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Wired for success, Blashill is new coach

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
In three seasons as head coach of the Red Wings' AHL affiliate in Grand Rapids, Jeff Blashill earned a 134-71-23 record with the Griffins. (Photo by Dan Mannes/Detroit Red Wings)

DETROIT – Jim and Rosemary Blashill couldn’t have known then that their decision to move a young family out of Detroit for the northeastern end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula would one day produce the 27th head coach in Red Wings franchise history.

The Blashills, who spent a good portion of the past 40 years in Sault Ste. Marie, will come full circle when their eldest son, Jeff, who was introduced as head coach of the storied club at a news conference Tuesday morning at Joe Louis Arena.

“We’re excited about it,” Rosemary said last week. “For me I just want Jeff to be happy and doing what he wants to do and fulfilling his dream in life.”

Blashill’s hiring is of historic significance to the National Hockey League’s Original Six member.

The 41-year-old is the first American-born head coach in club history, and just the third from Michigan to lead one of Detroit’s four major sports teams.

Basketball hall of famer Dave DeBusschere, who grew up on Detroit’s east side, coached the NBA’s Pistons from 1964-67. Steve Mariucci grew up with Michigan State men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo in Iron Mountain and coached the NFL’s Lions from 2003-05.

Blashill is the ninth head coach hired by Wings owners Mike and Marian Ilitch, and the youngest since they appointed Buffalo Sabres assistant Nick Polano as their first head coach in 1982 – just two months after they purchased the club from the Norris family.

Ever since Mike Babcock left to coach the Toronto Maple Leafs last month – and quite honestly, even before then – speculation swirled over the likelihood of Blashill taking over as Babcock’s successor. However, Red Wings general manager Ken Holland was in no hurry to make the announcement with Blashill still coaching the Grand Rapids Griffins – the Red Wings’ AHL affiliate – in the Calder Cup playoffs.

The Griffins were eliminated last week, losing the best-of-seven Western Conference finals to the Utica Comets in six games.

“It’s been active,” said Jim Blashill of the past few weeks. “Folks have stopped us as we’ve been in stores and various places and have talked to us about (the pending hire).”

For the past four years, folks in Sault Ste. Marie championed the idea that Jeff Blashill would one day grab the reins behind the Wings’ bench. Of course, Yoopers – as residents of the U.P are called – bustled with pride when the Wings hired Blashill as an assistant on Babcock’s staff in 2011.

Before then, Blashill, a former goalie at Ferris State University, spent three seasons as an assistant coach at his alma mater before joining Miami University in Ohio as an assistant in 2002. Six years later he became head coach of the USHL's Indiana Ice, winning the championship in his first season. He then took over the program at Western Michigan University in 2010, where he coached Danny DeKeyser, and led the Broncos to their first NCAA tournament in 15 years.

A call from Babcock in 2011 changed Blashill’s course and a year later he lead the Griffins to the Calder Cup championship in the American Hockey League.

Not a bad start for Blashill who won two championships in two different leagues in his first four seasons behind a bench of any kind.

Now Blashill is the second-youngest head coach behind an NHL bench. Only John Hynes, 40, who was hired last week by the New Jersey Devils is younger.

“My gosh, people were excited (when he became a Wings assistant),” Rosemary said. “We would go to church and then go out to breakfast up there and so, so many people would come up and they were so excited that Jeff was an assistant with the Red Wings. And of course, the Red Wings used to practice in the Soo and the people in the Soo really believe that is Hockeytown. So, they were so excited. I think they’ll be really excited with him being the coach.”

Just a toddler in 1975, Jeff Blashill with his older sisters, Lisa and Debbie, in front of the family home on Fielding Street on Detroit's west side. (Photo courtesy of the Blashill family)

HOCKEY’S FAMILY AFFAIR

On Dec. 10, 1973, Rosemary Blashill gave birth to the couple’s third of four children. Jeff was born at Providence Hospital in suburban Southfield, and later joined his older sisters Debbie and Lisa in the family’s bungalow on Fielding Street in the Old Redford neighborhood of Detroit’s west side.

Two years later, Jim took a leap of faith by moving the family six hours north. He quit his job as a sergeant in the Detroit police department to become a professor of criminal justice at Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie. There the Blashills raised their three kids, and welcomed a fourth, Timothy, in 1976.

The situation was unique, to say the least. The Blashills moved into a house on campus across from then-university president Kenneth Shouldice. Back then it was common for facility members and their families to live in the row houses on campus, and the young Blashill kids took full advance of the amenities that awaited them.

It’s there that the family also received their baptism into hockey.

“My dad hadn’t played hockey, didn’t know a lot about hockey,” said Tim Blashill, assistant director of athletic facilities for Ferris State University in Big Rapids. “Then once he got to the Soo it was full immersion into hockey, so it certainly set us on our course.”

