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Catching Up With: Michael Grabner
The first in a series of profiles of former Coyotes
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Introducing Catching Up With, a new story series from AZ Coyotes Insider that will check in with former Coyotes to see what they have been doing with their lives since leaving the organization. The first subject is former Coyotes forward Michael Grabner.
Michael Grabner’s hockey story has always been one of overcoming long odds. Born in Villach, Austria, just north of the Italian and Slovenian borders, Grabner overcame his nation’s lack of hockey prowess to play 11 NHL seasons while making Villach a bit of an NHL anomaly.
Grabner’s absurd speed has always been his calling card, as this memorable tweet from a game in New Jersey reminds us.
Grabner topped 20 goals five times in his career, but as it progressed, he became known as much for his penalty-killing prowess as he was for his speed and scoring ability. While he was with the New York Islanders, he and Frans Nielsen combined for 13 shorthanded goals in 2010-11, and while he was with the Coyotes, he and Brad Richardson made the Coyotes PK must-see TV, as Grabner led the league in shorthanded goals with six in 2018-19.
Grabner even overcame a gruesome eye injury in 2018 to return to the lineup, and after wrestling with his own concerns, he joined the team in the Edmonton playoff bubble in August and came up big, with three goals in the team’s first six games.
When the Coyotes bought Grabner out in October, it looked like he would have to find another home, but when the NHL opted to return with a litany of COVID-19 protocols in place, that was one challenge that Grabner was not willing to overcome. Instead, he spent the past season reconnecting with his family and enjoying life in the Valley instead of returning to his hometown nation of Austria.
I sat down with Grabner over breakfast in Scottsdale on Thursday to catch up with one of the more affable Coyotes in the organization’s history.
What have you been doing for the past nine months since the playoff bubble in Edmonton?
Mostly just kid things. I have gone on the ice with (my son) Aidan’s teams. He just turned 10 in March. I don’t know if I will do more of that, try to sign up online for coaching and learn a little more. I see (former Coyote Zbyněk Michálek) all of the time and there are a few (ex-Coyotes) there. I like my son's coach and I like working with the kids. We played in a couple of spring tournaments where we mixed the kids together and there were teams from California and Vegas and I head-coached him. That was fun. I helped out a little bit on the ice with the Junior Coyotes, too. We traveled a couple times to Texas for tournaments and hopefully we’ll have more next year.
How do kids react when a guy like you steps on the ice?
It’s weird to me. I never get the whole celebrity thing. I don’t see myself as anyone special. To me, when I go out there, it’s just like you going out there with your daughter or son. I don’t talk to them any differently. I just joke around. That’s why I like that age, 9-10. I don’t think I could do 13- to 14-year-olds that have their own mind. I can joke around with these kids but also tell them to try things. My son doesn’t look at it any differently and that’s what I want with them. I just want to get a special connection with them.
Why did you decide to stay in Arizona this season?
What was happening in Europe (with COVID-19) was a part of it, but I have kids in school so I can’t just rip them out and put them in a European school. Besides, I like it here. It’s nice. You can’t beat the weather and the quality of living here.
We don’t know what the next step is so we're kind of just going with the flow right now. The kids are in school (last week this week), they have their sports and their friends and for me, I like talking to some of the guys I played with last year. G (Conor Garland) came over a few times. I like watching them play. I really didn’t watch too much hockey, but mostly the Coyotes and some highlights here and there.
Why did you elect not to play hockey this season?
The rules all around this season, a lot of things didn’t make sense for me so I told my agent (Jerry Buckley) that I’m not going to talk to anyone so he handled everything. I know that teams reached out but I didn’t even want to know who reached out because then you kind of get sucked into it and think, ‘Maybe I should sign.’ If I had said, ‘I want to go play’ even with all of these stupid rules around the game, then it would have been OK, but I didn’t want to have any outside factors coming in.
I have seen how much stuff I have missed with the kids over the last 10 years because I’m a guy that if I’m doing something I’m all in. Even during a season if they had a practice and I was tired I would stay home and try to get ready for the next day. I was 100 percent into hockey and so you miss a lot of things, especially with traveling a lot. You miss school practices and stuff like that.
