Back on July 24, 1996, Prince Albert’s Todd Nelson made history by becoming the first ever player to sign with the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Then on Tuesday as the Griffins’ head coach, Nelson lifted the American Hockey League championship trophy, the Calder Cup, over his head after with the team he helped get its feet off the ground 21 years prior.
“It’s extra special. Anytime you win a championship, it means so much,” Nelson, who played for the Prince Albert Raiders from 1985-90, said. “To do it here in Grand Rapids and win in Game 6 at home [against the Syracuse Crunch], it really—it’s just simply special.”
By winning the Calder Cup as a head coach, Nelson is now the third person in AHL history to win a Calder Cup as a player (1994 with the Portland Pirates), as an assistant coach (2008 with the Chicago Wolves) and now this year as the Griffins’ head coach. Bob Woods and Mike Stothers are the only others to have accomplished the same trifecta.
“It means a ton. Once you win a championship, you’re a champion for life—that’s the bottom line. Nobody can take that away from you,” Nelson said. “I’ve been very fortunate to win the Calder Cup three times as a player, an assistant and now a head. I think this championship means more than the others. The first one in Portland was very special, it was my first one. But to win one as a head coach means so much to me. It proves to people in the hockey industry that I can win as a head coach. It’s going to help my career out, obviously. To be part of that group, it means a lot.”
Nelson already has experience in the NHL as a head coach, albeit briefly with the Edmonton Oilers in the 2014-15 season as the interim head coach. He also had two years with the Atlanta Thrashers from 2008-10 as an assistant.
Although the interim position with the Oilers did not turn permanent, it all worked out for Nelson who accepted the Griffins job that following offseason.
But possibly more importantly than that, being behind an NHL bench gave Nelson the self-assurance that he could be successful in that role in the future.
“I think going through that season with Edmonton made me stronger, gave me more confidence. I know I can coach in the National Hockey League, that’s not a doubt,” Nelson said. “Now I’ve proven that I can win at the American Hockey League level, which is very tough to do. You just never know what your team is going to look like heading into the playoffs through call-ups and injuries. In turn, the stint I had in Edmonton gave me more confidence within myself.”
The Griffins, who are the AHL-affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings, beat the Syracuse Crunch, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s farm club, in six games to win the Calder Cup. The Griffins were down 3-2 heading into the final period, and Nelson could hear his players from his office start to get a little worried.
“After the second period, the coaches’ room door was shut but you could hear some concern—I wouldn’t say panic, but concern,” Nelson said. “There were guys that were kind of raising their voices just in the anticipation of what might happen if we don’t win. My message was simply, ‘guys, take a breath. Let’s focus on the process, let’s get a good start to the third period and don’t leave anything to chance. All we have to do is win a period, and win a game.’”
Nelson’s calming influence seemed to be what the Griffins needed, as they were able to rebound with goals from standouts Tyler Bertuzzi and Martin Frk to get over the hump and win the game in regulation 4-3. Bertuzzi won the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy for the AHL Playoff MVP award.
A lot of Nelson’s successes have come in the minor leagues. Along with his three AHL Calder Cups, Nelson also won two Colonial Cups with the Muskegon Fury in the UHL in his first two years as a head coach there.
But Nelson also has had his taste in the NHL. Apart from his coaching experience at the NHL level, Nelson played three games in the NHL, one with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991-92, and two others with the Washington Capitals in 1993-94—scoring his only goal at the top level with the Caps.
Although returning behind an NHL bench would be an obvious jump, Nelson hopes to make again at some point in his career. He’s had considerable success in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Before his current bench boss stint with the Griffins that began in 2015, Nelson played 236 games with the Griffins. That ranks him 19th all-time in team history, and sixth most among defencemen. He also began his coaching career with the Griffins, spending the 2002-03 season as an assistant coach before this year’s championship.
The game has taken Nelson all over North America, even two years spent in Europe, specifically Germany and Finland. But the Nelson headquarters have always been in Grand Rapids.
“It’s like home for me, to be quite honest. My home will always be Prince Albert, Saskatchewan but Grand Rapids has become my second home,” Nelson said. “I’ve lived in the United States for 28 years now and during that time, I’ve always had a home in Grand Rapids. I’ve had a lot of ties here in West Michigan with people I’ve met over the years. To win a championship at home in front of these people, it just means so much to me.”
On Twitter: @jeff_paNOW
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