Skip to main content

Calder Cup Champions -'13 '17

Official site of the Grand Rapids Griffins

18

Griffins captain Brian Lashoff counts himself lucky to have spent his entire career playing in the Red Wings organization.

Story and photo by Mark Newman

Lines form on my face and my hands

Lines from on the left and the right

I’m in the middle

The middle of life

I’m a boy and I’m a man

I’m eighteen and I like it

– “Eighteen,” Alice Cooper

Brian Lashoff probably could find a hundred reasons why he is happy to be playing in Grand Rapids for the Red Wings organization, but he is content to stop at 18.

Eighteen is the age that Lashoff happened to be when he started playing hockey for the Griffins 13 seasons ago, which is almost a lifetime ago when you’re talking about the career of a professional athlete.

Now 31, Lashoff is the captain of the Griffins, having played more than 500 games in the organization, which makes him the longest active-serving AHL player with one team. For a unique perspective, the most recent player with a longer stint is Bill Needham, the league’s all-time leader in games played for only one team with 981. His career with the Cleveland Barons ended in 1971.

Lashoff, who has worn a Red Wings jersey for 136 NHL games spread over seven different seasons, is humbled by his journey from an undrafted, free agent teenager to a venerable veteran, now considered the de facto leader of a franchise that has won two American Hockey League championships during his playing tenure.

“Being captain means a ton to me,” Lashoff said. “Considering how much this city and this team means to me, it’s a big deal to know that you’re the guy that management, the coaches and the players trust to be in that role. I’ve been fortunate to have learned a lot from the guys before me. I think they helped me feel that I was completely ready to step into this role.”

Lashoff wore the number 32 when he joined the Griffins near the end of the 2008-09 season, making his pro debut between his last two years in junior hockey. He switched to the number 18 during the 2014-15 season.

“When I came back to Grand Rapids after playing a season in Detroit, somebody was already wearing 32, so Dogg [Griffins equipment manager Brad Thompson] gave me 18,” Lashoff said. “I had a couple of different numbers in juniors and when I got traded to the Kingston Frontenacs, they gave me 18, which is also the number I wore in world juniors. I didn’t ask for the number; that’s just what they gave me. The number 18 just seems to follow me.”

Two summers ago, Lashoff married his long-time girlfriend, Nicolina Clemente. Their wedding date was July 18. And last summer, when the couple welcomed the arrival of their first child, daughter Maeve was born a day early on July 1 at 11:18. “She knew,” Lashoff said. “She came at the right minute.”

He is thrilled to add “dad” to his résumé. Maeve, he notes, is an Irish name, the only name they had chosen if they were lucky to have a girl. They had agreed to remain in the dark about the baby’s gender until birth.

“I wanted to know, but Nic said we’re waiting,” he said. “It took me a bit [to become convinced], but now I’m glad that we waited. If I had found out, I know I would have blown it, [plus] I think it was good for Nic because [the surprise] gave her something extra to get through those last few hours of labor.”

Lashoff said becoming a first-time father was an “awesome experience,” but admits that the eventful moment had him on pins and needles.

“It was a little nerve-racking, but Nic did unbelievably well,” he said. “She was tougher than I was. I think I was nervous the whole time. I brought a bunch of snacks for her, but they didn’t want her to eat, so I ended up eating all the snacks out of stress.”

Welcoming a newborn into the Lashoff lineup quickly became “a team effort,” according to the Griffins’ captain. Nicolina’s mother came for the first 10 days after Maeve’s arrival, followed by his parents, then his older brother Matt and his family.

“Having family here with us was a huge stress reliever,” Lashoff said. “Nic’s mom was amazing. She really helped out those first 10 days after we had Maeve. My parents were amazing as well. And once we got the hang of things, it was nice to have my brother and his family come and get to meet her.”

Lashoff’s brother Matt, a former first-round pick of the Boston Bruins who played 74 NHL games, has three kids while Nicolina’s sister has two kids, so Brian and Nicolina were no strangers to nieces and nephews. Bringing home a baby, however, is a different story.

