Detroit – COVID-19 has forced numerous sports leagues, from the pros to the preps, to adjust and go about their seasons differently.
Coaches and players have had to adapt like never before to protocols that are new and binding against the spread of the virus.
The American Hockey League has been no different. The NHL’s minor league wasn’t even sure there was going to be a season, and three teams decided they weren’t going to play.
But the Wings’ affiliate in Grand Rapids is competing, competing well, and getting through a season like no other.
“It has been a weird year, but we’ve been playing well,” Griffins defenseman Joe Hicketts said. “We’re doing the right things and jelling as a group as much as we can.”
These days, in this environment, especially in the AHL, coming together as a team can be challenging.
Whether it would be the social spacing, traveling to games, the few amount of games against the same teams or gearing up for the postseason (oh wait, there is no post-season), it’s all different in the AHL this season.
Everyone is still trying to cope and get the job done.
“Our mentality going into the season was it’s a 101-day season, with 32 games, and it’s not a bad sacrifice to make,” Griffins coach Ben Simon said. “We’re all doing the same stuff, giving up different things, in order to make this happen. You have to be aware of your decisions at the rink and away from the rink, and how they can impact if this season is on the rails, or not.”
The Griffins have kept things on track – and tried to make light of it along the way.
“We’re just having fun around each other in practice and when we have a long layoff between games,” defenseman Dennis Cholowski said. “We all know it’s a weird schedule, but we’re going through it together and trying to enjoy each other’s company.”
Here are some ways this AHL season is different:
►The fight against COVID-19: The Griffins haven’t had cases of the virus, a firm indication players and staff are doing a good job following protocol.
“The players have been great, they’ve been great soldiers adhering to the protocols, the mask wearing at the rink,” Simon said.
Two different locker rooms are being utilized at Van Andel Arena, to again, limit any chances of possible exposure.
“It is strange because you can potentially go through a day, and be in either locker room one or two, and you see each other on the ice but don’t see each other otherwise,” Simon said. “We’re trying to mitigate our exposures.”
Meetings are held in small groups, and players are utilizing an app for scouting reports, game plans and video presentations.
The Griffins only travel to Cleveland, Chicago and Iowa, the only three teams they see on the schedule, and do so day of game (they do travel to Iowa the day before).
They travel in two buses, again to limit any potential contact tracing.
“The two buses is a little weird, I’ve never done that before,” Cholowski said. ”But everything is a little weird. None of us have had to cope with anything like this before. We’re all just going with the flow and go with it.”
►The schedule: The Griffins only see Chicago, Cleveland, Rockford and Iowa, in a 32-game slate that concludes May 15.
“It does get old (seeing the same teams) but in a normal regular season we’re playing everyone in the division six to eight times,” Hicketts said. “But (in the past) we have those Western Conference teams or Eastern teams sprinkled in so it kind of changes the pace a little bit.”
Chicago has moved out of its suburban 10,000 seat arena to where the Wolves’ games are at their practice rink.
“It’s strange, not the set up you would normally see in a season,” Hicketts said. “But it does develop rivalries when you play the same three teams over and over.”
Said Cholowski: “You definitely get used to the players you’re playing against. But it’s the same thing in Detroit, too, you’re playing the same teams all the time.”
Simon doesn’t see the schedule as a huge difference as much as the travel to the games, and making the game-day experience as smooth as possible.
“We’ve gone to every city now, so we have a little better idea as we’re learning on the fly as to when should we leave, where do we stop, and how do you deal with rest and sleep as a player, and when do you eat?,” Simon said. “It’s tough on these guys. Game days are a grind, it’s a long day, but it’s a heck of a lot better than the alternative of not playing.”
►No playoffs, no Calder Cup: There will be no Calder Cup awarded for the second consecutive year, as league owners felt the expense of having playoffs with no (or few) fans in the stands and little revenue coming in, simply wouldn’t be feasible.
There’s talk of having a division champion awarded, with short best-of-three series after the regular season.
No postseason is an adjustment.
“It’s definitely weird to have a season and you don’t play for a trophy at the end,” Cholowski said. “But at the end of the day we all still have to play hard and try to get to the next level and still have to go out and play your best.”
As pro athletes, the will to win is still there, despite the lack of playoffs.
“The more games you can win here, the culture we can create by being positive and learning what the winning mentality takes, that just skyrockets guys’ ability to go up to the next level,” Hicketts said. “You still want to win hockey games.”
►Development: With so few games, and a bit more practice time, there is added emphasis on development and getting better individually.
“There’s a bigger emphasis on practice and developing good habits,” Simon said. “As a coaching staff we’re holding them accountable and to a higher regard and standard.”
Hicketts felt there was more time available to train in the gym and get stronger.
Practices have been varied, whether concentrating on skill development, or scrimmaging, or team concepts, so as not to become stale or predictable.
►Winning still important: Through it all, a team wants to win and the Griffins are 8-4-2 (6-2-2 in their last 10), ranks high in several key team categories, and are overcoming any challenges the virus has put forth.
“Whether you’re a coach or player you want to be the best in your business,” Simon said. “We want to win the Central Division. That’s our goal, to be the team that lost the least amount of games to the virus.
“Definitely from day one to now we’ve improved as both individuals and as a team and I’m ecstatic with how professional the guys have been with regard to all these protocols. They should be commended for their efforts and results. They are making a commitment to each other and their careers.”
Considering some lower-level minor leagues aren’t playing, AHL players are thrilled to be in this position.
There was a possibility the AHL wouldn’t go on with this season, given the economics (the NHL helping out in certain areas was a major plus).
“We’re just happy to be playing,” Hicketts said. “It was a long off season and there were a lot of unknowns. It’s nice to be back here.”
Red Wings at Florida Panthers
►Faceoff: 7 p.m., Thursday, BB&T Center.
►TV/radio: Bally’s Sports Detroit/97.1 The Ticket.
►Outlook: The Red Wings (12-21-4) conclude a two-game series with the Panthers (23-9-4) … Florida won Tuesday, 4-1…. The Panthers have won nine of the last 11 games between the teams.