Dylan McIlrath is Finally Home with the Grand Rapids GriffinsJanuary 30, 2019
Grand Rapids can boast being an integral part of numerous now-NHL players’ stories. As the primary affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings, the Griffins and their fans have the honor of being considered home by many elite skaters. The trials of the players are often overlooked and reduced to their on-ice stats. How many goals they score become more important than them as people. Their struggles, endless travel, and sometimes never really having a place to call home doesn’t show on paper at the end of 60 minutes.
For Dylan McIlrath, that rings true. Prior to being welcomed into Grand Rapids, McIlrath found himself bouncing around teams. In some cases, several in a season. Upon being signed to the Griffins, however, he has found his place with the team, the city, and the fans.
Dylan McIlrath’s Series of Unfortunate Trades
McIlrath is a crowd favorite in Grand Rapids. For several younger fans, he’s always been a part of the team. The truth is, however, that Mac is only in his second full season as a Griffin. Acquired late in the 2016-17 season, McIlrath was an attempt at adding some big bodies to the Grand Rapids defense. Developmentally, it was a quality team but needed some grit. An unfortunate series of trades that season for Mac resulted in him finally coming to Grand Rapids and getting settled for what he may have assumed, was another short stint.
During the 2016-17 season, McIlrath was traded three times before he found his way to Grand Rapids. Originally drafted in 2010 by the New York Rangers, he spent most of his first pro seasons with the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack. Having a decently successful first four seasons, Hartford dumped McIlrath and shuffled him off to the Florida Panthers. Only playing five games with the Panthers, Dylan found himself once more, packing his bags. This time, he was headed to AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds.
It was a busy season for McIlrath, who got used to living out of a suitcase. You can image the unknown, restlessness that comes with constantly moving. Though having a few seasons with the Wolf Pack under his belt, McIlrath was unable to plant roots anywhere – let alone develop his game.
Grand Rapids Calls the Enforcer Home
McIlrath got the call from Grand Rapids and headed to Michigan. Having established himself throughout his pro years
as an “enforcer,” one of those made up positions in hockey, Mac was a wake-up call for Griffins fans. Grand Rapids wasn’t used to guys willing to throw down… let alone, win. I distinctly remember his first game in Grand Rapids. McIlrath dropped the mitts, revved up the crowd, and they loved him instantly. In the back of his mind throughout the first few weeks, however, you can’t help but wonder if there was lingering doubt. Having been traded so frequently in one season unsettles a player’s mind and their confidence. There’s a reserve with the guys – though not intentionally – which ultimately affects team chemistry.
As the weeks and months wore on, it became clear that not only did Grand Rapids want him to stay, he needed to stay. He was a strength on the ice for the younger and smaller guys but could hold his position and much more than just fight. He quickly became a leader to the rookies. As a veteran himself, he knew the battles of trying to make an impression in a saturated league and taught by example. You could see the confidence building as he settled into his role, believing that this could be home at least for a little while. He played like he believed Grand Rapids could be home.
Becoming a Leader
The season Dylan joined the Griffins was the year they won the Calder Cup. For the first time in his pro career, McIlrath got to lift a cup with teammates that had become family. Allowing himself to become settled in Grand Rapids, knowing he wasn’t going to be shipped off, paid off. That season, McIlrath not only earned the trust of the then-head coach, Todd Nelson, but it made a lasting impression on the team. He wasn’t just an enforcer, that’s just part of his job. He became a leader. To the fans, he was the guy that evened things out and defended our boys. He was also the one that held the blue, made the small plays alongside Brian Lashoff and took the care to instruct Vili Saarijarvi, Joe Hicketts, and Filip Hronek.
The following season, the trend continued for McIlrath. He consistently produced, made the plays and demonstrated what it meant to be a pro. He has become an integral part of the team both during the game and in the locker room. Consequently, McIlrath was awarded the Alternate Captain as of the 2018-19 season. A much-deserved honor, Dylan McIlrath fills the leadership role well. He is a confident element to the guys and to the fans. He takes the time to teach but knows when its time to step in.
The Home Ice Advantage
McIlrath’s journey has been one of transition and living a life like a gypsy – as minor leagues normally are. Finally landing in Grand Rapids has not only been an obvious benefit to Mac, but has changed the dynamic of the Griffins. McIlrath is properly suited for the NHL, but for now, the AHL is where he’s calling home and doing so quite well.
Along with many other floating veterans that have landed in Grand Rapids, McIlrath has embraced the community and is playing comfortably after so many years of being unsettled. The stern-faced, but secretly light-hearted, defenseman has found a place to call home and Griffins fans couldn’t be happier about it.