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Catching Up With Griffins Head Coach Greg Ireland
By Jason Kasiorek

Grand Rapids Central: First off thanks again for your time, you're always so good to me with that. Second Congratulations on a heck of a year, I don't think the way things went at the beginning a lot of people wouldn't have figured we would be where we are now.

Greg Ireland: Yeah, you know we got off to a good start, obviously we've been able to parlay that into a real consistent year, I think more than anything I think the word consistency can describe our year. And to me that's probably one of the best things you can say about somebody when they are a professional athlete. To me I'm pretty proud of the fact that our guys have been able to maintain that consistency.

GRC: A lot of the guys have stepped up to fill holes...

GI: Exactly

GRC: On a personal note because of that success, you have to feel pretty good. I have to admit I read a lot of things, and whether you'll admit to reading them or not, there were a lot of people that questioned whether you would be right for this job, and said "Who is Greg Ireland?" and "is he going to be here?" and there was a lot of speculation both ways. Its got to be pretty nice for you to be where you are at now and say "Well I think I answered so many of those people who said who is this guy".

GI: Well to be honest with you, I didn't read a lot of that, and I didn't hear a lot of that, and I have a lot of confidence in my abilities. I'm a career coach, and I've had to work my way up the ladder, by doing things a little bit harder and a little bit longer than other people. And maybe at this point really used to having to prove myself, and sometimes having to prove myself twice, just because of the fact that your background may not be as strong on the playing side. The way I look at it is that I wasn't hired to play, I was hired to coach. My background runs a lot deeper than other guys, and I think I can draw on that experience, and you know names don't win games, confidence, poise and experience does.

GRC: Its been a really neat to watch from the first day when I heard some of your mantras, you and Jim writing stuff on the board there on the ice at camp, and some of the things you said, for instance "We won't be outworked, especially in the third period". I know that was a big thing, and in the past that always seemed to be the first two periods went this way, and then the third period we were struggling, and it's made such a huge difference. Do you think, without putting the onus on yourself and your coaching staff, that your philosophy and getting a fresh start from training camp and getting the guys to buy into what you are saying, was as important or more important a piece of the puzzle than just the change of personnel, having some more skilled players.

GI: Undoubtedly, I think every year for every team thats a big part of it, It's that initial impression, it's the foundation that you lay. To me every team is really at some point a championship team under construction. It's like anybody, if you build a house and the foundation isn't strong, the first hurricane, the first tornado, it falls. So you have to lay your foundation early and you have to lay it strong, and that was we thought over the summer. Lets lay it early, lets lay it strong, and lets make sure that when things falter we can always go back to that foundation and we can keep laying bricks upon it. And that is where we came from, that what we stressed, we kept that accountability factor in there, we demanded conditioning, we demanded consistency, we demanded structure, and I think our guys, it wasn't a hard group to demand it from because of the fact that they bought in early. And I think there's two factors that go hand in hand, one, laying that foundation early, and two bringing in people that are open-minded and ready to buy in.

GRC: So its not just the talent its also how willing the older players are to do things your way instead of the way they've been doing them.

GI: 100%. You know, the thing is that at the professional level in any sport is that the leaders are like the salesmen. They walk in the room when you leave or after speaking to you and they sell the product for you. And if they believe in it, it's an easy sell.

GRC: So, would you say that this year's crop of veterans - granted some of them are holdovers, but Donald McLean, Kent McDonell, Nate DiCasmirro, some of those guys -were better than last year's crop as far as buying into your message or do you think that that just was the way things went last year.

