Muskegon native Justin Abdelkader looks forward to improving his game in Grand Rapids on his way to his ultimate destination… Detroit.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Justin Abdelkader has played close to home for most of his young hockey career, with the exception of one year in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“We still talk about it,” said his father, Joe Abdelkader, remembering what it was like to see his son leave for the first time.
“We took him out there and had a nice weekend together before we had to leave him on a Sunday afternoon at the rink. Boy, oh boy, my wife started crying and all of a sudden I’m welling up, and Justin’s showing a lot of emotion.
“We’re a really close family, so it was hard to see him go. He was still only a senior in high school, didn’t know anybody on his team, and had never been away from home. It was hard, but I give him all the credit in the world because he stuck with it.”
It was a big step for the Muskegon native. A high school senior at the time, the future Detroit Red Wings prospect was beginning a journey that would ultimately see him lift hockey’s most coveted trophy.
Celebrating a Stanley Cup championship with the Wings this past summer would be preceded by a number of accolades and other titles, not to mention endless travel for games throughout the Midwest and Canada.
“From the fourth grade on, it was travel, travel, travel,” said Joe Abdelkader, who is a teacher and golf coach at Reeths-Puffer High School in Muskegon. “We looked at it as quality time with the family.”
Justin began skating before he was in kindergarten, showing not only a natural ability to stay on his feet but a prowess with the puck beyond his years.
“Certain kids are blessed with eye-hand coordination and he’s one of those,” his father recalled. “He just seemed to develop a little quicker than everybody else.”
Joe Abdelkader coached his son until he was ready for travel hockey. Justin came to Grand Rapids when he was in the fifth grade to skate at the Southside Ice Center.
“We really had only one rink in Muskegon and that was L.C. Walker Arena, so there was no ice (available) because hockey was booming,” he said. “Justin moved up to the AAA West Michigan Warriors in sixth and seventh grade, so he was based in Grand Rapids for three years of his development.”
As he grew into his body, Abdelkader began attracting attention.
“When he was in ninth grade, he tried out for the USA Hockey Select Festival and that was an important turning point,” his father said. “He made Michigan’s Select-15 team and you could tell right away that he belonged with the other kids there.”
That milestone was significant. His coach in Bantam hockey was Shawn Zimmerman, who also happened to be the coach at Muskegon Mona Shores. As a result, Justin decided to stay home and play high school hockey rather than travel to Detroit.
“I knew if I played high school hockey, I would have a good coach who would push me,” Abdelkader said. “Even though we didn’t play as many games as AAA teams, we were on the ice and practicing.”
But Abdelkader had another decision to make. He played quarterback through tenth grade, until his high school football coach pressured him to attend a football camp.
“I felt I was good at hockey, but I didn’t know where it was going to take me,” he said. “I loved football, but I wasn’t going to give up hockey. Looking back now, obviously it was a wise decision.”
He was invited to play AAA hockey in Detroit after a solid sophomore season – he was an all-state honorable mention selection – but once again opted to remain at home.
“I’m glad I made the decision to stay because I don’t think I was mature enough,” he said. “Plus, I was disappointed that I didn’t get all-state and that fired me up even more for the following year.”
Motivated to excel, Abdelkader enjoyed a banner season. He led Mona Shores High to the Division 2 state championship game and was named Michigan’s Mr. Hockey as the best high school hockey player in the state.
Feeling he was ready for a new challenge, he packed his bags for Cedar Rapids, where he helped the RoughRiders win the United States Hockey League championship. “Everything was falling into place,” he said.
Justin was chosen by the Detroit Red Wings in the second round of the 2005 NHL Entry Draft that June. “We knew a number of teams were interested in Justin, but we never heard anything about Detroit,” his father said.
To top things off, Abdelkader was offered a hockey scholarship to go to Michigan State, the school both his father and maternal grandfather had attended. “I really didn’t have to give it much thought,” he said.
After a strong freshman campaign at MSU, Abdelkader blossomed in his second year, a season which was capped with an exclamation point when he scored the game-winning goal with 18.9 seconds remaining to clinch the NCAA championship.
