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Griffins captain Jeff Hoggan with Griffins Booster Club memebers Ken Stauffer, Kit Domers, Jill DeWitt and Mary Theeuwes
Like more than 10,000 other Grand Rapids Griffins fans who packed Van Andel Arena last Friday and Saturday nights, Griffins Booster Club president Jill DeWitt went home disappointed this past weekend when her beloved hockey team failed to finish off the Syracuse Crunch to win their first Calder Cup.
But DeWitt wasn't about to give up hope because of a few days delay. After all, she had waited 17 years.
And when the Griffins defeated the Crunch 5-2 in Syracuse Tuesday night to win the Cup, DeWitt, who was hosting a small watch party in her northwest Grand Rapids home, was in a celebratory mood.
"Elated" was how DeWitt described herself after the Griffins' victory.
It was clear that she was celebrating not just this season's championship but the culmination of her 17 years as a Griffins fan. She recalled being one of the first 100 people to get season tickets when the team began in 1996.
And she explained why hockey and the Griffins mean so much to her.
"Because hockey players have heart," DeWitt said. "They play for the love of the game. They don't whine; they don't complain."
"They're our boys," said DeWitt of Griffins past and present.
DeWitt's joy was shared by her fellow booster club members.
"I'm in tears," said Mary Theeuwes, the club's vice-president.
Theeuwes has kept her season ticket in the same seat since 1996.
"I've been in that seat since day one," she said, "and winning this Cup proves to the rest of the city that Grand Rapids deserves a hockey team."
A particularly lighthearted moment in the celebration came when booster club member Harriet Katz broke out two well-aged bottles of ice wine--bottles she bought 13 years ago to help celebrate the Calder Cup title she kept hoping the Griffins would eventually earn.
The wine was enjoyed in small amounts by those present, most memorably by Bertuzzi's Golden Girl, DeWitt's golden retriever named after Detroit Red Wings forward Todd Bertuzzi.
During the course of the celebration, DeWitt received a long-distance phone call from booster club member Barb Ferguson, who drove to Syracuse with family members to watch Tuesday night's game at the Onondaga County War Memorial.
"Seeing the guys here was amazing," says Ferguson, a Griffins season ticket holder for the past 13 years. "You can't put it in words."
Ferguson says that during the game she predicted that veteran defenseman Brennan Evans would do something big.
"I was hoping [he would score] the game winning goal," she said.
Evans, who did not score a single goal in 76 regular season games, did just that.
Ferguson also said that being a member of the booster club makes her feel like she knows the players personally. She recalls being at Peppino's Pizza earlier this season when Griffins players Tomas Tatar, Tomas Jurco and Petr Mrazek recognized her and stopped by her table to say hello.
And Tuesday night, Griffins players made clear to Ferguson and her family how much they appreciated them coming out to Syracuse to support them.
Ferguson says after the game, goalie Jordan Pearce and forward Gustav Nyquist each gave Ferguson's family autographed hockey sticks.
DeWitt also received a text message from Kortney Paek, wife of longtime Griffins assistant coach Jim Paek. In her message, Paek expressed special appreciation for loyal Griffins fans.
"I'm so happy," wrote Paek, "not only for my Jim but for all our supporters and fans who have waited so long."
Several hours after the Griffins' victory, booster club members drove to Van Andel Arena to meet the Griffins team bus, which arrived at the arena from Gerald R. Ford International Airport at 2:20 a.m.
A cheering crowd of several dozen fans met the elated but exhausted team. A four-foot-tall metal fence at the back of the arena separated the team from the fans, but a number of Griffins players and staff members made special efforts to connect with the crowd.
Equipment manager Brad Thompson took the Calder Cup and, walking alongside the fence and holding the cup out to fans, encouraged them to touch it.
Riley Sheahan, the Griffins rookie forward who recovered from a humiliating October drunk driving arrest to post a strong regular season and playoffs, including an assist on Evans' game-winning goal, joyfully ran alongside the fence and high-fived fans.
Jim Paek, accompanied by Kortney, made his way along the fence, shaking hands.
Bob Kaser, Griffins radio broadcaster and vice president of community relations and broadcasting , came up to the fence to talk with fans. Visibly moved by the championship, Kaser reflected on its significance.
"It hasn't sunk in yet," he said.
And at roughly 2:45 a.m., after most of his teammates had left the scene, Griffins captain Jeff Hoggan appeared at the other side of the fence to chat and pose for photos with booster club members.
Asked how he felt, Hoggan smiled and replied with one word:
Tired indeed, after playing 76 regular season games and 24 playoff games and having the cuts and bruises to show for it.
But Hoggan, a 35-year-old veteran of 11 years of professional hockey, anxious to return home to his wife and two young sons, nonetheless thought it fitting to spend some of what little energy he had left to show his appreciation for fans like DeWitt and Theeuwes who had supported the Griffins not only throughout this season but throughout each one of their 17 seasons.
A few minutes later, the crowd had dispersed, no doubt looking forward to Wednesday evening's official celebration at the Van Andel.
David Urban is an English professor at Calvin College. Learn more about him at http://www.calvin.edu/academic/engl/faculty/urban/
Reports on: Human interest stories