Two years ago, my daughter played soccer and I didn’t see one practice or one game because they were on Sundays at like 9 a.m. and we could come home late or play a game that day. Now, looking back at some pictures, it's amazing how many things I missed. It’s just a change of priorities and your thinking changed, too. Even before (the 2020) Edmonton (playoff bubble) I started seeing that; how many things you missed.
Your agent must have had teams calling about you, right?
He did. I talked to one GM out east, he called me personally, and I told him the same thing I was telling you. ‘I’m going to wait to see how the rules look.’ That was about it. A few teams reached out to see, ‘Hey, what is he doing?” I don’t think there were any offers because my agent put out a statement to journalists saying he’s going to wait and they respected that. If we would have pushed for it, I would have hoped that I could have gotten a job somewhere but it is what it is.
How has the past year off impacted your body?
I felt really good. It gave me a lot of time to get healthy. I don’t know when was the last time I had this much time off. When I was playing, I would maybe take a week off and then start training again. This time, I didn’t do a single workout for four months after the bubble. For the past five months, I have been working out again and it’s funny. My body wasn't used to doing nothing. It was like, ‘What’s happening?’
I also got a little bit on the depression side of it. You’re sitting around thinking, ‘OK, what do I do now?’ When you quit, you think, ‘What’s your purpose in life?’ But I got it back pretty quickly by working out, feeling better mentally.
How much better does a body feel after almost a year off from hockey?
It feels good but it’s funny how your body remembers those nicks you have from playing. They’re still there; it lets you know that they’re not gone. Even the eye will sometimes flare up. It’s all good and it’s still the same as when we talked last year. But even my back, when I broke a piece in there two years ago, you do some crazy workout or lift something too heavy and the next day I’ll wake up and my back hurts. Those things will probably never go away but working out can help it.
Do you feel fresh?
I think it’s mostly mental. You can push the body. It’s that thing you always say, ‘Mind over body,’ but mentally, hockey is tiring, having a schedule where you have to be there at 10, the bus is at 11, flight is at 2:30. Your whole life revolves around a schedule. I never liked days off because I felt like shit coming on the ice the next day for practice. Now, your mind relaxes.
In hindsight, are you happy with your decision not to play this season?
I was because I was away but I wasn’t. I talked to guys and saw what they went through. I’m not going to mention names but some of them were really struggling with this stuff, being cooped up in hotels, not going anywhere, taking 16-18 day road trips. At least back in the day if you were in California you could go to the beach, or you could go to restaurants in cities. With all this other stuff factoring in it and all the stuff that I heard, it makes me reassured that it was the right decision for me, to be honest.
Was the Coyotes’ decision to buy you out a shock, and did it sting a bit?
Yeah, it probably wasn’t my happiest time. You don’t ever know what’s happening in this business so I don’t expect anything. I don’t have hard feelings. My first year in the league I was 20 games in with Vancouver and I got traded to Florida. My education started early in my career, getting to know that this was a business.
With a new GM (Bill Armstrong) coming in and a new owner the year (Alex Meruelo) before and then money-wise with all that was going on, for me, it was just another thing to deal with in my career. I have been on waivers, I have been traded, I have been deadline traded, so getting bought out was the last thing I needed on my résumé (laughs). It definitely wasn't fun. I thought I had a pretty good playoff, but again, it is what it is and I don't have hard feelings or get too wrapped up in the business side of things because I don’t do operations so I don’t know what other factors are in their decisions.
How long did it take to move past that?
It happened really quick. I was with the family when it happened. We rented an RV and I think we were just outside of Yellowstone when my agent called me. And I was like, ‘Well, I guess I’ll have more time on my hands now.’ Then we saw a buffalo and my mind was off of it. I wasn't sitting at home dwelling on just. It was probably good that we were gone and busy; had been driving for like a week. I think if you sit at home and think about it, it can get you mad or depressed.