GI: No. I don't think they are. I think that even going back to when Danton was here we had tremendous leadership. You know, Travis Richards is here and was here and had a more significant role because he was obviously not injured. We had Nick Kronwall, Mark Eaton for a period of time, Blake Sloan - they're as good as guys as what we have here in leadership. I think where Bob and Jim Nill did a tremendous job was giving us those middle ground leaders, the third or fourth year guys that maybe were non-veterans in coming in and giving us some mortar in between the older guys and the younger guys. You know, again we talked about bricks and foundation - mortar pulling it all together. And I think maybe last year we lacked in that. Not to name names, but you know now you've got Darryl Bootland shows great maturity. Tomas Kopecky, the Matt Ellis', who's a leader not just in the middle but at the top end. Nate DiCasmirro - those middle ground guys who if you were in college they'd be your juniors. Really provide a greater core of leadership for us and it kind of made the younger guys go "Hey, either we're in or we're out. We've got to go in here and we've got to buy in or we're going to find ourselves on the outside looking in." And last year I think there was too extreme of a gap. It was the young group and it was the older group and we didn't have that bond - the mortar - in between.

GRC: That was going to be one of my next questions. In the past, in talking to Danton Cole, and in talking to some of the other players, they suggested that there were some different cliques and levels of that. And I know in any team you've got certain groups that gravitate, but the good teams - the ones that win a lot - tend to have a lot less of that. And I've not seen that in my interaction with...

GI: No, we have a tremendous group of guys. We love to hang together, they love to be around each other, they hate leaving the rink, you know, and I think that goes a long way. And you're always going to have guys that like to be together, but we've found that we add these certain guys to the team that just kind of make the transition quite easy and allowed us to really gel as a team.

GRC: Biggest surprise of the season - what would you say your biggest surprise has...

GI: It's tough to say. We've had so many great moments with this year's squad individually and as a team. I think that you look at the overall wins record for the league - you know at 57 games - and we legitimately made a serious run at that. That, to me, I don't know how it will be looked upon down the road, but to me, we came up right on it pretty hard and, to be honest, I really thought we had a shot at breaking it. I think I can be direct, I don't usually whine about refereeing outside of this room, but I really think in this last little bit that things slacked off and I thought that we had three games down the final week and a half that we had a chance to win those three games and we were a team that built our team for the new rules. We played three teams that didn't build their team for the new rules and they were rewarded and the bottom line of it is it maybe took us a shot away from a place in history or at least tying it.

GRC: I'll tell you what, I go to all of the games and I bring my daughter with me to most of them and I've very rarely - same as you - seen so many games and been involved and just some nights you have good officiating, some nights its questionable...

GI: I do bark and moan in here because there's some guys, as Brian and I joked about this morning, that you know we just..., but you know what, we don't get anywhere by doing it out there and I'll be honest with you, it's an area of my game that I've tried to work on and I thought I actually gone back the last month and a half because I've been frustrated but I don't want to do that. I want to move ahead and be able to move away from the moment with the refereeing so I'm really working on that.

GRC: I'll tell you, there were a couple of those games where I got loud and the people around me were like "Wow, it must really be a tough call...

GI: You should have been in Rochester and Cleveland.

GRC: I watched both those on the feed and it was unbelievable, but anyway like you say...

GI: You move on and you know what, all said and done, we've had a tremendous record and I just am really impressed, maybe not surprised, maybe impressed with it is more of a better word, but really impressed with the consistency of this hockey club.

GRC: You've got so many guys on this club that have achieved individual recognition - all stars, call ups, words of praise from Jim Nill. If you had to single someone out who is below the radar as kind of an unsung hero somebody that maybe didn't get the notice that maybe they should have because of what they did on the team could you come up with somebody that would fit that description?

GI: I think two guys: Matt Ellis and Nate DiCasmirro. I think they're kind of like the heartbeat of this team. There's other areas of our team - Donald MacLean - you know maybe I can group in there Kent McDonell and Eric Manlow. Those four guys consistently come out and play hard every night. I think though, it remains unsaid that the MacLean's and the Bootland's and the Kopecky's and the Howard's and the Helmer's have got their attention this year and have done a great job and deserve every bit. But those are the four guys that have been rocks for us on the ice off the ice. When they're out of the lineup you miss them but when they're in you really notice them.