“You think you know what to expect and then you find that it has its own journey,” he said. “It’s crazy how [having a baby] changes your life – in a good way, of course. It’s stressful and exciting and awesome all at the same time. It’s been great.”

There’s a certain unpredictability that comes with rearing a child, as every parent can attest. Learning to expect the unexpected becomes a way of life, but Lashoff – like most people living in the pivot of a pandemic – had already had plenty of practice.

On March 12, 2020, the day after he reached the 500-game milestone with the Griffins, the AHL announced that it was suspending its season due to concerns over COVID-19. Two months later, the league officially canceled the regular season and the Calder Cup playoffs.

“It felt strange,” Lashoff said. “It felt like we had unfinished business because we had a team that was starting to roll in the right direction heading toward the playoffs. There was so much uncertainty, and we didn’t get to say the normal goodbyes to guys that you might not ever play with again.

“It just felt weird being in a world that none of us had ever experienced.”

Coronavirus or no coronavirus, Lashoff was just happy to have managed to play in his 500th game in his adopted city.

“I take [the milestone] very seriously,” he said. “This has become a second home for me and then my wife and now Maeve as well – actually it’s her first home. The city of Grand Rapids and this team mean so much to me that to reach 500 games and win a couple of championships in the process is really important to me.”

His longevity with the same organization is undoubtedly rare, most certainly in the minor leagues where players often bounce from one team to the next to improve their chances of playing at the NHL level.

“It’s especially true for someone in my position where I have been up and down a lot, playing in both Detroit and Grand Rapids,” he said. “It gives me a sense of pride to get to know the young guys who come here year after year and then see them eventually play in the NHL. I was once in their position, trying to get to Detroit, and now I’m on the other side. I’m still striving to get called up every season, but the best part is I get to watch them grow and hopefully be a part of their development.”

Lashoff aims to do what he can to encourage young prospects in Grand Rapids while reminding them about the value of hard work and dedication — or “going all in,” as he describes the process.

“While they’re in Grand Rapids, I try to tell them to enjoy their time here,” Lashoff said. “When you’re playing in the minors, it can be a grind in terms of the length of the season and the schedule. A lot of the young guys want to play in the NHL and they want to do it right away. If it doesn’t happen, you need people around you who can keep your mind right and keep you striving in the right direction. I’ve tried to do that and I’ve been fortunate to see some guys that I can call great friends now go up and play.”

Among the NHL defensemen who have made their way through Grand Rapids during Lashoff’s tenure are Brendan Smith, Nick Jensen and Filip Hronek, three players who collectively account for more than 1,000 games in the NHL. All three played at least two seasons with the Griffins before sticking at the top level.

“The need for instant gratification is as much of sports as it is in life, and sometimes things don’t happen that way,” Lashoff said. “The guys who stay in the NHL are often the ones who take the time to grind through the minors and overcome the challenges that come their way. The only way out of adversity of any kind is to ‘go all in’ and I’ve seen a bunch of guys do that.

“If I can have a small part in a guy making it to the NHL and he has some success there, it not only gives me a sense of pride but also some validation that I’m doing the right things.”

In recognition of his quiet leadership – Lashoff is not the loudest voice in a room, preferring to let his play and work ethic do the talking – the organization announced he would become the 17th captain of the Griffins before the 2020-21 season. He received the news from his brother’s two oldest children.

“[Griffins coach] Ben [Simon] got in touch with my brother and they had Ryder and Lila, my nephew and niece, tell me over video in the dressing room one day right before the season. So that was pretty cool.”

Lashoff acknowledges that being named captain is a tremendous honor. He does not hesitate to give credit to the captains for whom he has played during his dozen seasons in Grand Rapids – in order, Darren Haydar, Jamie Tardif, Garnet Exelby, Jeff Hoggan, Nathan Paetsch and Matthew Ford.

“I’ve played with a lot of great leaders and mentors during my career,” said Lashoff, who adds the names of Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Niklas Kronwall in Detroit as strong influences. “They all brought something different to the table, and while not every guy was the same, I think I learned a lot from each and every one of the guys.