PHOTO GALLERY:
Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill

There were the street hockey games in the parking lot behind the Blashill’s home. Almost immediately, Jeff took to goaltending, where his first goal crease was the area in front of the dumpster in the parking lot.

Players from the Lakers team would often join in on the street hockey fun too. The players lived up the street, in a row house just a few doors down, so periodically, guys like Steve Mulholland, Mickey Candler, Chris Dahlquist, Scott Stephens, Pete Stauber, Sandy Moger and Karl Johnston would stop by and test Jeff Blashill’s budding goaltender skills.

“As you can imagine our backyard there, the parking lot,’ Tim Blashill said. “We used to play street hockey and do things and a lot of the Lakers would come out and play. It was certainly unique, and Lake State hockey was a big part of our lives growing up.”

It was also common to find the Blashill boys during the harsh winter months skating on the ice rink constructed by university maintenance workers in front of the president’s residence.

“The staff there took really good care of us,” Tim said. “They did it right. They had all of the equipment and it was probably one of the nicer pond rinks you could skate on. It was great too because they had the flood lights on campus, so they would stay on all night and we would play for quite awhile.”

Rosemary Burns, as she was known before marrying Jim Blashill, knew less about hockey than her husband. She grew up in Hubbardston, an Irish farming village that straddles Ionia and Clinton counties northwest of Lansing.

“I knew nothing about hockey growing up,” said Rosemary, who had six classmates in her high school graduating class.

But once her sons were immersed in the sport, the family was hooked.

“Hockey became a family experience,” Rosemary said.

Hockey eventually took Rosemary’s oldest son out of the Soo. After his freshman year at Sault Ste. Marie High School, Jeff left the Upper Peninsula for Des Moines, Iowa, where he played three seasons for the Buccaneers in the United States Hockey League (1991-94).

Wherever Jeff played, the Blashill family followed, whether it was Des Moines and Big Rapids, or along Jeff’s coaching trail, which has taken him to Oxford, Ohio; Indianapolis; Kalamazoo; Detroit; Grand Rapids; and now, back to Detroit.

“You get lots of criticism sometimes for putting your children in sports and doing whatever, but hockey for us become a very big family celebration,” Rosemary said. “We would go to Des Moines and we would take whoever was left at home with us, and neighbors, and then Lisa and Steve (her husband) had a baby by that time and they would come down, and we would all stay in a hotel together. It’s all been a wonderful experience all the way through. When the boys would have games the girls would always go to. It’s just been a wonderful family experience for us.”

Known as "Blash the Flash" during his junior days in Des Moines, Iowa, he earned the distinction of playing on two national championship teams. His first was with Lynn Auto as a Tier II Pee Wee. His second was with Des Moines in 1991-92. (Photo courtesy of Tim Blashill)

SETTING HIS COURSE

It was quite clear at an early age that Jeff Blashill wouldn’t settle for ordinary during his lifetime.

“He might have been eight or so,” Rosemary said. “Jim’s dad would just look at him and just say, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s a thinker.’ I think that’s always the way Jeff has been. He wouldn’t stop until he always progressed to be better than he was yesterday.”

A very bright young man, Jeff managed to juggle the rigors of being a true student-athlete at his two secondary schools. He attended classes at Valley High School in West Des Moines during the USHL season, and returned to Soo High when the Buccaneers weren’t in season.

A straight-A student, Blashill went to Ferris State University, where he pursued a finance degree. It was there, a close friend and former teammate, Seth Appert, says Blashill would have finished college with a perfect grade-point average if not for one misstep.

“I think I’m still blamed for convincing him that he didn’t need to take the optional final because he always got an A in everything,” said Appert, the head coach at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). “I think we went on a road trip instead, so he blames his lack of a 4.0 (GPA) on myself.

“What I like to remind him of is that I have my master’s degree. So he can take his 3.99 but I’m the higher-educated man of the friendship.”

By Blashill’s junior season at Ferris it was clear that if he were to make it to the NHL it wasn’t going to be as a player. As a two-year starter for the Bulldogs, he compiled a 4.07 goals-against average and a .848 save percentage in 78 career games. Certainly, those aren’t numbers that make a prospect’s name jump to the top of any scout’s must-have list.

However, what skills he lacked as a goaltending prospect he made up for in an analytical knowledge and desire that would one day make him a coaching candidate in the NHL.

“I think the coaching began when (FSU coach) Bob Daniels gave him a chance to be a coach at Ferris,” Rosemary said. “He’s always thought to do better tomorrow than he did today.”

Appert calls Blashill is best friend in hockey. Both were goaltenders, and they just struck a chord when they first met on the Ferris campus. It was clear that Blashill made an immediate impression that still resonates more than 20 years later.

“He had an incredibly strong work ethic, high, high compete level and a high want to be great at whatever it was that he was doing, whether that was academics, whether that was in our off-ice training or on the ice,” Appert said. “He was also a great teammate. Those are things that right away I could tell about him and that I really liked about him.”