GRC: I've written at length about DiCasmirro even though my primary job is the Wings' affiliates, the players under contract there. I can't say enough about that guy. Matt Ellis last year was head and shoulders the guy I said was getting it done every single game without fail. Watching DiCasmirro was almost like they'd cloned him. They each do some things a little differently but...And I've read so many great comments from Kevin Lowe talking about that they definitely have him on the radar and that he's a restricted free agent this year. Boy, I'd love to see Detroit make a pitch at that. I'm sure that it probably won't...

GI: I think as you said... I think he's come in and we were worried about Blake Sloan, obviously at the fact that we couldn't or didn't resign him and I was a little worried about his leadership and energy level and his physicalness that he brought to our team. And Nate's come in and done a good job and on the other side adds some offense to that position for us and I think that that's a big step for us.

GRC: I don't have the exact number in front of me, but at one point when I looked down, the gentlemen that were on your roster at the end of the season, all except two of them had established career highs in the offensive categories. It was Helmer just fell short and [Himelfarb] because he was hurt ...

GI: I think Helmer looking at it is, maybe he fell a little short, but I think his points will come you know in bigger games like maybe previous it was a game...

GRC: Look at how many game winners....

GI: Exactly, I think he was a go to guy more than ever in his career and I really think that Helms, in the second half, really achieved my respect because he became a warrior. You know, in blocking shots, better one-on-ones, more committed defensively, logged a ton of minutes, looked white-faced some nights. I think he really like how do you say it after that twelve, thirteen years in the league he became more of a warrior than at any point in his career before.

GRC: The thing is his defensive play, even though his offense tailed off there a little bit for a while, his defensive play picked up so much that it was like whether he was scoring or not he was getting it done. I agree completely.

GI: Yeah.

GRC: Ok, on to the playoffs. How do we change our focus? Is this something that we're working harder at or is this just business as usual we've gotten it done all year and...

GI: Well, I don't want to be casual about it because ...but, we started our playoff prep back in September at Centre Ice up in Traverse City. We talked about it, we identified our goals, we didn't shirk away from it and everything we've done is, again, we've laid bricks and mortar to get to this point. So we'll continue to build and add and go hard and do exactly what we've done until someone tells us we're not playing anymore. So, we continue with the same work, the same commitment that we've brought every day. I think when you get to the playoffs a lot of people want to adjust and change and do this and do that. We have a very good opponent coming up. We respect them. We've played each other tight we're 3-3-1 I think against them...

GRC: And other than the one blowout they had early in the season...

GI: Yeah, you know what, no excuses. You know, you win some you lose some and now you go into the playoffs and I think both teams want to say "Ok, you know this is what we do" lay it on the line and see where the chips fall.

GRC: Without giving away anything important are there some keys that you're going to look at specifically for the Marlies?

GI: Well, I think the biggest thing is discipline. They're a hard-nosed, edgy team that tries to stir things up after the whistle and I think they're sitting back saying "Hey, I think we can get Grand Rapids off their game." Everybody's been doing that all year, taking runs, trying to hit us and we just have to be mentally tough. We have to be able to take one for our team. We have to walk away. But I think during the whistles we have to be willing to pay the price. We have to be willing to lay down and block shots. We have to be willing to go into traffic areas and take a hit, take a pounding, take a slash to get the job done. To me, I think that's the biggest area right there. You know, both teams know each other's x'es and o's, both teams have a game plan, and it becomes an execution and a discipline factor.

GRC: Without being critical, obviously the back-up goaltending situation has been one that's been real up in the air and I know that you do what has to be done and you go with the next guy. The next best guy in the pipeline right now is Drew MacIntyre. Are you comfortable with that and would you have rather seen them bring in someone else or at this point it doesn't matter because Jimmy's the horse and you're going to ride him either way.

