In the AHL, the biggest focus is usually the young stars that need that little bit of extra development before they make their push to the NHL. Some of that development comes from the coaches, but an equally important part comes from their teammates. Although they don’t find themselves in the spotlight quite as often, the veterans on the team play a crucial role. They have been around the league and they know what it takes to have success. They can be a guide especially when a young team without much playoff experience finds themselves in the middle of a Calder Cup run.
Jeff Hoggan, a product of Hope, BC, returned to the US before the 2012-2013 season to play in the AHL with the Grand Rapids Griffins after spending two seasons overseas. It turns out, the veteran presence was just what the team needed. After having played for 9 different teams in 3 professional leagues over 10 seasons, he had a wealth of knowledge to offer to the young Griffins team. He drew on all of his past experiences as captain of the Griffins as he continues to grow.
“I think even today I’m still growing as a leader and as a person. I’m trying to learn the game as well as I can because there always could be opportunities after I’m done playing,” Hoggan said. “Every experience I’ve had, whether good or bad, has helped me grow as a player and as a leader. I feel fortunate for it.”
The 2012-13 Griffins season added more experience for Hoggan. After some ups and downs, they got to hoist the Calder Cup. Hoggan, who is now 35, knows that he might be getting towards his last couple seasons. To get to hoist the Calder Cup again was something incredibly memorable.
“It was a special season, no question about it. You get later in your career and there are fewer opportunities to have those moments,” he said. “You really kind of cherish it. It was a great way to finish what’s getting close to being my last season. It was great to be part of such a special organization. We had a lot of great players.”
This was not the first time that Hoggan was on a team that hoisted the Calder Cup. In fact, it was in his first professional season that the Houston Aeros won it. Hoggan, who was coming off 3 seasons with the University of Nebraska-Omaha, looked to the veterans on the team to show the rookies what to do. Fast forward 10 seasons and the positions were reversed. Hoggan had the experience to lead the younger Griffins through the postseason.
“I won with Houston my very first year and we had an older group of guys. Not a lot needed to be said. Most of the vets just hopped in and we leaned on them for what to do. You’re seeing in this league now that there are fewer and fewer vets. But vets are guys you want to lean on for experience and situations like the playoffs,” Hoggan said of Houston. “The organization last season (Grand Rapids) was really young. The knock on us was that we were going to be too inexperienced for playoff hockey and not tough enough.”
But, the playoff run showed that with the right veteran leadership, they had what it took. The young guys grew and a lot of that can be attributed to having someone like Jeff Hoggan show them the way. Although the Griffins were undeniably talented, they were also inexperienced. The playoff run did not come easily at times. As a leader and a guy with experience, Hoggan saw it as his job to steer the team toward victories.
“The first game against Houston, they took it to us. We kind of talked in the room about getting to the next level and how it’s only going to get harder,” Hoggan said. “Everyone really stepped up. They realized they could play playoff hockey, be physical, and accomplish what needed to be done.”
For the Griffins, not having the popular support was never something that stood in the way. Jeff Hoggan has incredible hockey sense. He never lost faith in his team and never let them lose faith. You can’t be afraid to just feel it out. They knew that they were not going to be sweeping other teams. They had what it took to hang in there. Hoggan knows that you can’t assume anything. This is why you play the games.
“To see what it takes and to see us go to the brink a couple times, was great for the guys. Confidence was gained as we went on further and further,” said Hoggan. “Teams came in strong and even Syracuse at the end came in confident. They thought they were going to take us. I think we surprised people with our skill and toughness.”
Something that can be a problem with a young team like the Griffins last season can be overconfidence after success. Very few of the guys on the team had experience playing in the postseason professionally. It can be easy to caught up in the emotions that come from a win. Hoggan insists that was not the case on his team last season. That level headedness led to a lot of success off the ice for both Hoggan and his teammates. Although had it been an issue, it is something he would have had to address.
“I don’t think we really faced the overconfidence in the playoff run. It was more trying to find the energy at times. You just have to remember that it’s all worth it at the end. Guys put a lot of the individual concerns aside knowing that if we did well, everyone in the long run would be rewarded,” Hoggan said. “People want champions and winners. I got a few more years out of it and guys got rewarded with new contracts. Guys are getting a good look in the NHL this year because of last season and because they were battle tested.”
