Abdelkader’s time with the Red Wings was a dream come true
The photo of Justin Abdelkader that appears on the Players’ Tribune website. “All I ever wanted was to be a Red Wing,” he wrote in an essay on the site.
Justin Abdelkader is anything but bitter after the Red Wings bought out the last three years of his contract.
The Muskegon native expresses his love of the team in an essay he recently posted to www.theplayerstribune.com. In it, he thanks the Red Wings, their fans and the city of Detroit for the 13 years he spent with the team.
“All I ever wanted was to be a Red Wing,” he wrote.
Abdelkader’s hockey roots go deep in Michigan. He was named Mr. Hockey as a junior at Muskegon Mona Shores High School in 2004. Three years later, he scored the national championship-winning goal for Michigan State.
In his essay, the 33-year-old recalled his first trip to Detroit for a Red Wings game when he was a 5-year-old:
“It was a dream I felt like I could reach out and touch when I was five years old and I was at the Joe Louis Arena for the very first time.
“I remember the drive to the arena. The tall buildings of downtown Detroit looked like they went up into the sky forever, and the traffic went down the road the same way. There were red-and-white sweaters and hats on everybody on the sidewalks. There was just this feeling in the air. Like my family and I were going somewhere special. Like it was something that not everybody got to do.
“Walking through the concourse I must have looked like a kid on Christmas Day. I remember running up to the entrance of our section and peeking through the plastic curtains that hid the ice from the hallways — that was when I saw the Joe in all her beauty for the first time.
“It was just perfect.
“I knew that day that I wanted to become part of it.
“And against the odds, I did.”
He also wrote about being drafted by Detroit in the second round in 2005. He got the news while he was with his family at a Buffalo Wild Wings in Muskegon.
“Due to the NHL lockout, only a few players had been allowed to attend the draft in Ottawa. So we went to dinner to await the results of the draft,” Abdelkader wrote. “I was checking my flip phone obsessively, until the moment it lit up with my agent’s name. I picked up to hear those unimaginable words, ‘The Detroit Red Wings drafted you 42nd overall.’
“My jaw dropped. My eyes teared up. My dad nearly fell out of his seat. I jumped up and shouted the news to the entire restaurant.
“I’M GOING TO BE A RED WING!”
“The place blew up. There was yelling and cheering from every booth and table”
Abdelkader first joined the Red Wings at the end of the 2007-08 season.
“I rolled into the Joe for my first time as a Red Wings player on April 3, 2008, after being called up from Michigan State. I had an old beater college car that I drove everywhere. I parked it in the first spot I saw, grabbed my Spartan hockey bag and went for the doors.” Abdelader wrote. “I was in awe just being in that locker room. Darren McCarty – the Darren McCarty – came up to me right away and welcomed me.”
His first meeting with then-coach Mike Babcock was priceless.
“I was so nervous I could barely put on my equipment, let alone go through a full NHL practice. But I made it. We exited the ice and I was feeling like, ‘I got this. I can do this.’
“Then I locked eyes with Mike Babcock … And he’s walking right at me. I’m just hoping there’s someone right behind me he wants to talk to. But, no, he wanted to talk to me.
“ ‘Hey, Abby, is that your car in my parking spot?’ ”
“I thought, You have to be kidding me. And, I mean, Mike was intense. I thought he was going to rip my jersey right off me.
“ 'Oh, Coach, I di—' ”
“And then he smirked and cracked up.”
Abdelkader had unknowingly parked in Babcock’s spot.
He went on to play in his first NHL game that night, against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Abdelkader didn’t play in the playoffs that year but practiced and traveled with the team as it ultimately won the franchise’s 11th Stanley Cup, defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins in six games in the final.
“When we beat Pittsburgh, and it was all over, I really couldn’t believe it. I didn’t play in that game, but I was able to go down to the ice and lift the Cup in a Red Wings jersey,” he wrote. “That’s a moment, a feeling, that I will remember for the rest of my life. That’s what I had dreamed of so many times when I was growing up in Muskegon, Michigan.”
After beginning the following season with Grand Rapids in the American Hockey League, Abdelkader was called up late in the season. This time he saw action in the playoffs, skating in 10 games. And he actually scored the first two goals of his NHL career in that year’s Stanley Cup final, once again against Pittsburgh. But this time, Detroit lost in seven games.
Abdelkader soon became a regular and established himself as a key player with a combination of skill and grit. It earned him a seven-year, $29.75 million contract in 2015 and an ‘A’ on his jersey as an alternate captain.
But his career fell on hard times in recent years. Last season was a colossal struggle. He produced only three points (no goals, three assists) in 49 games and was a healthy scratch on several occasions. But that didn’t tarnish his memories of being a Red Wing.
Near the end of his essay, Abdelkader thanked the Wings “for taking a small-town boy from West Michigan and showing him the ropes. Thank you for letting him grow.”
Then he addressed the team’s current situation with optimism.
“Detroit is tough, Detroit is resilient. I know there are good times ahead. This team is building something special – trust me. I’ve seen this franchise at its best. I know what it takes. It will come. And when it does, that group of players will have the best fans in the world behind them, cheering them on.
“Maybe one day I’ll be in the stands again, with all of you. I’ll remember that dream I had when I was five.”