Robert Graves is a regular spectator at Motor City Metal Jackets practices, and he’s always early on gamenight at Kennedy Recreation Center.
He’s Andrew Graves’ grandfather. He's also Andrew's biggest fan. And vice-versa.
A year ago at this time, Andrew's playing career - and life - were at crossroads. He had made the Motor City Metal Jackets’ roster during the summer tryout camp circuit, but spent the early part of the 2009-10 season without a regular shift, watching games from the grandstands all too often for his liking.
More importantly, he was still adjusting to life without his father, who had recently passed away after a brief battle with cancer.
“It was hard,” admitted Andrew, who grew up in Allen Park, mere miles from the Metal Jackets’ facility. “I really didn’t like my role with the team. I just wanted to do more, contribute to the team more. When I did get in the lineup, I’d be on a third line as a sort of grinder. I’m not really that kind of player. Fortunately, I had a couple talks with coach (David Cole), and he gave me the chance to prove myself in a different role.”
Graves turned that chance into a steady nightly contribution to the Jackets’ cause, helping lead Motor City to the North Division finals last April. He appeared in the 27 of the team’s final 30 games, finished with a goal and six assists to go with 34 penalty minutes.
“Back before the season, after the final tryout camp we sat down with Andrew and told him he was real close,” said Cole, who is in his second season behind the bench in Motown. “I asked him what other options he had if things didn’t work out, and he really didn’t have other alternatives.
“Then as the season got going, he’d be in for a game, then sit two; in for a game, sit three. A lot of kids might have wondered, ‘Is this for me?’ but he stuck with it and just kept working. By Christmas, he had earned a regular spot in the lineup, and by the playoffs he was among our key contributors.”
Graves has kicked his offensive production up a notch in the early stages of the 2010-11 campaign, potting 11 goals and assisting on five others through his first 21 outings. Last weekend against Port Huron, the floodgates opened for Graves, with six points in a two-game sweep of the Fighting Falcons. He scored twice on Friday in a 4-2 victory, then upped the ante with a hat trick and an assist on Saturday.
“When you gain some confidence, that can take you a long way,” said Graves, who played his Midget hockey with the Belle Tire program in metropolitan Detroit. “I’m getting more playing time, I’m playing a bit of a different role, and it’s been a lot of fun. We have a very skilled team and we have to stay consistent.”
Cole says Graves has achieved his current station through dedication and old-fashioned elbow grease.
“He’s reaping the benefits now of a tremendous work ethic,” Cole explained. “When you bring in a young player, you project what he can become, and Gravy has met and maybe even exceeded expectations. He’s a tremendous team guy. The boys love him. When you get a kid who works that hard, who is such a great teammate, who performs at a high level every time out, and is that low-maintenance 0 that’s a coach’s dream.
“And losing an impact person like a father is tough on anyone. I have a lot of respect and admiration for Andrew and his family. He’s just a wonderful kid.”
Graves’ support system includes a mother, and two older brothers who both played junior hockey - as well as the very game for which they shared a love with their father, Phil.
“It was rough, especially that first season without him,” Graves conceded. “My dad loved me playing hockey, he wanted me to play hard every day, and to succeed. He loved the games as much or more than me. I think about it every day.
“The whole experience certainly opened my eyes to some things. I’m lucky to have a very supportive mom and brothers who have prepared me for everything about the experience of playing junior hockey.”
The Graves family patriarch, who takes up near-permanent residency in the Jackets’ arena during the season, has also been a pillar in Andrew’s development on and off the ice.
“That guy’s just amazing,” Andrew said of grandfather Robert. “He’s there at every practice. He’s the first one in the stands on game nights. He’s there with advice, financially, in every possible way. He’s a great person and couldn’t be any more supportive.”
Cole says that Andrew has the abilities, work ethic and drive required to play at the next level - and that there might be some magic in his twig.
“Andrew can play college hockey, no doubt about it,” Cole explained. “Show me a kid with more heart and determination to go with the hockey skills. You can’t.
“Andrew and I are a couple of Irish guys, so we kid a lot. I rub his stick blade before the games - you know, the ‘luck of the Irish’ thing. But Andrew’s success isn’t the product of luck; it’s the product of hard work. He’s earned every bit of that success.”
NORTH DIVISION NOTEBOOK
CHICAGO HITMEN: The Hitmen went west for Thanksgiving, with a two-game series in British Columbia against Dawson and last weekend’s visit to Wenatchee wrapped around the holiday. Chicago got two goals from Joe Graveline and 43 saves from Peter Mason on Friday in a 6-3 victory over the Wild, the expansion club’s first-ever interdivisional victory.
JANESVILLE JETS: Forward Larkin Jacobson signed on to play for the University of Denver next year, becoming the first Jets player ever to sign with a WCHA club, and the second ever to commit to an NCAA Division I program. Jacobson, of Sioux City, Iowa, has seven goals to go with nine assists in 23 games this season for Janesville.
MICHIGAN WARRIORS: The tandem of Scott Henegar and Andrew Kolb continue to produce for the Warriors, with the duo leading a comeback on Saturday at Traverse City. Henegar set up Kolb with a game-tying goal with 7:01 to play, then Kolb returned the favor with 3:34 to go for another equalizer. Henegar, a Trenton, Mich., product, leads the club with 14 goals and 10 assists through 23 contests, while Kolb (Toledo) has 10 scores and a dozen helpers.
PORT HURON FIGHTING FALCONS: Libertyville, Ill., native Louis Educate is maintaining his torrid scoring pace, scoring a goal and assisting on two others last weekend against Motor City. He now has 11 points in his first eight games with the Falcons. Educate will be returning to the scene of his four-goal outburst (Nov. 12) this weekend, as the Falcons visit the Warriors for a one-game showdown at Perani Arena on Saturday.
SPRINGFIELD JR. BLUES: Springfield enjoyed a second consecutive weekend of rest, but return to the ice this weekend with a pair of games at Chicago. The team is still looking for a mascot to represent the Blues. Ideas are being solicited on the club’s Web site, with a deadline set for Dec. 18.
ST. LOUIS BANDITS: St. Louis fended off a challenge from second-place Janesville last weekend, claiming a 4-3 win on Friday, a 5-1 triumph on Saturday, and a 2-0 shutout in the Sunday afternoon finale. Chris Ciotti led the charge with five goals and three assists and is now third in the NAHL in scoring with 37 points over 29 games.
TRAVERSE CITY NORTH STARS: Defenseman Connor Schmidt (Commerce Twp., Mich.) had four points in his first 21 games this season, but ratcheted his offensive game up a level in a two-game sweep of Michigan at Centre ICE Arena. Schmidt scored his second goal of the year on Friday and added an assist in a 4-3 shootout win, then scored again and assisted on two others in a 5-4 victory on Saturday.