Growing with the Griffins Pairs Pros with West Michigan Youth Hockey Teams
It was just like any other Monday night hockey practice for the Grand Valley Stars’ Pee Wee house team at the Georgetown Ice Arena in Hudsonville.
The only difference was two very special guests blending in on the ice.
Grand Rapids Griffins players Mitch Callahan and Ryan Sproul were on hand to help run drills, offer encouragement, and pass the puck to their young fans. After practice, the pair signed autographs and posed for pictures.
The special practice was part of a long-running community initiative called Growing with the Griffins. Throughout the hockey season, Griffins players make several visits to youth hockey practices to help teach hockey fundamentals.
Team members inspire players in eight West Michigan youth hockey associations (Grand Rapids Blades, Grand Rapids Amateur Hockey, Grand Valley Amateur Hockey, Hockey Association of West Kent, Holland Amateur Hockey, Kentwood Amateur Hockey, Michigan Nationals, and Rockford Amateur Hockey) as well as those who participate in various Griffins Youth Foundation programs. As part of Growing with the Griffins, youth hockey teams are able to play at Van Andel Arena on Saturday afternoons and attend Griffins games on those nights.
Avery Olenzuk, 11, lives and breathes hockey. His favorite player is the Red Wings’ Gustav Nyquist and he’d love to play professionally someday.
“It’s all he wants to do is play hockey,” said Avery’s dad, Terry Olenzuk.
Getting to practice with guys who’ve been called up to play in the NHL was definitely a great reminder for Avery Olenzuk to keep pursuing his dream.
“It feels good to play with them,” he said. “It’s exciting.”
Bob Kaser, vice president of community relations and broadcasting for the Griffins, helped found the program 14 years ago. He said the team would love to be able to attend more practices than they do and it’s a testament to the character of the Griffins players that the program has been such a success.
“The impact that our players have on kids is just incredible,” Kaser said. “They’re wowed by them.”
It’s easy to understand why young players would enjoy a night playing with their local idols, but what’s in it for the Griffins players? For Callahan and Sproul, the chance to give back means a lot, as it does to their teammates who also take part in Growing with the Griffins practices.
“I love how happy the kids get,” Sproul said.
California native Callahan had the chance to play with members of the Los Angeles Kings when he was growing up. The experience stuck with him and he’s grateful to be able to inspire the next generation of players.
“I’ve always had a dream to be a role model to kids like that,” he said.
Want to inspire your kids to stick with their athletic goals or start pursuing them in the first place? Check out our #MIKidsCan movement, which aims to get all Michigan kids on the path to a healthy lifestyle.
Photo credit: Julie Bitely