If the NHL returns to normal next season, what is your plan?
I don’t know, to be honest. I even told my wife this. I don’t see past right now. Usually, you can see ahead a little bit, what’s in five years. I have no clue. For me, it was the rules for this year that kept me away, but then you learn a lot on the way by being with the kids and all the stuff you missed and you don’t want to go back to just being 10 percent of the time with your family.
And I won’t be signing here again so then you’re moving somewhere else and moving the kids. That’s something to think about. If it’s a one-year deal, so OK, you're going to move for one year and what then? You’ll have to move again for another year? It’s tough on the family. If I were single or a young guy I could do that, just rent an apartment and then move on. My son is 10 now and he is building up his friends and his team and his school. There’s more factors now than there were back in the day.
People ask me all the time but I just don’t know. I don’t even want to think about it. I’m not going to make a decision now. Right now, it’s still the old season so I am not thinking ahead. I never did that, even when I was playing on the last year of a deal because I can’t influence what comes. I have to finish this and then take what comes in front of me. What if all of these things work out and I say I am going to play and then I don’t have the desire to play? I still have a few months. I’m enjoying this stuff right now with the kids and we’ll see what comes down the road.
What else have you been doing?
The kids are about it. I haven't even golfed much. I have golfed like five rounds in six months. We have been so busy with the kids. It’s impressive to think what your wife did while you were gone all those years. We bring them to school and now it’s homeschooling so it’s even harder to keep them on the computer. My older guy was fine, but the younger one (Olivia, 6) couldn't read. It made a big difference for her going back to school, how quickly she picked up reading and writing compared to being on a computer.
There’s a lot to do with the kids between school drop-off and then school is over at 2:45. Martial arts starts at 4:30 so you get home, you eat something quick, get them dressed and go to martial arts. She goes to martial arts on Tuesday and Thursday and I bring Aidan to hockey practice at 5; we leave at 4:40. It’s all driving. I feel like an Uber driver. It’s fun but you have no time to do anything. I could probably get up early in the morning to do something but I just want to sit there and do nothing.
Have you seen many of the Coyotes?
I went golfing with Phil (Kessel), (Clayton Keller) and (Conor) Garland like 10 days ago, right after the season. (Christian Dvorak), (Nick Schmaltz) and (Jakob Chychrun) golfed ahead of us at Camelback. We played a few holes together as a sevensome.
I talk to (Derek Stepan), too. I talked to (Christian Fischer) and played a little Xbox with him. That kind of slowed down a little bit because people are getting kind of sick of playing Xbox.
Phil Housley has texted me and I have talked to Rick Tocchet a few times.
What was your reaction to coach Rick Tocchet and the team parting ways?
That’s how it is with coaching. If a new GM comes in, it’s a new ballgame. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve been there, if it’s one year or six. If he has a different philosophy or a different vision, it doesn’t matter who you are. If he doesn’t think you fit with the team, you’re out.
They need to build that team with the coach that they want and then they don’t have an excuse. If they don’t succeed then it’s on the GM. Until then, they can always blame the old GM and say, ‘I didn't build this team.’ For me, this is all just part of the business.
Did you miss playing?
Some days I did. When you do something for so long, it's not like you can just say, ‘Oh, it’s over.’ You have all the memories of traveling on a plane and playing and scoring goals. You get these flashbacks. It’s not like you just turn it off and it’s over but those were not as frequent as I would have assumed. I thought it would be worse. The harder part for me is if I don’t play any more, what do I do next? I’ve gotten offers. Someone wanted me to join an agency to flip houses (laughs). You meet a lot of people and get a lot of chances to do other things but I didn’t want to jump into anything right away.
Would you consider playing somewhere other than the NHL?
If you had asked me that a few years ago I would have told you I was going to play another couple of years in Austria for my hometown team. Who knows now with the rules and the changes in the organization with leadership. The league has changed. Five to 10 years ago I would have said I’d play here as long as I can and then go play there for a couple years but there’s other factors now. It goes back to the kids. Even if you go to Sweden or Switzerland, you’re bringing them to a new school with a new language. It’s a weird life, man, with all of these decisions. Can I just be a kid again?