“We knew we had a solid team but we didn’t know how good we could be,” he said. “We were the underdogs from the get-go, but we just pulled together and played our best four games at the right time.”
After his sophomore season, Abdelkader talked to the Red Wings, who advised him to remain in school. As he had done his first two years, he established personal bests in goals, assists and points during his junior season.
When the Red Wings offered him a contract this past spring, he jumped at the opportunity – although he had to promise his dad and mom (Sheryl, a nurse at Hackley Hospital in Muskegon) that he would finish his degree.
Abdelkader was looking forward to going to Detroit’s training camp in the fall, but the Red Wings had other plans. The day after signing his deal – as the family was preparing for a Florida vacation – Abdelkader got the call to come to Detroit.
He could hardly believe his good fortune when the Red Wings clinched the Presidents’ Trophy as the regular-season points champ with a 3-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets on April 3 in his NHL debut.
“I was a ball of nerves because this was something that I had always dreamed about as a kid,” he said. “After the game, (Red Wings captain) Nick Lidstrom gave me the puck and congratulated me on my first game, which was pretty cool.”
Seeing Justin on the ice in a Red Wings jersey for the first time was a special moment his parents say they will never forget.
“Waiting to see him come out on the ice was crazy,” Joe Abdelkader said. “Like I tell everyone, if he never plays another hockey game, at least he got to wear the winged wheel once.”
He played again three days later, then stayed with the team during the entire Stanley Cup playoffs. When he got to skate with the trophy after the Cup-clinching win in Game 6, he was sure he was dreaming.
“Not too many guys get the opportunity to jump from college to the pros, let alone win an NCAA title and the Stanley Cup,” he said. “I’ll never forget those things for the rest of my life.”
And now he gets to return to his backyard and show that he is ready to make his next move, one which he hopes will eventually land him back in Detroit permanently.
“It’s my first full year of pro hockey, so I just want to improve my game and see what happens,” he said. “I definitely want to do what’s best for my development.
“If I can develop my game here in Grand Rapids, I’ll be able to make sure I’m well-seasoned and ready when I get called to the NHL level. I’d rather play a lot in Grand Rapids than be the 12th or 13th forward in Detroit.”
Besides, it means he can be closer to home, which, in his case, has always been a good place to be.
Abdelkader feels the time he spent with the Red Wings during the playoffs last season was priceless.
Not only did he get a chance to improve his game as a member of the “Black Aces” practice squad, but he also forged friendships with future teammates.
“Being with them through the playoffs was a great experience and really gave me a lot of confidence,” he said. “It allowed me to become familiar with the Detroit systems, which are totally different from what we ran at Michigan State.”
He also learned what it takes to be dressed in your gear when you’re on the team trying to clinch the Stanley Cup championship. Players not in the lineup have to scramble to put on their gear – too early could jinx things, too late could mean you miss the celebration.
The process becomes complicated in overtime when the game is decided in a second’s notice. Watching Game 5 stretch to three overtimes practically drove the practice squad to the edge.
“It was a great game to watch – pucks going off posts, goalies making big saves – but it was nervewracking. We had to huddle in the lounge after each overtime period to make sure no one saw us.”
The final minutes of Game 6 were harried, to say the least. “We waited for (Chris) Chelios to give us the sign, but there was hardly a whistle in the last 1:30, so a lot of us had to hurry to get dressed in time,”
“It was fun to go out there and get to skate on the ice and celebrate the Stanley Cup championship.”
Abdelkader would love to repeat the experience in Grand Rapids. “I’ve played on every stop on I-96 from Muskegon to Detroit, so it will be neat to be able to play so close to home. Hopefully, the Griffins can turn things around this year.”
Regardless, his parents will likely be there, along with his older sister Jamie, who was recently hired to teach in the Rockford Public Schools system.
“We’ll have two kids living and working in Grand Rapids, so we’re planning to go to all of the home games,” Joe Abdelkader said. “We’re even looking at our schedules in hopes of attending a few of the away games.”
Needless to say, the whole family is excited, he adds. “Hockey has encompassed what seems like our entire life, so we’re not going to miss anything now.”