“Being a leader in the minors is a little different from being in the NHL, from working with the different personalities to the different expectations of young guys wanting to be called up. It’s about building a culture that is competitive every single day, where guys want to come to the rink every day and have fun while building a winning atmosphere.”

Preparing for last season in the face of the coronavirus was a challenge for every player, let alone the captain. “It didn’t make things easy for my first year, that’s for sure,” Lashoff said.

The abrupt ending to the 2019-20 season, coupled with the protracted delay to the season that followed, left players in a quandary of how to stay prepared to play, both physically and mentally.

“There was a lot of time spent training, both off and on the ice, but also managing the time off,” he said. “You want to work out, but you also know that you’re never going to have that much time off again during your career. So it was a balancing act because we didn’t know when we were going to start up again. You want to use the time to your advantage and be ready when the time came to play, but you also don’t want to get burnt out.”

Of course, the uncertainty was not confined to the sports world. But while an office worker can jump into a car at a moment’s notice to return to work, an athlete needs to physically prepare themselves to play if they want to attain peak performance while purposely conditioning their bodies to avoid injury.

“When the 2020 calendar hit October, which is usually when the season starts, and we still weren’t playing, we started to wonder because dates kept getting pushed back. Then leagues in Europe started to hit ‘pause,’ so we didn’t know what to expect. There’s a different level of mental strength that you need to learn when you go through something like a pandemic. Of course, the whole world was in the same boat, that’s for sure. But for us, it was the uncertainty that was the hardest.”

Lashoff said that Griffins head coach Ben Simon and his staff stayed in touch with players to help them keep their heads on straight.

“Ben was really good about making sure that guys were doing mentally okay,” he said. “It was a stressful time for everyone and he wanted to make sure guys were handling all of the uncertainty. We were training to get ourselves ready but when the date changes, what do you do? You want to stay mentally ready, so you do the best you can.”

For Lashoff, the involuntary stoppage was a blessing in disguise. As relative newlyweds, he and Nicolina were able to spend more time together. “We bought a house in Ada just as everything was being shut down,” he said. “We closed April 1st, then moved in during May, which gave us time to work on the house before she got pregnant.”

Nicolina had left her job at the Van Andel Institute to work in research and development for Empirical Bioscience, a local biotechnology company involved in COVID-19 testing – perfect timing for a change in employment when you’re pregnant during a pandemic and access to regular testing offered peace of mind. Her new job also gave the Griffins a connection to the testing kits that were needed as the abbreviated season got underway.

And so Lashoff and his teammates welcomed the challenge of a strange, new season with open arms.

“The coaches did a good job of managing expectations and letting us know what they wanted out of us. As the captain, I couldn’t have been more proud of the guys as far as how they took things as seriously as they could. We got through the season with very little exposure to the virus and we were able to play not only all the games that were originally scheduled, but we added some games as well.”

He admits that it seemed very odd to be playing inside an empty arena for the majority of the season due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“Stepping out onto the ice for the first time without fans was a very eerie feeling,” he said. “You miss the roar of the crowd, especially considering how passionate our fans are. You realize how much of a difference they can make, how much they are on our side, and how they can change the sway of a game by surrounding us with their support.”

He credits the Griffins’ front office with doing “an amazing job” of making the whole experience as game-like as possible. He chuckles at the memory of seeing cardboard cutouts in the stands behind the teams’ benches.

“It was definitely strange walking out into an arena without fans and seeing cardboard cutouts of guys I used to play with behind the bench,” said Lashoff, spotting Martin Frk and Jeff Hoggan as a couple of the familiar faces in the crowd. It was an inside joke inside a strained season that required more levity than normal because nothing was normal, except for facial masks, social distancing, and testing.

“With all of the social distancing rules, including split locker rooms for the whole season to keep guys spread out, we couldn’t get the same camaraderie that we are used to getting,” he said. “We tried to keep things light, to find things outside that we could do to help the team bond because that’s just as important as the systems we play. You want to make sure that guys will go to war for each other because you feel close like a family, which was difficult to achieve during a season where the main goal was not to be close.”

