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IRELAND FINDS A HOME IN GRAND RAPIDS

By Denver Parler

The Grand Rapids Griffins’ 2003 off-season search for a new assistant coach led them to Ireland. Greg Ireland, that is.

Hiring the Orangeville, Ontario, native has proven a smart move for the Griffins. Ireland brought his wares to Grand Rapids after having served as general manager of hockey operations and head coach of the ECHL’s Dayton Bombers for five seasons. During that span, he became the winningest coach in the franchise’s history.

That savvy was a key factor in the Griffins’ decision to tap Ireland for the assistant coach position. “We were looking for someone who had quite a bit of experience and could bring a lot of hockey knowledge, and that’s something Greg has brought,” said Griffins head coach Danton Cole.

Since joining the Griffins, Ireland has been putting his know-how to work with the team’s defense. The 2003-04 season, Ireland’s first with Grand Rapids, saw the Griffins surrender a franchise-low 166 goals, a 2.08 average that ranked the Griffins fourth in the AHL.

Ireland takes a team-based approach to constructing his defense. “I’m a believer that defense is not a two-man or a three-man position, it’s a six-man position,” said Ireland. In this approach, every player, regardless of position, is instrumental to the system’s success.

Constructing a team-based defense also allows all players to share credit for accomplishments. Grand Rapids goalie Joey MacDonald notched his franchise-best 13th shutout in December, and although he doesn’t diminish MacDonald’s outstanding play in the net, Ireland says “The whole team shares in that [feat].”

The stellar defensive numbers put up by the Griffins reflect the hard work that Ireland has put into instructing his players and into breaking down game film.

It’s common to find Ireland putting in extra time with his players. “He grabs the young guys and the defensemen [after practice], and a lot of the progress those guys make is a direct result of what Greg does with them,” said Cole.

Ireland uses teachable moments to instruct his players, rather than risk overloading them with information. “I don’t like to overwhelm guys with a lot of things, but when there’s a poignant opportunity to say something, I try to do that. I try to make sure that it’s short, sweet and direct,” Ireland said.

For the last three years, Ireland has been using digital copies of game film to help make his points with players. He digitally breaks game tape down for quick reference, organizing film into specific scenarios such as penalty kills, power plays, goals scored against and goaltender saves.

This practice allows Ireland to consolidate the film, enabling Cole and himself to teach through film more conveniently. “Video is a great teaching tool,” said Ireland. “You can tell somebody, and they might understand. But if you can show them, take them out onto the ice and walk them through it, they’re not going to forget it.”

Digital film not only benefits the Griffins for teaching reasons, but also improves the process of breaking down games for the coaching staff.

Speed and efficiency are hallmarks of breaking down game film digitally. “We can get feedback to the players much quicker, while it’s still fresh in their mind,” said Cole. “Greg does a great job with that.”

Ireland’s excellence in coaching reaches into the sport of lacrosse. Having coached junior and midget lacrosse teams to Canadian national championships, Ireland finds principles from lacrosse that benefit his hockey instruction.

Implementing pick-and-rolls and soft picks into the Griffins’ power play displays this lacrosse influence. Ireland emphasizes the value of adapting principles from one sport to another, saying that his lacrosse experience has been very helpful to him as a hockey coach.

Undoubtedly, Ireland has been an asset to the Griffins throughout his first two seasons with the team. Grand Rapids has also treated Ireland and his family well.

“We’ve made a great adjustment. We love the community,” Ireland said. In addition to his involvement in youth hockey schools, his wife, Erin, is involved in the community through church and school, while their two sons, Jake and Brennan, participate in local youth sports. “We really like the atmosphere of Grand Rapids; it’s been nothing but a great experience.”

The Griffins can say the same to Ireland.

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