By Jason Pearson, griffinshockey.com
The Grand Rapids Griffins had a lot happening on Friday, Oct. 6. It was the first game of the new campaign, which meant a sold-out Van Andel Arena for the 22nd consecutive home opener. As defending Calder Cup champions, they also raised their 2017 title banner to the rafters.
Fifth-year pro and Griffins newcomer Turner Elson good-naturedly stepped aside while his teammates – those 18 players who returned to Grand Rapids’ roster after helping the franchise capture its second Calder Cup in the last five seasons in exhilarating fashion last June – experienced some closure to their championship celebration.
The winger waited patiently during the ceremony but refrained from showing any of that same patience once the game started, wasting little time in displaying his capabilities to help Grand Rapids make what potentially could be a sixth-straight extended postseason run this coming spring.
The banner-raising storyline was going to be hard to top from the local media, but Elson did his best by establishing a professional career high with four points behind a goal and three helpers.
“I wasn’t expecting that from me,” Elson told reporters after the opening game outburst. “I just wanted to go out there and show that I can be here, be a part of this team and produce for this team.”
Tied for Grand Rapids’ scoring lead through the team’s first six games, Elson is on pace to surpass his career-high point total of 30, which he reached in each of his last two full AHL seasons, most recently in 2015-16 with the Stockton Heat. Part of what he attributes to his strong opening-game statement was his pure excitement for the new season. A new, healthy season.
Born in New Westminster, British Columbia, the 25-year-old Elson signed a free-agent contract with Detroit this past July, the third organization in his career and second in as many years. After going undrafted and spending the first three years pro in Calgary’s system, which included one appearance with the Flames at the end of the 2015-16 season, Elson signed with Colorado in the summer of 2016.
He got off to a productive start, registering two points in four games, with Colorado’s AHL affiliate in San Antonio before his season became injury-plagued.
“I was playing through some pain, tight hips and stuff like that,” he recounted. After the fourth game, during which Elson turned in his first goal of the season, he consulted with the trainer regarding what he was feeling. That next morning, “I couldn’t curl my stomach to get out of bed, so my buddies had to pull me out and bring me to the rink.”
After it was initially thought that he had tendinitis on the pubic bone, a second opinion in Denver determined that the 6-foot, 195-pounder needed sports hernia surgery in addition to having a tendon removed from his groin, in an effort to help relieve some stress from his hip flexors.
Sidelined in San Antonio, Elson’s rehab process was aided by the Texas sun, “lots of video games” and four Rampage roommates. As the days turned to weeks and the season wore on, Elson took note of both his AHL club’s and the parent Avalanche’s progress as both squads struggled to sub-.500 records.
“I think that made me want to get back quicker to try to get the opportunity to do something,” he said. “Both clubs weren’t doing great so I thought if I can get back and play well, I can maybe make the jump.”
Elson made his return to the Rampage lineup exactly 20 weeks after his fourth game of the season. But as he’s quick to point out, pain still subsisted and his comeback was too soon.
“It was just the wrong call and I understand that now,” Elson said. “Now I’ve learned from that call of trying to push too early to come back and now I know I have to make sure I listen to my body.
“I’ve played through pain and I’ve learned what not to play through, so it was a good process for a learning experience.”
Signing a one-year deal with Detroit on the first day of free agency this summer, Elson took a look at the defending champs’ roster to see where he could fit in.
As someone whom his Red Deer teammates called “meat” for his propensity to fight during his days in the Western Hockey League – nearly 30 times combined in his first two junior seasons – Elson isn’t looking for a scrap every time anymore, but he still maintains his physical style of play to go along with a solid skill set.
He notes that while he put up 30-point seasons in both 2014-15 and 2015-16, his role on each club varied.
“In Stockton I played two different roles, I was a centerman and a winger,” he explained. “I was a top-six winger and a bottom-six center so I got the best of both sides and I learned a lot that year. Even though I had the same points, I still improved more as a player.”
Joining a championship squad isn’t a completely foreign experience for him as he already has a title on his resume, a 2014 ECHL Kelly Cup with the Alaska Aces during his first full year pro. That Aces team defeated a Cincinnati Cyclones club coached by Ben Simon, who is now in his third season as a Griffins assistant on Todd Nelson’s staff.
“You definitely see the fundamentals in both and you understand why they were championship teams,” said Elson. “The Kelly Cup team I played on, I never saw a group of guys that was so tight-knit, always hung out, lots of communication, there weren’t any guys left out. Coming to this place, you understand that that’s what they are (champions). They’re always together, they’re tight-knit. Guys are inviting guys over for dinner with their families. It’s just a really good organization and a good locker room.”
The second youngest of five brothers – “it was always a tough household to get some food in,” he laughed – Elson has slid into a role with the Griffins that closely resembles where he envisioned himself. He’s played nearly every shift alongside Colin Campbell and his roommate, Dominic Turgeon, on the third line.
“When I was looking at it after their Calder Cup win and I signed, I looked at their roster and saw myself sitting like I am, a third-line player that can get in on points and be a big-time checker on first lines, which we are. I’m set where I am and I don’t mind where I go in the lineup. I just want to make sure I’m playing hard and giving our team the best chance to win.”
The trio has displayed immediate chemistry, as Elson joined the Campbell and Turgeon pair that spent a good amount of time skating on the same line last season. Campbell ties Elson for the team lead in points while Turgeon is just one point behind.
“Both are great players and have unbelievable vision,” Elson said. “One’s a young player, one’s a little bit older than me but they both think the same, they both work the same, and I think that’s why we work so well together, because we’re kind of similar players in that sense.”
With the celebration on the Griffins’ 2017 Calder Cup over, Elson has his sights set on helping Grand Rapids turn the page to another championship-level campaign.