You have some big news coming, right?
We’re going to have a baby in July. We’re waiting to find out the gender. We don’t want to know. We’re excited.
Is your house a bilingual house?
It was, but I have been here two years straight. It's more English now. Usually, when you go home for the summer (to Austria) you pick up your German again when you speak only to your buddies and family. Now, the only time I speak German is on the phone with my parents, so my brain only talks English to the kids whereas before I was pretty good about doing both. Aidan still understands it but he’s not as sharp as he could be and Olivia doesn’t understand it because I have been slacking with her. We haven’t been home in two years.
It’s weird because the U.S. is so big. In Europe, I can drive 40 minutes and be in three different countries, Slovenia, Italy and Croatia. Here, a lot of Americans don't even go to Europe. They have never seen another culture and it’s weird.
When you look back at your Coyotes career, what are the lasting memories?
I liked my time with the Coyotes. I think we had a good team and played some really good hockey at points. We probably could have succeeded a little more but I don’t regret coming here. I met some great people, like G coming in, this cocky little guy, but he’s actually a really good guy. I was surprised how nice it was to play here.
Maybe if they got a new rink it would help but I sometimes wonder, how can it not attract more people. Can you beat this set-up somewhere else? You have a few spots but it is great to play here besides the drive to the arena. You were treated good. I can't complain but maybe I am pretty easily pleased. The only bad thing was my eye but it’s an injury. That can happen anywhere. Living here with your family, so many former sports people retire here. I think they should have one of the best teams every year because it’s one of the best places to play.
It’s funny. I didn’t pay attention to the Coyotes before I came here, although it was one of the places I always knew I was willing to go. I didn't even know half the players in the west because you only played them once or twice a year. It was like two different worlds. I was surprised how much I loved it here. If you can build up a winning culture here, man it will just snowball. The guys I know who have been here just love living here. You just have to spend money to get a good product. That’s the way it is anywhere in life.
Any regrets or things you wish were different?
I don’t know if it’s just my personality but I don't look back at these things. It's over with. It’s not going to change if I regret it or wish it didn’t happen. It’s not going to change the fact that I am sitting here with a broken pupil. It is what it is. You just have to roll with it. It’s like that for anything in life. If something negative happens you could dwell on it for months if you wanted to. I could bitch about getting traded my first time from Vancouver to Florida but it’s not going to change anything. You’ve got to move on. I tell my son that all the time when he gets hit with the puck. I’m like, ‘Yeah, you play hockey. If you don’t want to get hit with the puck don’t play hockey.’ It sounds bad but that’s the way that it is.
Is it safe to assume that when we reach the start of next season, if you still don’t play, then that’s it, you’ll retire? You can't sit out two years, right?
The thing that I don't understand is why do I have to say that I am retiring? People ask me all of the time if I’m retiring. If I don’t play, I just want to move into the background and disappear without any big deal being made of it. That’s me. I don’t want the attention. ‘Oh, he’s retiring.’ And then people are calling. I just want to disappear from the scene.
I don’t know if I’m going to play or not but I don’t know if I need to make an official statement. I don’t know if the league needs me to announce it for insurance, but it’s always funny to me when there's a guy who hasn’t played in like four years and then I read he has retired. I’m like, ‘Yeah, I figured he retired. I haven't seen him in four years. I assumed he was driving a UPS truck.’
Any favorite moments as a Coyote?
Probably the (2020) playoffs, the Nashville series. We had a tough stretch there before the season got cancelled so it actually helped us. Even though we got spanked against Colorado, you see what that team is doing now. I thought we beat a good Nashville team. Seeing Richie score that (series-winning) goal and then afterward in the locker room, it was unbelievable. That’s the stuff you remember.
People always ask what’s your favorite moment. I’ve had so many. I have played for so many teams, met so many people. We were in the playoffs with Vancouver my first ever season. We went up on Chicago in that series and I’m pretty sure if we would have beat them, we would have won the Cup. I was with the Rangers, the Islanders and Toronto. The outdoor games, the Winter Classic. How can you pick one memory unless you win the Cup?
