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Utah Grizzlies: New-look Grizzlies franchise gears up for start of new ECHL season Friday

Published: Thursday, Sept. 3 2015 9:41 p.m. MDT

Utah Grizzlies' Evan Kostopoulos, right, takes off down the ice as the Grizzlies play the Alaska Aces in ECHL hockey action at the E Center in West Valley City on Friday. The Grizzlies won 7-3. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Utah Grizzlies' Evan Kostopoulos, right, takes off down the ice as the Grizzlies play the Alaska Aces in ECHL hockey action at the E Center in West Valley City on Friday. The Grizzlies won 7-3. (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)

WEST VALLEY CITY — To call the Utah Grizzlies a new-look minor league hockey franchise would be a huge understatement.

After all, the Grizzlies have a new head coach/general manager in Tim Branham, a new National Hockey League affiliation with the Anaheim Ducks, and a new Double-A affiliation with the American Hockey League's Norfolk Admirals.

What's more, Utah's roster is filled with plenty of new faces, as only five players return from last year's club that reached the first round of the ECHL playoffs.

The youthful-looking Branham, 32, is a Wisconsin native who comes to Utah after serving as an assistant coach for the ECHL's reigning Kelly Cup champion Reading Royals.

He promises Utah hockey fans a Grizzlies team that will be hard-working and tenacious on the ice, heavily involved in the community off the ice, and one that is full of high-character individuals who do things the right way in the arena — and when they're not there, too.

"Obviously, the goal is to make the playoffs and win a championship every season," he said at Tuesday's annual Face-Off Luncheon and media day at Maverik Center. "For the fans, we've put together a team that won't disappoint. They're a blue-collar team; they work hard and they've got a lot of character. And, win or lose, every night the fans are going to be proud of 'em.

"I think if you build a team that way, with character, you're going to have more wins than losses. ... That's what you need to win, because there's so much adversity during the season that you need character in that locker room to lead guys in the direction you need to go.

"Character wins championships, and the character's through the roof in that locker room," Branham said proudly. "It's a fast team; they're quick and they've got a lot of skill, and it's gonna be an exciting brand of hockey for the fans."

Last season, the Grizzlies enjoyed their highest attendance figures in a decade, which is made even more impressive considering they won just 29 of their 72 regular-season games with 30 regulation defeats, four overtime losses and nine shootout losses.

Branham, who is highly impressed with the area, the people and the facilities that Utah has to offer, says that in order for the franchise to continue its popularity at the ticket office, the Grizz must continue to be involved in the community and let the fans get to know them off the ice.

While that's vital to build the fan base, it's also important that they give a full effort every night on the ice, too.

"We need to keep getting out in the community," he said. "This is really a family-oriented community; they're all about a sense of pride in family, and we need to get out there and we need to make ourselves part of the community. I think if fans get to know the players and they can relate to them, they're going to want to come watch them play.

"So getting out in the community and then obviously taking care of business on the ice, being an exciting brand of hockey, and leaving it all out there, that's the key. The fans, obviously, they want to win, but more importantly, they want to see you give it your all every single night, and that's what we owe to them. And that's what this team is built to do."

The Grizzlies have five returnees from last year's squad, which lost to the Ontario Reign in the opening round of the playoffs. That group includes forwards T.J. Battani, Berkley Scott and Brent Gwidt, defenseman Martin Lee and goaltender Ben Meisner, who finished last season with a flurry of strong performances.

Branham knows that rosters fluctuate constantly in the ECHL, with players being called up to the AHL or NHL while injuries always take their toll, too.

But he feels like he's got a squad that can be highly competitive in the weeks and months to come of the ECHL season, which gets underway Friday when the Grizzlies host the rival Idaho Steelheads at 7:05 p.m. at Maverik Center.

"Things change daily, and to win at this level, it takes timing; it takes luck; it takes staying healthy. But right now we definitely have the horses to do that," he said.

"Sure, I want to see all my guys go up to the American (Hockey) League, right? But right now, we definitely have the horses to win."

EMAIL: rhollis@desnews.com

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