Since when has anything about Jeff Blashill’s career been normal?


Take Paul MacLean, for example.

Paul MacLean played 719 NHL games.  He then coached an International Hockey League team for three years before he got his first crack as an NHL assistant in 1996 — a decade and a half after he started his pro hockey career.

Oh, but wait.

A year later, in 1997, MacLean was back in the IHL for three more years as a head coach, followed by two in the UHL before he finally returned to the NHL for good as an assistant in 2002.  Now, he’s head coach of the Ottawa Senators.

Got that?

A guy who played more than 700 NHL games had to coach eight seasons of minor league hockey, then spend eight more as an NHL assistant before he landed his first NHL head coaching job.

OK, close your eyes for a few seconds.  Now, open them and re-read the news that Jeff Blashill was named head coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins.


Extraordinarily talented people do unordinary things.

Like, run a college hockey team for one season … and then get hired by the Detroit Red Wings.

Jeff Blashill is not on a normal coaching career track.

Which is why his move to Grand Rapids after one season in Detroit is anything but a demotion:

  • He’s 38 years-old and, aside from last season in Detroit, he has zero pro experience. Zero. Not even as coach of a team called the Quad City Mallards (which MacLean was).
  • This is about career development for Blashill.  Was it unbelievable that Mike Babcock called, seemingly out of nowhere, and offered him a job last summer?  Absolutely.  For many of us, that would be the career mountaintop.
  • But not for Blashill. His goal is to be an NHL head coach. A head job in the AHL is an entirely normal step in the process.  And, lately, it’s become one of the fastest routes to an NHL bench.  Look at Tampa.  Look at Dallas.  Look at Pittsburgh.  For Blashill, coaching the Griffins is the best way to coach the Red Wings.  Or, if they’re smart, the Blackhawks.

This guy isn’t normal.  Which is why it won’t be a surprise when there’s another press conference in Detroit or Chicago or somewhere else in the next few years.

Bryan Gruley: Author, journalist … back checker?








My friend Bryan Gruley’s third novel, The Skeleton Box, will be released June 5.  It’s the latest in his Starvation Lake trilogy of mysteries about a hockey-playing newspaper reporter who uncovers secrets and lies that have ripped apart his tiny Northern Michigan town.

Grules is from Detroit (and, thus, a Wings fan).  He wrote for the Kalamazoo Gazette in the early 80s, then moved on to the Wall Street Journal where he ultimately became bureau chief in Chicago.  He is now reporter-at-large for Bloomberg News (the ultimate freedom) and still plays hockey at Johnny’s Ice House near the United Center.

We had the following email exchange:

Heard from multiple sources that you learned how to back check from Patrick Kane … is that true?

BG: What does “back check” mean?

Which drink gets your creative juices flowing?

BG: I usually write in the morning, so coffee. After a couple of beers, I may imagine that I’m creative, but I’m usually mistaken.

Describe Don Cherry in 8 words.

BG: Brilliant, because he loved my debut, Starvation Lake.

Do you Google yourself? Be honest.

BG: Of course. Good to know if people are saying nice things about you, so you can help spread it around. It’s a crowded world out there.

Which NHLer do you envision you look like when you skate during men’s league games at Johnny’s Ice House?

BG: Al Sobotka, Zamboni driver for the Detroit Red Wings. But seriously, I try to play like a Tomas Holmstrom, who gives the puck to better players and gets to the net.

Describe your ideal setting in which to write.

BG: I’m pretty flexible about where I write. I don’t nececessarily have to be alone and it doesn’t necessary have to be pin-drop quiet. I like writing on planes and trains, for some reason. Given a choice, though, I love to write on the oak swing overlooking Big Twin Lake at our family cottage in northern Michigan.

Writing can be like taking a dump. Sometimes, it just slides right out with minimal effort. Other times, it takes half a roll of toilet paper. How many rolls of toilet paper did it take to write Skeleton Box?

