I live in Grand Rapids, Mich., which is the home of the American Hockey League’s Griffins, the primary development affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings.
While I enjoy supporting the local teams, the Red Wings influence makes that a little difficult for a Penguins fan. Fortunately, there’s a significant reason for a Pittsburgh transplant to push for Detroit’s AHL club: the presence of former Penguins defenseman Jim Paek on the Griffins’ coaching staff.
Paek, 45, signed a one-year extension with Grand Rapids this summer, making him the longest-tenured coach in franchise history, as he enters his eighth season as an assistant. The South Korean-born Paek played parts of four seasons with the Penguins, winning two Stanley Cups in the process, before wrapping up his NHL career with Los Angeles and Ottawa.
He rounded out his playing career in the now-defunct International Hockey League, where he had began his pro hockey career with the Muskegon (Mich.) Lumberjacks. He also played in the West Coast Hockey League and the British Ice Hockey Superleague. Paek then began to pursue coaching, serving a pair of seasons in the minors in that role before coaching at the youth level.
Paek was hired as an assistant in Grand Rapids in 2005 and the Penguins’ ninth-round pick in the 1985 NHL Draft has become a fixture in West Michigan. He recently spared a few minutes to speak with me, and I thank him for that.
Matt Gajtka: First of all, congratulations on the new contract extension with the Griffins. What has made it a good fit for you in Grand Rapids with this organization?
Jim Paek: I’ve become very familiar with the team and the city and it’s been an outstanding experience. Detroit has a great organization and it’s fun to be a part of it. We get quite a bit of input from the Red Wings staff and working with guys like [Detroit head coach] Mike Babcock is very enjoyable.
MG: What type of coaching is effective at the AHL level, where you’re one step away from the best league in the world, yet there can be a lot of uncertainty and change throughout the course of a season?
JP: You have to constantly reinvent yourself and adjust. In the AHL, you have a combination of players with college experience, kids right out of juniors and older players who are very effective at the AHL level but may not necessarily be moving up anymore.
You really have to be kind of a chameleon, because you don’t know what’s going to happen.
MG: How do you prepare players for that uncertainty? It seems like a player may have to suddenly take on a larger or smaller role depending on what kind of moves the organization is making.
JP: It’s very difficult at times. I think you’ve got to handle it differently for each player, because everyone’s character is different. No matter what, you have to find ways to motivate guys to perform at a high level no matter what happens. The job ranges from molding guys for the NHL to making sure someone who’s been sent down accepts that and fits back in with the team.
MG: What kind of feeling do you get when players you’ve coached make it to the NHL (Jimmy Howard, Jiri Hudler, Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm, Tomas Kopecky) and excel there?
JP: It’s a fantastic feeling. I’m really a “superfan” for those guys when they make the NHL, whether it’s for Detroit or another organization. I just stand up and cheer for anything they do when I get a chance to watch. I just hope they can compete the way they did when they were in Grand Rapids.
I’ve also had a chance to coach the “Black Aces” [spare players called up during the Stanley Cup playoffs] and work alongside players like [Pavel Datsyuk ] and [Nicklas] Lidstrom, so that’s been a great experience, too.
MG: You played not too far from here in Muskegon when you were coming up in the Penguins organization. Did you have a feeling a championship team was developing there?
JP: Oh sure. Of course we had the horses in Mark Recchi and Kevin Stevens, but it was truly a great team in Muskegon. Guys like Jock Callander and Dave Michayluk were outstanding players for us and then you injected the big studs into the mix.
In Pittsburgh, you knew it was going to be a successful team because we had Mario [laughs]. But [general manager] Craig Patrick did a wonderful job putting it all together and making it a Stanley Cup team.
MG: What do you remember best from your time in Pittsburgh?
JP: There are so many memories. We recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of our second Stanley Cup and you just remember the great stories of the guys, especially off the ice. Of course you remember making the playoff runs and winning, but your teammates and your memories with them really stand out.
MG: Did you feel welcomed right away when you got called up to the Penguins?
JP: Definitely. Pittsburgh is an amazing town. I still get goosebumps every time I go back there and remember my days there. I had the most success in my [playing] career there so I remember it very well.
The people of Pittsburgh are really wonderful and they receive you so well. Even today, they’ll recognize me and say “thank you” for the Stanley Cups.
MG: What did it mean to you to be the first Korean-born player to raise the Stanley Cup?
JP: Just to win it was a dream come true. It’s what you shoot for from the time you’re a young player and just to win it was incredible.
Beyond that, it was great to represent Korea in that way. The Korean community really embraced me and that was a true honor.