KALAMAZOO, Mich. - Griffen Molino's hockey career has come full circle.
The standout Western Michigan University forward grew up in Trenton Mich., playing at Joe Louis Arena with the Little Caesars Amateur Hockey Association, and now, Molino will get the chance to return to The Joe for the 2016 Great Lakes Invitational.
Molino, a 22-year-old sophomore and lifelong Red Wings fan, said he was extremely fortunate to grow up less than 20 miles from Joe Louis Arena.
"It was unbelievable," he said. "I couldn't have picked a better place to grow up, from a hockey standpoint. Even my hometown is a huge hockey town, and obviously the Wings are legendary."
Molino said he enjoyed beginning his hockey career at The Joe and relished the opportunity to develop his game in such a historic venue.
"It was really special, something not a lot of kids got to experience," Molino said. "Playing where the Red Wings play was an incredible honor. Being able to practice on the same sheet and running into players from time to time is so cool when you're young. So many other kids are practicing at normal recreational rinks and you get to skate at The Joe, so it's pretty special. I never took that for granted."
After playing juniors for two seasons in the USHL, recording 103 points, Molino went undrafted out of Trenton High School, but signed with Western Michigan before last season.
Molino quickly found his role as a goal scorer for the Broncos in 2015-16, leading the team with 11 goals and 14 assists as a freshman.
But the successful individual start to his Western Michigan career didn't result in a lot of team success as the Broncos suffered through a disappointing 8-25-3 campaign last season.
After a strenuous offseason, however, and an impactful recruiting class, Western Michigan has rebounded to start the 2016-17 season with an 8-5-3 record going into the GLI, and Molino said his team has a renewed confidence.
"I think a lot of things have come together very well for us to bounce back. We obviously didn't perform like we wanted to last year," Molino said. "We came back this year with a lot more players willing to sacrifice for the betterment of the team. We added some really great freshman who have performed pretty well for us so far."
Western Michigan returns to the GLI for its fifth appearance all-time and the first since winning the MacInnes Cup in 2013 outdoors at Comerica Park as part of the Hockeytown Winter Festival.
Broncos head coach Andy Murray said it's an honor to be in the field for the final GLI at The Joe.
"It's always a privilege to play in the Great Lakes Invitational and it's a tremendous opportunity to play in the final one at Joe Louis Arena," Murray said. "The Joe will always hold a special place in Western Michigan hockey history, and we are excited to get one last opportunity to play there."
Western Michigan enters the GLI with one of the most prolific offenses in the country, ranking eighth in the nation with an average of 3.44 goals per game, and Molino said the Broncos are coming into the GLI with high expectations.
"I think we're going into the tournament expecting to win," he said. "We know we have a really good team, and last time we were there, we won. Obviously I wasn't on that team, but it's still something that we want to defend."
Molino, who still maintains a relationship with longtime Joe Louis Arena operations manager Al Sobotka and several arena employees, said he's looking forward to returning to the arena where he grew up.
"I'm really, really, really excited," he said. "I'm going to have a bunch of people there watching, and I went every single year when I was younger. It's a really great turnout usually, so I'm pretty excited."
Molino said playing at Joe Louis Arena again is a great honor, and coming away with the MacInnes Cup in the Farewell Season at The Joe would make his homecoming that much sweeter.
"I'm really looking forward to it," he said. "I've been around that place a long time and I've skated a lot on that ice, and to be part of the last Great Lakes Invitational at The Joe is something I never would've imagined. But it's something I'm really excited to be a part of and hopefully we can send it out on the right note with a Western win."