By Nelson Hubbell
A season that was almost over before it started, fans of the Grand Rapids Griffins will need to be patient to watch their team play in 2021.
The team opened the season in Chicago on Feb. 5, when the Griffins relinquished their early 1-0 lead with 3 unanswered goals by the Chicago Wolves. It was a sour start to the season, but the Griffins will try to return the favor to Chicago at 3 p.m. ET today, Thursday, Feb. 11.
While the puck has already dropped for the Griffins, this season will be far from customary.
“We won’t play for a Calder Cup in 2021,” said Tim Gortsema, the Griffins Team President. “We have not even decided if we’re going to have a playoffs this year.”
Considering how tough the decision to play this season was for team management and ownership, news of a largely altered schedule that eliminates a Calder Cup playoff race comes at no surprise – especially after three AHL teams opted out in January.
The Milwaukee Admirals, along with the Springfield ThunderBirds, and the Charlotte Checkers all decided to forgo the season. This was one of many straws that nearly broke the camel’s back. As a member of the Central Division with the Griffins, the Admirals were crucial to the Griffins’ schedule, with a significant number of face-offs scheduled between the teams. This was in part because of their proximity and the league’s effort to keep teams playing within their region.
With Milwaukee opting out, the Griffins decision hinged on the Chicago Wolves.
“Milwaukee, we knew fairly early that Milwaukee was likely not coming back, there was also a question mark whether Chicago was coming back,” Gortsmas said, adding that they needed to have “critical mass in the Midwest.”
Ultimately, Chicago decided to play the season, making the Griffins’ return a likelihood. The financials are another story though.
The Griffins, like most AHL teams, rely almost solely on ticket and merchandise sales to operate.
“The first two games, in February, we’re gonna largely keep it hockey friends and family.” Gortsema said. “…Starting March 13, we’ll likely open that up somewhat to our season ticket members and reach around that 500-person capacity and then we’ll go from there.” The Griffins will also be including cardboard cutouts of fans (which you can find out more about here https://griffinshockey.com/fancutouts). Crowd noise will also be played on the in-arena speaker system according to Randy Cleves, the Griffins’ Senior Director of Public Relations.
This severely limits the amount of money that the organization can make.
During the offseason, Gortsema said, “we really had no revenues coming in.”
The season was on the line, and the Detroit Red Wings and leaders in the Grand Rapids community stepped up.
“I think we’re grateful to both the Red Wings organization and the Griffins organization, the Illitch ownership and the DeVos, the Van Andel ownership – just the fact that they’ve given us the opportunity and the resources to come back,” said Griffins’ Head Coach Ben Simon, who added that there were more people than possible to thank for making this season happen.
Gortsema had similar sentiments in regard to those who made this pandemic altered season a possibility.
“If we have a season that’s no fan or close to no fan, as bad as the financials are, they’re worse when you’re gonna play games and incur travel costs and hockey equipment,” Gortsema said.
That’s where the Red Wings came in.
“Ultimately, they agreed to kind of step up and help bridge that gap and take on some of the significant cost that would be incremental to us playing hockey,” Gortsma said.
But with so few fans in attendance, where does that leave the partnerships that Grand Rapids Community College has made with the Griffins? Will students still be able to ride the Zamboni between periods? The answer to your question is no.
Because of the pandemic and the limited fan capacity, the Griffins and GRCC decided to honor students in a different way.
“The Griffins continue to be tremendous partners and want to continue to tell the stories of outstanding GRCC students. We’re working with the team to honor students by submitting photos for them to be turned into cardboard cutouts that will be in the stands during the games.” said Dave Murray, the GRCC Communications Director who also added, “We’ll be profiling all the students on social media.”
It seems that very little is the same this season, but hockey is being played and Griffins fans and the organization are just happy to have it back.
Although there may not be a Calder Cup race this year, and there won’t be nearly as many fans in Van Andel, hockey fans still have plenty of things to be grateful for with the Griffins’ returning to play.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 12:54 a.m. on Feb. 12 to clarify that GRCC students will not be riding the Zamboni between periods at Griffins games due to pandemic restrictions. The original story contained information previously released by the college that was no longer accurate.