Meet the Griffins’ new Rinkmaster

Fan support, game attendance convince coach to take on new team
Dan Watson in front of the Van Andel Arena the morning of Tuesday November 14, 2023 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Alfield Reeves.

There is something special about the Grand Rapids Griffins, and it would make many hockey coaches eager to jump at an opportunity behind the team’s bench.

And jump Dan Watson did when his opportunity came calling this summer.

The new Griffins coach is familiar with the Detroit Red Wings system, coming from 14 years behind the bench of the ECHL’s Toledo Walleyes.

The Grand Rapids Griffins hockey team practice at Griff’s Ice House on the morning of Tuesday November 14, 2023 in Grand Rapids, Mich. Photo by Alfield Reeves.

“Number one, you look at the fan support, it’s no secret when you’re in the top five of attendance every year,” Watson said when asked what makes Grand Rapids a successful and desirable American Hockey League destination. “That’s the start of what makes it a special organization, the way the front office does things. Then being part of an Original Six franchise, those are all special things.

“Then just look at the city. I just moved here [along with wife Kim, two daughters, Kenzi and Eileen, and son, Max], but the city comes alive when there are games or events downtown. It’s a clean city and it’s just great to be engrained in the downtown area.”

There are some learning curves Watson, who had a seven-year minor league career himself, has to clear as he moves to the AHL a level above the ECHL in the professional hockey system. The team secured three wins in the first 10 games as the magazine went to print.

“The biggest difference is the amount of development time you spend on young guys, just skating and skills drills,” he said. “Then it’s the league itself. Understanding how the teams play, it’s a different style than the ECHL and there’s definitely a faster speed component.”

But Watson is well-known within the Red Wings system, an organization on the rise thanks to a rebuild by one of its own great players, Steve Yzerman, who is now the general manager. Watson has helped develop plenty of players in Toledo, including 56 future or former Griffins, all while compiling a 272- 112-22-13 record in six season as head coach.

He’s a young talent and is the fastest coach in ECHL history to reach 100 wins, as well as the Walleyes’s all-time winningest head coach. While he twice led the team to the ECHL’s Championship Finals, he never got over the hump — but that’s where his modest shines, highlighting how the Red Wings organization is a team effort, top- to-bottom.

“When the job became available, I had immediate interest, it’s one of those jobs that coaches had circled and if it’s open, you apply,” Watson said. “I had a
lot of success in Toledo, we hadn’t won a championship yet, but it was a good time to get a new coach at the American Hockey League level while also allowing a new voice to get into Toledo to help them get over the hump.”

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