Last July, Appert accepted an invitation to work with Blashill at the Red Wings’ annual development camp attended by the team’s young prospects and 2014 draft picks in Traverse City.

Everything Appert was glad to see that everything he’s grown to admire about his friend was front and center at the week-long camp in northern Michigan.

“He combines a real passion for the game of hockey and a real love for teaching hockey with an incredible attention to detail about what he believes in,” Appert said. “He has real strong convictions and a really strong belief in what’s right and how to play the game and how a team needs to play to win. Then he balances that, I think, by treating his players very well and he treats them like men. He’s hard on them. He’s demanding of them. But I think he treats player how players would want to be treated. Hold them to high standards, but treat them like men.”

Jim Blashill believes his son has worked his entire adult life for his shot at the NHL. And that time is now.

“When he went to Western I thought he was set for life,” Jim Blashill said. “He had a really good situation there. He bought a house on a golf course in Portage, really seemed to like Western and the atmosphere. Then when Mike Babcock called him that was a shock certainly. I didn’t know if he’d take the job of not. I thought he was really happy there in college hockey. But I asked him about it and he said ‘You know, I want to try and coach at the highest level. I know a lot of people wouldn’t leave the situation, but I’m wired differently.’ That kind of resonated with me. He is wired differently.”

Seth Appert (right) calls Jeff Blashill his best friend in hockey. The former Ferris State teammates also met their eventual wives Erica Blashill (left) and Jill Appert (right) when the four were students in Big Rapids, Mich. (Photo courtesy of Seth Appert)

THE BLASHILL FILE

WHO: The 27th head coach of the Detroit Red Wings.

BORN: Dec. 10, 1973, in Southfield, Michigan (41 years old).

RAISED: In Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. His father was a longtime professor of criminal justice/fire science at Lake Superior State, retiring as dean in 2008. His mother continues to work as a nurse practitioner.

FAMILY: He met his wife, Erica, while they were both students at Ferris State. They couple has three young children, Teddy, Josie and Owen.

COLLEGE: Was a two-year starting goaltender at Ferris State (1994-98), where he earned a bachelor’s degree in finance.

CAREER: Ferris State assistant (1999-2002), University of Miami assistant (2002-08), Indiana Ice head coach (2008-10), Western Michigan head coach (2010-11), Red Wings assistant (2011-12), Griffins head coach (2012-15).

WINGS CONNECTIONS: There are 15 players on the Red Wings’ roster who were members of the team when Blashill was an assistant in 2011-12. They are forwards Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Daniel Cleary, Darren Helm, Drew Miller, Justin Abdelkader, Gustav Nyquist, Riley Sheahan; defensemen Niklas Kronwall, Jakub Kindl, Jonathan Ericsson, Brendan Smith, Kyle Quincey; and goalie Jimmy Howard.

Another 15 Red Wings played for Blashill in Grand Rapids. They are Nyquist, Sheahan, Smith, Tomas Tatar, Landon Ferraro, Tomas Jurco, Joakim Andersson, Luke Glendening, Petr Mrazek, Teemu Pulkkinen, Danny DeKeyser, Jonas Gustavsson, Alexey Marchenko, Xavier Ouellet and Stephen Weiss.

MICHIGAN MADE: Becomes the first American-born head coach in Red Wings franchise history. He’ll be the third head coach to lead one of Detroit’s major professional sports. Basketball hall of famer Dave DeBusschere (Detroit) coached the NBA’s Pistons from 1964-67. Steve Mariucci (Iron Mountain) coached the NFL’s Lions from 2003-05.

NOTEWORTHY: Blashill has a winning reputation having compiled a 225-127-10-28 (W-L-T-OTL) overall record as a head coach for a .626 winning percentage at three different levels. He led Indiana Ice to the Clark Cup championship in his first USHL season. In his first season with the Griffins, they won the Calder Cup. He also coached the Red Wings’ young stars to the NHL Prospects Tournament championship in Sept. 2012.

NOTEWORTHY II: Blashill is the first head coach hired by Detroit who has never previously been an NHL player or head coach since Nick Polano, who was the first coach hired by the team when Mike and Marian Ilitch originally purchased the Red Wings franchise in 1982. … Like Wings general manager Ken Holland, who also is a former goaltender, Blashill is the first ex-netminder ever hired to coach the Wings.

GRIFFINS RESUME

  • 2013 Calder Cup championship, the franchise’s first in 17 seasons.
  • Two Midwest Division crowns, in 2012-13 and 2014-15.
  • Was named 2013-14 AHL Coach of the Year.
  • First coach in franchise history to secure playoff berths in three consecutive seasons.
  • The Griffins reached the AHL Western Conference semifinals in three straight years; and two conference finals appearances.
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