GI: Well, we've got Drew in and he's done a good job for us. The thing of it is in the last couple starts he's had its been over a period of time where he hasn't played as much. Now, he's been able to go back and re-establish his game and get it going. And this will be a great test for him because if he is called upon and he's on the bench for a little bit of time, that's what a back-up goalie does at this level. When they're called upon they have to jump in and be ready to go. And you look at different circumstances in history of the game when back-up goalies had to go in and done a good job and won...they've been able to just jump in and not think about it and establish themselves. So this will be a good challenge for him. And to answer your question, no, I'm not nervous. You know, he's played well. He got us started on the roll at the beginning of the year. To me, I don't worry about what we don't have, I key on what we do have and I think that we have a good depth in goal with him and when he's going, he can be a real good goal tender for us.

GRC: Ok, Travis Richards - obviously he's not going to play - or at least at this point, last time I talked to him a week ago he said he was skating but he didn't have any...

GI: Travis is a guy who's worked very hard the last few days. Taking in three on three down low, battle drills, killing penalties, looks tremendous out there. But there's no pressure from our side. We want Travis to be 100% before he jumps in and on the other side of it we do have five veteran players who've played very hard for us and we've made a commitment to them. But I love the fact that Travis is going and going hard and if in the next few weeks Travis said "Hey, I'm ready to go." and the situation arose where we needed him - because you never know what's going to happen tomorrow - injury, call-up - if there was a veteran spot open I'd do back flips to put him in the lineup. We're just going to let him go day by day, get himself ready, and if the situation arises where we do have an open veteran spot for whatever reason, then we have him ready to go and it gives us more depth.

GRC: Now if he's not playing, throughout the season and you've used him back and forth behind the bench, is that something you're going to continue to take advantage of?

GI: Yes. He provides good leadership. He's got a steady eye and a knowledgeable eye for the game and he really does a good job relaxing the players. So yes, we'll continue to use him.

GRC: There's not any overlap, knowing that both he and Jim are experts in the defensive side of the game?

GI: Well, Trav is more... he's not in on the teaching side yet, he's more of a great team guy, fabulous attitude, he's still one of the guys. He hasn't made the transition over to coaching. But he's still one of the guys and the guys respect him and look up to him. And you notice, we use him on the front half of the bench, so he's great at seeing something, pointing it out to me or Jim but also pulling the guy aside and saying "Hey...you've got to get the puck deep or back-check..." He's got a great way of doing that, so you know and using him more in a leadership aspect than we are in a teaching aspect.

GRC: Joey McDonald - Any new word on him?

GI: Yeah, the last week he's made great progress, to the point where he doesn't need another injection, its just getting better and we're looking forward to it. It's just kind of day by day with him right now and he starts to make those good strides and feel better we'll just keep assessing it and we're looking forward to having him back in. Again, Joey's been a very good goaltender for us and we'd love having him back in the lineup.

GRC: Do you think that this is a recurring problem, is there something they didn't get with the surgery or...

GI: No, I think its just one of those where you continue to build up the muscle and get stronger and after what you've gone through, you've just got to keep getting it stronger and for Joey, you know, this may be just a little speed bump before it really heals itself and gets really better. But, then again, I can't really call it because I'm not the doctor and I don't know the whole background, but I just think that right now is just a little speed bump for him and, again move forward from here.

GRC: I'll tell you between your up-coaching style and the new rules, as a fan, this has been the most exciting year to be a season ticket holder, and I've been here since day one, and Keep it up. Thanks very Much.

GI: Thanks Jason

GRC: What are your plans, obviously your on a one year deal now, I can't imagine them not asking you to come back, but is that what you are...

GI: I love the area, and I love the organization, I'd like to get an offer to come back. I'd like a chance to improve myself, and see if the ownership will work with me, and at the end of the year we'll sit down and we'll address that. I'm not going to bargain through the media, If you go back to the beginning of the conversation, I'm used to proving myself, I like the challenge, and at the end of the day if anything is going to be said it's about hard work.

GRC: Thank you very much for your time Greg.

GI: You Bet Jason, I appreciate it.