Looking back, he is thankful that things went as well as they did. “Guys not only took the protocols seriously, but they also took the season seriously,” Lashoff said. “Every single guy believed that we weren’t just showing up to play 32 games to get it over with but to give it everything we have. I think it speaks to the culture in the room.”

The season was unusual on a personal level, too, for Lashoff. For the first time in his career, he missed an extended amount of time. “I sprained my knee during a game in Iowa when my skate got caught in a rut in the ice and I was pushed at the same time,” he said. “It was kind of a freak thing that couldn’t be avoided.”

Lashoff was out for six weeks when there were only about six weeks left in the season. “I got close to being able to play but I just ran out of time,” he said. “I’ve always been durable and been able to play through a lot of things, so that was tough. I tried to help guys as much as I could, whether it was sharing little things that I saw or providing moral support whenever I could.”

It was during the rehabilitation process that Lashoff was momentarily knocked for a loop. During a season where players learned to roll with the punches, he was surprised to learn that he was traded not once but twice on the same day. First, the Red Wings traded Lashoff to the Columbus Blue Jackets for defenseman David Savard. The Wings then traded Savard to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for a 2021 fourth-round draft pick. Columbus subsequently traded Lashoff to Tampa for the Lightning’s 2021 first-round pick and 2022 third-round pick.

Both Detroit and Columbus retained part of Savard’s salary in the complicated three-team deal that had the hockey world abuzz right before the NHL trade deadline.

“I got a call from [then-Griffins general manager] Ryan Martin, who shared the particulars of the trade. He reassured me that I wasn’t going anywhere, that Tampa was assigning me back to Grand Rapids. At that point, I was still injured and it was questionable whether I was going to be back in time to play, so it was purely a contract move. I talked to Tampa as well and they told me that I could continue my rehab here and continue being the captain.

“But for a couple of hours, it was a complete whirlwind. I had everyone and their brother texting or calling me. ‘What’s going on?’ Once I explained things, they were like, ‘Oh, that makes sense.’ But it was definitely strange to get the call from Ryan, who did a good job of explaining to me what it was all about and how it worked. I found it interesting because that side of the game – how deals are made – is something you learn to appreciate as you get older, especially when the same deal works for three teams.”

Lashoff signed a new one-year contract with the Red Wings this past summer. He is hoping the new season brings back some sense of normalcy, not only for the team but also for the fans. He is excited about the prospects that could be playing for the Griffins as the Red Wings continue their rebuilding efforts.

“We should have a good mixture of veteran guys who have had success in this league with a new crop of younger guys,” he said. “Management has done a good job of finding talented young players and the development staff continues to show they know when these guys are ready to come in here and contribute.

“The biggest thing is to continue to create that culture of success that we’ve had, where guys are battling for each other every single day.”

It’s very likely there could be several Swedes on this year’s team, which would bring Lashoff back to the beginning of his career when the Griffins roster included the likes of Gustav Nyquist, Joakim Andersson, Adam Almquist and Calle Jarnkrok.

Lashoff looks forward to doing his best to help mentor prospects as others did for him when he was younger. His jersey number aside, he is no longer 18 and it’s now his place to fill the role of a veteran. As captain, he will remind those who are new to Grand Rapids that the AHL is a good place to learn.

“It’s not a bad thing to play here. It’s a really good league to see which players are ready,” Lashoff said. “The best young players in this league find a way out and will eventually play in the NHL. Young guys always want to go up as soon as possible, but sometimes it doesn’t work that way. Not everyone is ready to play in the NHL at 18, 19 or 20 years old. There are not a lot who are. So this is a really good spot for those guys who want to work hard before they’re able to go up and stay up.”

And if anyone has their doubts, Lashoff will be happy to share all the reasons they need to stay positive – even if the number won’t go past 18.

Get tickets, live scores, stats, highlights, player interviews & more!