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Blashill eager for challenge of coaching Red Wings

by Mike G. Morreale

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich.-- It was strange not seeing Jeff Blashill behind the bench as coach for the Detroit Red Wings prospects at the Traverse City Tournament this year at Centre Ice Arena.

It was a position he held the past three seasons as the coach for Detroit's American Hockey League affiliate in Grand Rapids. But that changed on June 9 when the 41-year-old was introduced as coach of the Red Wings by general manager Ken Holland.

In Grand Rapids, Blashill won the 2013 Calder Cup, was named the AHL coach of the year in 2014, and reached the Western Conference Final in 2014-15. He also led the organization's top prospects, which included Tomas Jurco, Riley Sheahan and Anthony Mantha, to their first Traverse City tournament championship on Sept. 9, 2013.

Instead of instructing the prospects this year, Blashill was behind the scenes, watching and evaluating, a role held by Mike Babcock for the past 10 seasons when he coached the Red Wings before taking the same position with the Toronto Maple Leafs on May 20. Blashill, an assistant coach with the Red Wings in 2011-12, said he owes a lot to Babcock.

At the same time, Blashill, the second-youngest coach in the NHL behind John Hynes of the New Jersey Devils (40), has a solid connection with many of the young players on Detroit's roster or on the verge of being promoted from Grand Rapids this season.

One such player on the cusp of making the jump to the NHL is center Dylan Larkin, a first-round selection (No. 15) in the 2014 NHL Draft. Larkin played six AHL playoff games last season after signing his entry-level contract on May 21.

"He's a great coach," Larkin said of Blashill. "He's really easy to talk to when away from the rink, and at the rink he's really serious. He has a real good switch and knows his players and knows how they're feeling. He cares about them and I think when it's like that it's much easier to play for him, listen to him and buy into what he's saying."

Blashill recently took some time to sit down with for a Q&A.

What was the most important thing you learned under Mike Babcock?

It's difficult to put into words one thing that I learned from Mike. I think I've been fortunate enough to work with some really good people, really good coaches, and certainly Mike is right at the top of that list. I learned tons of different things. As you go through it and are living it, you can't necessarily point out one or two things. You just keep learning and learning. I think there's no question that his preparation and attention to detail was something I recognized as a vital reason for his success. I think I had some of that going in but it was probably amped up having had the chance to work under him for the year. During my three years in Grand Rapids, our relationship was such that I talked to him so much and learned a ton at that time as well.

How important is it for you to have a familiarity with a lot of the young players on this team?

I think it helps the transition but by no means does it guarantee success. I feel it does help the transition and there's a respect earned both ways. I think I had the opportunity to earn the respect of a lot of the guys I've coached and vice-versa. They've had the opportunity to earn a lot of my respect. When you start a job without knowing anybody, it's a process to earn that respect. We can hit the ground running with some of that earned respect entering this year.

What do you anticipate from free agent acquisitions Mike Green and Brad Richards?

They both have been elite players in the National Hockey League, so anytime you add guys that are proven elite players at this level I think that's a great positive. I also think that both of them will fit into our sense in that we're all about winning. Individual accomplishment comes second to winning in the Detroit Red Wings organization and both these guys understand that and will help complement that culture that's been created. I think both of them are great fits within our lineup and they have a chance to have big years.

How nervous are you for the home opener against Mike Babcock and the Toronto Maple Leafs on Oct. 9?

I've had the opportunity to take lots of different jobs. I think anytime you're taking a new job, you have that lump in your throat to make sure you're prepared. First impressions are huge but it's also what drives you. It's what gets you up early, it's what drives you to do the work it takes to be prepared. It'll be fun. The one thing about it is I'll stand on that bench and I'm going to enjoy it. I enjoy coaching. I'm a big believer in enjoying and living life, and I'll certainly enjoy that moment.

How much will you rely on captain Henrik Zetterberg throughout the season?

My management style has always been getting the perspective from a number of different people, whether they are assistant coaches, trainers, and certainly players. I've been fortunate to have players that I have great trust in, that care about the team success. When they are giving me their opinions, it's not about what's best for the player, it's about what's best for the team. I know for sure that's what [Zetterberg] will give me. I'll lean on him a ton throughout the season, as I have with all the captains I've had throughout my time. I leaned on Jeff Hoggan for three seasons in the American Hockey League [in Grand Rapids]. But I'd also say it's [Zetterberg], Niklas Kronwall, Pavel Datsyuk and a lot of other guys. I'm someone who wants to get the perspective of the players. They're the ones playing and if you believe in them and believe that the input you'll get back is about team first, you get as much as you can from them.


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