By Pete Wallner, MLive.com
GRAND RAPIDS - Todd Nelson, who returned to a familiar location with a bar set absurdly high when he took over as head coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins just shy of two years ago, got his payoff Tuesday as he hoisted the Calder Cup Trophy.
The 48-year-old Nelson was almost reluctant, as players chanted his name in taking turns raising the trophy during the celebration at Van Andel Arena following the title-clinching 4-3 win against the Syracuse Crunch.
But, he hoisted away, taking a small spin before happily passing it off and enjoying the moment of others.
"You almost feel like a proud father," he said.
The same is true of the franchise when it comes to him. The victory sealed his place as one of the all-time franchise greats - and he already had a foothold. Nelson was the first player ever drafted by the Griffins when they formed in 1996 and was an assistant on the 2002-03 team that reached the Western Conference Finals.
Now he is the second Griffins coach to ever hoist the Cup.
"This one is extra special because of the connection and because it's the first one in the American Hockey League," Nelson said. "Been close a lot of times. It's unbelievable. Hard to describe it, but it never gets old."
The victory was fulfillment of a difficult challenge for Nelson. He followed the immensely popular Jeff Blashill after the 2015 season after Blashill was named head coach of the Detroit Red Wings. At the time, Nelson was coming off a stint as interim coach of the Edmonton Oilers and was initially hoping for an opportunity to coach in the NHL.
When nothing materialized, he became the top choice of the Griffins and was introduced with a three-year contract in hand on June 19, 2015. And based on his reaction after the Griffins finished off Syracuse in six games, he felt like he made the right choice.
"Yeah, there was a lot of pressure, a lot of pressure to fill what Blash did," he said. "That adds to it. It's a really fulfilling moment."
Veteran forward Mitch Callahan experienced a Calder Cup with both.
"He's a great coach to play hockey for," Callahan said. "He always seems to know when a player needs a rest, needs a kick in the ass and always has us prepared."
With the victory, Nelson joined elite company extending beyond the Griffins. He became just the third to win the Calder Cup as a player (with Portland in 1994), an assistant (with Chicago in 2008) and head coach. He joined Bob Woods with Hershey in 1997, 2006, 2009 and Mike Stothers with Maine in 1984, Philadelphia in 1998 and Manchester in 2015.
This year's trophy marked his sixth championship. Besides the three above, he won the 2002 UHL Colonial Cup with Muskegon as a player/coach in 2002 and in 2004 and 05 won titles as Muskegon's head coach.
It also put Nelson over the hump in the AHL. Before he came to Grand Rapids (minus to stint with the Oilers), he coached Oklahoma City four seasons and reached the conference finals twice. His team was eliminated by the Griffins in 2013.
Now with a season left on his contract with the Griffins, Nelson's stock has never been higher. For as long as they have him, the Griffins are just glad he decided to come back and add an exclamation mark to his legacy here.