Being part of a league that’s suspended and not canceled has left the Grand Rapids Griffins in similar limbo with unanswered questions in unchartered territory.
“This has never happened before; there’s no script to follow or any certain way to handle it,” Griffins captain and player rep Matthew Ford said.
The Griffins haven’t played since Wednesday and, officially, lost home games last Friday and Saturday. The AHL announced Thursday afternoon the season was “suspended,” following the lead of the NHL in reacting to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Griffins have 11 games left scheduled in the regular season.
There’s no playbook how to proceed, beyond precautions and general guidelines Griffins coaches and players have received from the league. Players are expected to keep in shape but they’re not allowed to assemble as a team or use Van Andel Arena – most haven’t been able to get their equipment from the arena – and discouraged from workouts in large gatherings.
Similarly, the league has told the front office no practices or meetings, so coaches such as the Griffins’ Ben Simon are trying to get and share information as quickly as they get it.
“I think for the players it’s more a sense of confusion; what’s going to happen next?” Ford said.
“Players, training staff, coaches, everyone asks, ‘So, what are we supposed to do?” Simon said.
The Griffins’ players stay in contact through an app that’s essentially a group chat. Ford, along with Brian Lashoff and Dylan McIlrath form the Griffins’ leadership team who ensure information from the Detroit Red Wings and messages from Simon are relayed and disseminated.
The app, which has been around a couple years more for logistics with practices and travel, has taken on a broader importance for communication given the diversity of the team.
“I’m trying to make sure the guys are as informed as possible, answer details that I can and not make rumors – just try to give the guys a heads up of what to expect,” Ford said. “We have players from all over, and some new to the team, looking to know what’s next.”
Maintaining wages and benefits was a big concern among players, Ford said.
“Obviously, that’s one of the first things that comes up in conversations, but as of right now, we are,” he said.
Each day that passes it becomes apparent a “normal season” won’t happen, especially if the players are unable to skate, let alone stay in top condition. Ford said, “as far as he knows,” all team members are still in the Grand Rapids area. It’s unclear if the AHL would follow the NHL, or a different plan put in place. The ECHL, meanwhile, canceled it season Sunday.
“On an individual level, guys are being told not to go to the gym or go to the rink but are asked to stay in shape,” Ford said. “That can’t be easy if you’re staying in an 800-square-foot apartment in Grand Rapids. It’s not warm out, but you have to find a way to do something to stay in shape.
“They talk about when or if we come back, we could have a short period of practices. Well, that would be comparable to a training camp phase. But you think about guys are on the ice six days a week leading up to a training camp. Outside of when the season ends and guys take a month or two off, no one spends substantial time off the ice. That’s where we are now, so it really is unchartered territory to be doing this as a whole group.”
The Griffins are 29-27-3-4 with 65 points and, if the league opted to end the season and go right into a postseason, they would make it. They sit in third place, two points ahead of Chicago and Rockford.
“Given how quickly everything shut down, I don’t think there was much thought into what any kind of remaining season there might be,” Simon said. “From a health standpoint, they had to move quickly. But now, I’m sure there are questions being asked and it will be interesting to see how they attack that component of it.”
Meantime, there’s work that can be done for the coaches.
“It’s tough without games and practices but we can always find stuff,” Simon said. “We can study young players who may be coming down the pipeline next year, potential free agents for next year, assessing where the team is and, if there’s a playoff, what our roster might look like. In that regard, it’s not a bad time to self-reflect.”