a fifteen year veteran to accomplish in this league, especially one who already has two Calder Cups to his name? Lashoff remains adaptable to the game and is embracing his role in the organization.
“Right now I’m at the point in my career where I’m getting older and seeing a lot of young players come in. It’s fun for me, it keeps me young, but I’m taking it one year at a time. I’m a guy who helps them hopefully make that jump to the NHL. A lot of these kids have tons of talent, sometimes they just need the patience to be themselves and play their game and that will eventually transition to the NHL. It’s a role I enjoy doing and before things are done I’d like to win another one.”
Note* the nice between the legs pass from Spezia pic.twitter.com/oE0U9dpVdJ
— Grand Rapids Griffins (@griffinshockey) March 12, 2021
Shine on You Crazy Diamond
Announced on the same day as Lashoff was the two-year extension for the gritty Dominik Shine. Born in metro Detroit, Shine – who was also undrafted out of college – is another veteran player that has only known one organization as he enters his seventh season of pro hockey.
“I grew up a Red Wings fan.” Shine explained. “They gave me a chance out of college and we just fell in love with Grand Rapids and we love calling it home.”
In a season full of opportunities up and down the lineup, Shine went out and had himself a career year offensively, putting up 17 goals and 15 assists in 71 games.
“I’ve always been able to put up points before turning pro. I kind of had to earn my spot here and find out who I was as a player and as a teammate. This year, coach Simon gave me a little more leeway to make some plays and that made a big difference in my game.”
Head Coach Ben Simon was vocal all season in his praise of Shine’s game and his personality on and off the ice.
“I would climb into a foxhole with Dominik Shine any day of the week.” Simon said earlier this season of Shine. “He’s a character guy who epitomizes how we want to play. He wears his heart on his sleeve and he competes extremely hard.”
“I’ve known Shiner my whole life, I was pumped for him this year.” Said Spezia, who grew up playing with Shine. “Another guy who had an opportunity and he ran with it. I think we have a similar mindset in the way we play the game, hopefully we can continue to grow the core moving forward.”
While the past season wasn’t terrific for the Griffins in the win column, Shine went out with his heart on his sleeve every night and led by example. He played big minutes and earned his contract extension as a leader on this team. Those traits were exactly what GM Horcoff and head coach Simon wanted in their team going forward, and captain Lashoff agreed with them.
“Shine is a guy who came in undrafted and you’ve seen him grow into a guy who’s relied on a ton for leadership in the dressing room. He’s respected by every single player and the coaching staff. He’s a guy who’s going to stand up for himself and his teammates. He’s a guy you win with and we’re lucky to have him.”
Dominik Shine ladies and gentlemen 🤯 pic.twitter.com/JVzzrHs3W0
— Grand Rapids Griffins (@griffinshockey) December 5, 2021
Coming Full Circle
Spezia’s career reflected the rise of Shine’s in many ways: a local kid undrafted out of college that has only known the Griffins in his five years of pro hockey.
“They were the first team to express interest in me, and from there the relationship and confidence has grown. Every year, I’ve been able to take a step forward and grow. I still feel like I’m getting better and it’s worked from me. I grew up watching the Red Wings and Griffins, and I idolized them to an extent. To be a part of that now coming full circle, being close to my family, it means a lot to me. It makes perfect sense. I fell in love with the city, the people, the organization, everything about it”
Also like Shine, Spezia had a career year in terms of offensive numbers in a year where the Griffins as a team struggled to find success. Those positives emerging in an otherwise down season helped Spezia earn a two-year contract extension this summer.
“I think it was just patience. I was always knocking on the door. At first, I couldn’t shake that East Coast call-up player. I just had to continually show up and work hard every day.” Spezia explained. “Thankfully, while this year wasn’t the best year for wins and losses but for a guy like myself trying to establish myself there was tons of opportunity in all aspects of the game. I just told myself to run with it and take advantage of the opportunity – it was so hard to get here so once you’re here and doors start to open, I was just able to play my game. Comfort was huge, same coaching staff, and a lot of the same core guys that I’ve got to become close with.”
Spezia’s work ethic and his ability to make the most of these opportunities was noticed not just by the management and coaching staff, but by the other leaders in the locker room that saw him as a building block to a winner going forward.
“I think Spezia is one of the more underrated players in the American League.” Lashoff said. “He’s proved he can play with good players up and down the lineup. He was relied on in PP and PK situations. I couldn’t be happier for a guy like that.”
“I’ve known him since we were about seven years old.” Shine reminisced. “I always knew he could play, so it was just a matter of getting the opportunity. He’s a great guy and a great pro. I think its important to have a good group of guys who care not only about being good pros but care about Grand Rapids as a team and an organization.”
🚨Spezia gets the boys on the board🚨 pic.twitter.com/ckgsJFOTgO
— Grand Rapids Griffins (@griffinshockey) December 11, 2021
Leading by Example
It’s easy to get caught up in the high-end talent of top draft picks such as Simon Edvinsson, Sebastian Cossa or Cross Hanas that have fans of the Detroit Red Wings excited for the future as they make their Griffins debut in October. Horcoff, however, has recognized the importance of surrounding the raw talent of these youngsters with tried and tested veterans that are committed not just to winning, but to winning in Grand Rapids.
To them, last year’s result of sitting out of the postseason was unacceptable.
“This past year was one we were disappointed with in the final results.” Lashoff said. “It was frustrating, you fight all year to stay in the hunt and unfortunately, it didn’t happen. There’s a real want and a real need from everybody to get back on track. We know Grand Rapids is an amazing market where the fans are the best in the league and we need to reward them with a team that’s competing for a Calder Cup.”
Shine agreed. “I think it was a crazy year in terms of the amount of players we had fluctuating up and down. If you look at our year, it seems like we failed and a lot of us felt that way. We were pretty much .500 until the last few games. You’re not that far off from being a really good team at .500. I think we’ll be right back to where we need to be.”
Unsurprisingly, Spezia was on the same page.
“Not being in the playoffs is unacceptable for an organization that treats us the way they do. We’re in the best city in the American League to play in. The fans show up every night. It’s a great place to be and a great place to play. The message is we have to be better. We’re building a championship team here. I think all the guys coming back know there’s no reason Grand Rapids wasn’t a contender. We worked hard most of the year, we just lacked the depth to get over the hump. We’ll build up some of that veteran core and from there have that depth and never look back. This is a playoff contending team and one that’s going to be playing for Calder Cups.”
The Griffins’ quest to a return to playoff prominence begins on Friday, October 14th when they host the San Diego Gulls at Van Andel Arena.
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