After the season that they had, there were a lot of contracts coming. The guys on the team had proven that they could be successful. For Hoggan, it was a no-brainer to stay in Grand Rapids when the offer came. He had not been sure if the offer was there but his role in bringing the Calder Cup to Grand Rapids for the first time likely gained him notice. He did not want to be anywhere else.
“I’ve been around in my career and I’ve been in a lot of place. I’ve gone overseas. I’ve kind of been there, done that. My goal now is just to enjoy playing the game. If you’re in that right environment, you want to stay there. In your mind, you never really let go of that dream of playing in the NHL. Those days are pretty much over,” Hoggan joked. “It made a lot of sense to stay in a position where I knew what I was getting. I know I’m appreciated here and that I contribute. I couldn’t ask for a better way to finish off my career than here in Grand Rapids.”
Now that Hoggan is towards the end of his career, he can reflect on all the things people told him on his way that he might not have believed. He is not afraid to tell his teammates about how time can fly. And even though the team is young again this season in Grand Rapids, he still feels like he can learn from the young guys while he’s teaching them too.
“It feels like just yesterday I was starting with Houston. Everybody always tells you it goes by so fast. It’s coming to an end here,” he said. “But teams like what we had last year and what we have again this year reassures that I’m still doing what I love. I want to be dong it for as long as I can.”
In addition to trying to soak us as much information as he can, Hoggan sees himself as someone to set an example for his teammates. Obviously, that means putting forth a good effort in practices and games. But that’s not the only important role. The habits you keep up off the ice are just as important. That might get overlooked but it’s something that Hoggan stresses for himself and his teammates. You can work as hard as possible but if you’re not putting yourself in a good position off the ice with diet and rest, you are not going to make that jump to the next level.
“I think it’s just about continuing to do the right things. I think I’m capable of saying the right things at the right time. I think it’s important to lead by example on and off the ice. I pride myself on being physically fit. I work smart rather than just hard these days,” Hoggan said. “Off the ice, even things like keeping a good diet are important. You have to stress that to the younger guys sometimes and that it’s important to get your rest. You have to put yourself in the position to go to the next level. That’s my job. I echo what the coach says and follow his lead. Coach Blashill is one of the best coaches I’ve come across in my travels. It makes the job as captain a lot easier.”
On the ice, Grand Rapids has continued to have a lot of success again this season. They have a pretty decent lead for first place in their division and are behind only the Abbotsford Heat for best in the West. After winning the Calder Cup last season, there are a lot of people waiting to see how they follow up. They are not underdogs anymore and the winning has come to be a little more expected.
“One thing we found early this season with having the wins is that we were less excited about it. It’s a good and bad thing. We know how to win and we’re getting used to it. At the same time, you don’t want to get complacent. There’s no doubt about that,” Hoggan said. “Every day you have to continue to be doing those good things. The guys here want to get to the next level and that’s key. There’s no let up and I think this year, we’ve got some more young guys that you want to buy in right away. We hope we put ourselves to have success both as a team and individually.”
That championship is something that Hoggan will take with him for the rest of his life. It was a special moment that not every player gets to experience in his career. But, he also has had some opportunities that were more important in shaping him as a player. He played in the BCHL for a year before spending 3 seasons playing college hockey. After that point, he had not been drafted. That means he’s had to work that much harder to earn every chance he’s gotten. He now takes that experience and shares it with younger guys hoping to get their shot in the NHL.
“There’s no doubt that when you win a championship, all the work put in, that’s something you carry with you forever. To get a chance in the NHL, after being undrafted, with St. Louis was pretty special. Those games were some that I’ll always remember,” he said. “Down the road, I’ll still be so grateful for every opportunity that I was given. Winning now and helping young guys grow is my role and I’m really embracing that.”
At the end of the day, it’s always going to be hard work that wins out over everything else, as far as Hoggan is concerned. Skill only gets you so far without the desire to work and the dedication to get better. He knows that you can never be complacent because there is always more to be done.
Hoggan says that he is coming towards the end of his career as a player but I don’t think he’ll leave the game completely. With the experience that he has and the great hockey sense, he would make an excellent coach. It’s clear that as a captain, he views himself as a leader that has to support the coaching staff. Even if he is just trying to be a good leader, you can assume he’s probably learning a lot from the coaches himself. Sometimes the best coaches are former players with the wide spreading experience someone like Jeff Hoggan has.