GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — There were a lot of emotions running through the Grand Rapids Griffins locker room Monday night after being eliminated from the Calder Cup playoffs.
Disappointment, chief among them, but also sadness as the coach could be moving on to the next level.
Of course, the players are happy Todd Nelson could get another opportunity to coach in the NHL, but the level of admiration and respect for him seems to be emotions that are all too rare in professional sports, where egos and the pressure to win can get in the way.
Griffins captain Matthew Ford appeared to be fighting back tears as he talked about playing for Nelson for the past two seasons. Ford also played for Nelson while with the Oklahoma City Barons from 2013-15.
“I came here originally to play for him again,” Ford told Wings Nation. “He definitely deserves any attention he gets. He’s too good for this league. He gets the best out of every player. He finds guys’ strengths as individuals. He works with what he has. He’s obviously a big part of what I said about the strides this group made throughout the year.”
Winning, money, playing time and location generally factor into a player’s decision to sign with a team.
Rarely is the coach mentioned.
The Athletic (paywall) profiled Nelson as a replacement for Ken Hitchcock in Dallas, however, multiple reports say the Stars will hire Jim Montgomery, who spent the past five seasons as the head coach at Denver University.
So, while Dallas isn’t a possibility, there are a few more coaching vacancies he could fill.
Nelson has nothing left to prove at the AHL level. He racked up a 176-111-46 record in four seasons with Oklahoma City, reaching the playoffs each season and advancing to the Western Conference final in 2012 and 2013, losing to the Griffins in 2013.
He joined the Griffins after a 17-22-7 record as the Edmonton Oilers interim head coach in 2014-15, posting a 133-78-17 record in three seasons, making the playoffs each season and winning a Calder Cup title in 2017.
Short of coaching an undefeated season, he’s done all he can in the AHL.
Veteran Ben Street said Nelson is one of his favorite coaches — in any sport he’s played.
“I love the guy,” he said. “He deserves (an NHL job). I hope he gets a chance because I don’t think there’s a whole lot left to prove at this level. The whole staff is excellent. It should all be offered a job somewhere in the NHL, I believe. Extremely proud to play for him, and I learned a lot playing for him. I had a blast playing for him. I hope he gets an opportunity.”
What is it about Nelson that Street admires?
“He’s just an honest coach,” Street said. “He loves his players, he loves the game and you can feel that. Every single day, he brings energy. Everyone back there will say they liked Nelly, whether he was scratching them or getting on them. Even if you disagree with him, you still love the guy.
“He has a personal relationship with every player and everyone around the rink. I bet everyone around the rink would say the same thing. It’s not easy to be that close with this many guys, especially when you are in that kind of a leadership position.”
When told of the good things his players said about him, Nelson said he was grateful for the compliments.
“It feels really good,” he said. “I strive to get to know the players on a personal basis. It helps me know which buttons to push on a certain individual, and everybody is different. Some guys need a kick in the butt and some guys need a hug. If I don’t get through them, then how am I supposed to figure out what makes this guy tick?
“The players are great. If they did say that about me, I thank them very much. They gave me what they had, and that’s all a coach can ask for.”
Nelson admitted the goal is to get back to the NHL, but he also noted how much he enjoys Grand Rapids.
“If it doesn’t happen, this is a good place to work, fantastic people,” he said. “Grand Rapids organization is fantastic to work with. The Wings are fantastic to work with.”
Defenseman Joe Hicketts doesn’t have the history with Nelson like Ford does, but he said he enjoys how Nelson allows him to play his aggressive style.
“I think he lets us play. We play a very aggressive system, which is up my alley,” Hicketts said. “It’s a credit to him. We are one of the only teams in the American league that play with that aggressive style of hockey.”
Matt Puempel, who came to the Griffins this season in a trade, said Nelson’s character is a big reason for his success as a coach.
“I liked him, we had a good relationship,” Puempel said. “He’s a good coach, a good person, first and foremost. That’s big in a coach, I think, you’re a human being at the end of the day, and he really respects that part of the game. That’s one of the few coaches I’ve had in my career that you can tell really takes the personable side (seriously), and guys really respect that.”
Coaching requires many tough decisions that can affect the livelihood of players. It’s a difficult balance of being stern but also compassionate that Nelson, according to his players, has perfected. But not only does he get his players to respect him despite his choices, Nelson has their unwavering loyalty, another rarity in professional sports.
“Every guy would run through a wall for him if that’s what he wanted us to do,” Street said. “It’s a special thing when you have a coach that can get that out of his team.”