The Griffins' Calder Cup championship banner was designed and manufactured locally – in the kitchen and living room of a Grandville seamstress.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Looking into the rafters of Van Andel Arena, names such as Picard, Miller, King, Howard, Hudler, Tatar and Nyquist may come to mind when one ponders the accomplishments of the various Griffins teams honored with division, conference and league titles.
But there's one name – the common thread that runs through all the banners – that remains unknown to most fans.
Jenn Bellgraph is the seamstress who has sewn those super-colossal tributes to the accomplishments of her hometown hockey team.
Hockey and stitches go together, most certainly in the world of Bellgraph, who was honored to be asked to create the giant red Calder Cup championship banner that now hangs inside the south end of Van Andel Arena. The commemorative banner is displayed alongside several traditional navy blue Griffins banners, all of which were handmade by Bellgraph in her Grandville home.
She admits she was thrilled when she got the latest call from Tim Gortsema, the Griffins' senior vice president of business operations. "I wasn't sure they would call me again, but the Calder Cup banner was something I had been thinking about since the playoffs last spring," she said.
She was honored by the challenge. She beamed with pride when she was allowed to be on the ice when the banner was raised before the team's home opener against Milwaukee on Oct. 18.
"It was very exciting – really cool just to be there," Bellgraph said. "To be a small part of all the pomp and circumstance, with the crowd going crazy, was very cool."
Bellgraph's talents are unusual, and it might seem like the chances of discovering her would be about as good as finding a needle in a haystack. However, she happened to be in the right place at the right time.
In the 1990s, Bellgraph was working for DP Fox Sports and Entertainment as an executive assistant before ownership had even started the fledgling franchise. When the organization sought quotes in 1996 from flag companies to display logo banners, she volunteered to do it for a fraction of the cost.
Bellgraph, whose handiwork usually consists of prom dresses and memory quilts, tackled the initial assignment as she has with subsequent requests when the Griffins have won division, conference or league titles, or when the organization retired the number of longtime player Travis Richards.
Working with an overhead projector, she beams pictures on fabric stretched out on a wall and stencils in the shapes of the desired logos and trophies. Over the years, she has accumulated the necessary templates for numbers and letters.
The 10-by-14-foot Calder Cup banner was a challenge because it was twice as big as any she had previously made, so large that the design literally draped her whole living room – not that her hockey-loving family minded.
Her husband, Brian, coaches the Grand Rapids Flames, the varsity hockey team of the Grand Rapids Public Schools that includes a number of players from the Grand Rapids Griffins Youth Foundation hockey program.
Her oldest son, Logan, 18, is a hockey referee when he's not running cross-country or track for Grandville High School. Eleven-year-old Ian, meanwhile, is a Grandville Middle School student who plays Pee Wee hockey.
"No one was allowed to come into the living room unless they were only wearing socks – and clean ones at that," Bellgraph said. "My husband had to clear out all the furniture so I had enough room. People thought it was cool to come over and be able to sit on our couch in the kitchen."
The kitchen is where Bellgraph does all her work. For the Calder Cup banner, she bought 19 yards of 60-inch wide duck cloth, a sturdy heavyweight fabric that is easier to sew than canvas. "I guess easy is a relative term," she admits.
She finds the work enjoyable, but stressful. "When I get going, I have to concentrate because it's a lot of math,” she said. “It's the same as creating a dress pattern, only on a much larger scale."
Working on the project at night and on weekends – Bellgraph is now a legal assistant at the law firm of Van Dam & Jesson PLC – she required about three weeks to complete the championship banner, as well as an additional week each for the team's division and conference title banners.
She finished with a week to spare, although not without some stress. "I came down with an upper respiratory infection where I couldn't get out of bed," she said. "I was relieved when everything was finished."
Watching the players raise the banner to the rafters is an experience she will never forget. "To be invited onto the ice was an amazing thrill," she said, noting that she would gladly do it again.
The Griffins are hoping to give her that opportunity.