BG: Let’s just say I would’ve made several trips to Costco.

What’s a less-disgusting analogy about writing?

BG: Writing’s like any job: to get it done, you have to do it. As Jack London said, you can’t wait around for inspiration, you have to hunt it down with a club. Or, as my pal the Chicago author Marcus Sakey says, “Plumbers can’t get blocked.”

Who wins the Stanley Cup next – Detroit or Chicago? Why?

BG: Detroit, because the Wings are going to sign Ryan Suter, and that will encourage Lidstrom to play another year, and change the entire defensive dynamic of the team.

Why does Patrick Kane chew on his mouthpiece?

BG: I don’t know: oral fixation? He’s a lot younger than his age.

What did you grow up thinking you’d do for a living?

BG: I thought I would be a writer from the time I started reading Hardy Boys’ mysteries. I didn’t know what kind of writer, but I wanted to write novels.

Who’s the most powerful athlete in Chicago right now and why?

BG: Derrick Rose, with Jonathan Toews a close second. Rose has an enormous impact on the game he’s in and on his team–witness what happened after he tore his ACL. He also seems to be a fairly modest, hard-working young man, which goes a long way.

Who’s crazier in bars – athletes, politicians or Wall Street executives?

BG: John Riggins.

What’s your celebration ritual when you finish your novels?

BG: I can’t say that I really have one, because the actual finishing–the last little tweaks that I make just before it goes to press–is somewhat anticlimactic. I guess I celebrate more on some of my tour dates when I see friends old and new.

All three of your novels — Starvation Lake, The Hanging Tree and, now, Skeleton Box — are set in the same tiny town and involve many of the same people.  Did that familiarity give you a richer, more creative bank of possibilities from which to draw when you wrote?  How many more Starvation Lake stories can we expect?

BG: I set out to write a single book. The trilogy is purely accidental. It was fun to develop the main characters –including the town of Starvation Lake — over the course of three books. Though not by design, the three-book tale ultimately revolves around the relationship between the protagonist, Gus Carpenter, and his mother, Bea. I found that satisfying, and I hope readers do, too.

If I do a fourth Starvation Lake novel, I plan to move it twelve years forward in time. The characters and town will be familiar, but different. For instance, Starvation Lake will finally be prosperous, thanks to a natural gas drilling boom. Of course, with such a boom comes trouble — and a story.

What’s the craziest thing a person has said or done at a book signing?

BG: This brings to mind the “Frittata Man.” At my Chicago launch of Starvation at the old Borders at Clark and Diversey, some guy asked about the “egg pie” I’d written about as the specialty at Audrey’s Diner. He said it was merely a frittata. Are you a cook? I asked. No, he said, I’m a culinary artist. OK. Then he went on for a while. Several minutes later, he’d gone to the other side of the room and was standing near my wife and daughter when he asked about some twisted Steven King character and whether writing fiction helped me work out the darkness in my soul. Mostly because of where he’d moved, the store manager had him ushered out.

You shared a Pulitzer for the cumulative WSJ writing about 9/11 … is that your proudest accomplishment as a writer?

BG: I’d say it’s my proudest day as a journalist, and much less because of what I did than what my colleagues in New York did, reporting from a place essentially as dangerous as a war zone. It was inspiring.

What’s tougher to write – fiction or non-fiction?

BG: I think they’re equally tough. People think fiction’s easier because, hell, you can write whatever you want. But that can be paralyzing. By the same token, the constrains of non-fiction can be liberating in a way. You write only what you can learn from interviews, documents, etc. Your choices are limited, and therefore a little easier at times.

Three reasons why a small northern Michigan town is better than Chicago:

BG: Proximity to quiet.

Proximity to gorgeous golf courses that don’t require you to take out a home-equity loan.

Cherries, blueberries, corn, and patty melts.

Three reasons why Chicago is better than a small northern Michigan town:

BG: Restaurants.


Johnny’s Ice House.