What was the internal feeling when you were a part of that dynamic penalty-killing unit with Brad Richardson?
I had that same feeling with Frans Nielsen in New York (Islanders). For me, the PK is a strategic game. When I play cards, I have a strategy and numbers are floating around in my head; what moves to make. The PK is the same way. You have one guy less so you have to figure out an advantage to help yourself.
Power play guys have a different mentality. They want to score. They’re not worried about hitting you or anything else. They want to move the puck around and score so that’s where it gets fun to pick off passes and go the other way. Eventually, teams catch on and they play a little more passive but that plays into your hand, too, because my main goal is to kill two minutes. Scoring is a bonus and it’s fun but my angle was always to kill the two minutes off in whatever fashion it was. When you kill off two or three in a row you can see their top guys getting frustrated because that’s where they get their cookies, their points.
Everyone could see the advantage that your speed created once you intercepted a pass, but explain to everyone that sixth sense of being able to intercept a pass in the first place.
My stick was somewhat longer because I wasn't the best stickhandler. I used to be when I was younger but then they turned me into a penalty killer. But with anticipation, I tried to teach (former Coyote Brendan) Perlini one year when he asked me. Not a lot of people asked me but I remember him asking and I tried to show him on the ice. It’s all mental. If I know what you are going to do then I have the advantage. It’s all about lanes and angles. It’s math. All I am doing is math in my head.
I have done this for 11 years and I played against some great guys like (Philadelphia’s Claude) Giroux. If you give him something long enough, his brain will make him think that lane is there and he will try to make a pass. If I know there’s an 85 percent chance he is going to pass through that lane, I can try and anticipate it, so I tried to make him pass it to where I wanted it to go. Even if I missed, I was already going in that direction so I wasn't going to be out of position. But if you leave that lane open for two seconds, three seconds, eventually he’s going to pass it and then it comes down to timing, whereas if you’re just reacting to where he passes then you’re always going to be behind.
I can time it. I don’t know what it is, if it’s intuition because I don’t look at their eyes. I just somehow know when he's going to pass it and I move my stick. You see guys that move their sticks the whole time, back and forth in the lanes. What are you going to do with that? He’s just going to wait until you go one way and pass it the other. Even some of the coaches I had told me try to have an active stick to take away a lane, and I’m like, ‘No. That’s what he wants. He wants me to move and then he makes his play.’ I’ll wait for him to make the play then he gets frustrated. Sometimes, it feels awkward because you’re standing there and not doing anything, but he’s not doing anything either so that’s good for the PK.
Early in my career, Giroux and I always used to talk. He’s yelling at me to move and I’m like, ‘No, you move.’ Good players want you to run at them or make the first decision. It’s kind of like a boxer waiting for the first move and then the counter-punch is going to get you. It’s kind of like a cat-and-mouse game. And again, you're not always going to get the puck but at least you’re already moving in the right direction. That’s why I didn’t have to block many shots because my speed and my anticipation put me in a position where guys didn’t want to shoot. And then when you have somebody like Richie or Nielsen that can read off of you, it makes it even easier.
If you don't play hockey, what might you do?
Maybe I’ll coach but as an assistant coach, I don't want to be a head coach. I don’t want to be in the light and having to answer questions. Steps would probably love to do that. I don’t want to talk to parents. I’m not a big public speaker and I don’t like cameras. Other than that, I don’t really know, man. It depends. Am I going to be here? Am I going to be in Austria? What are my kids going to do?
I was part of my hometown team in an advisory role two years ago but then they switched the whole front office so I kind of stepped back and let it go. On the management side, I don't really know much. I know I don’t want to go back to school. I guess that’s why they have all these programs for retiring players, athletes to help them transition to business life and maybe I’ll look into that. Maybe someday I will just wake up and say, ‘This is what I want to do.”
Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter: @CraigSMorgan