Route M-96 in the heart of Michigan can transport a hockey player to a lot of dreams.
Grand Rapids Griffins rookie center Justin Abdelkader
has used the road to travel from high school hero to a college storybook ending to NHL fairy tale to AHL hotshot.
"I feel like I've been at every stop," said Abdelkader, who was speaking of geographical destinations, but just as easily could have been referring to rungs on the hockey ladder.
How far can he take the Interstate? Well, it's 192 miles long, but Abdelkader looks like he's going a lot farther than that.
At the tender age of 21, Abdelkader is already staking a claim as his generation's Forrest Gump. Except that Tom Hanks' character was simply in the right place at the right time, while Abdelkader has created his own good fortune with talent and hard work.
He's weaved his way along M-96 through the connecting cities of Muskegon, where he was named the state's "Mr. Hockey" in high school; to East Lansing, where he was a standout at Michigan State; to Detroit, where he got a quick taste of the NHL for the Stanley Cup champ Red Wings last season; to Grand Rapids, where his 7 goals and 2 assists in 7 games for the Griffins in October earned him AHL rookie of the month honors.
"It's hard for it to sink in, how fortunate I really am," he said. "I try to live in the moment. When I step back and think about everything that happened, everything fell in line perfectly for me."
For as much as Abdelkader has locked his home state into a tight embrace, his key career move might have been temporarily leaving it. In 2004-05, what would have been his senior year in high school, he decided to play for Cedar Rapids of the USHL.
The choice gave him wider exposure against better competition, and he milked that for every drop by producing 27 goals and 25 assists. Detroit then plucked him in the second round of the 2005 draft.
"I wasn't really on the radar. No NHL scouts come to high school games, not even college scouts," he said. "I had to have a good year in juniors. I felt like I got better and better as the season went on."
Abdelkader skated back to the nest to play for Michigan State. As a sophomore he potted the game-winning goal in the NCAA title game against Boston College with just 18.9 seconds left to give the Spartans their first championship in 21 years.
"It's a combination of everything. It's a little luck, being in the right place at the right time," he said of coming through in the clutch. "Hopefully it's something I bring to each team. I think it brings out the best in me, playing under pressure."
Grand Rapids coach Curt Fraser
said big-time efforts and players like Abdelkader are more than just a random pairing.
"I just think he does things correctly when he's on the ice, and it puts him in position to be successful," Fraser said. "He's one step ahead. He has very good habits on the ice. When you're a kid like Abdelkader, you prepare yourself for the moment when it happens."
After a junior season in which Abdelkader contributed 19 goals and 21 assists for the Spartans, he was invited to join the Red Wings at the end of the season. That was another golden lottery ticket.
Abdelkader made his NHL debut with Detroit in its Presidents’ Trophy-clinching win, April 3. vs. Columbus. He happily toiled as a black ace during the Red Wings’ title run, hoping some of the brilliance of his hometown hockey heroes seeped into his game by osmosis.
"Seeing how much dedication they put into it is amazing. They don't win by accident, that's for sure,"
Abdelkader said of his first impression of the big time. "It trickles down to the younger guys like us. It's hard not to look around in awe. But after the first couple of days, they are line ordinary guys."
If there was any potential stretch for an Abdelkader dry spell, it would have been at the start of this AHL season. While Grand Rapids is a fresh challenge for him, it's also a demotion from the place Abdelkader ended last season.
Few things can match the excitement of a backstage pass to a Stanley Cup. The emotion of winning an NCAA title for your backyard school is also overwhelming. A chance at the Calder Cup, if it comes at all, is one very long minor-league season away. But Abdelkader scored a goal in each of his first 2 games, ripped off a hat trick in his fifth and went from there.
"When you get to that next level, they don't care what you did (before). You have to prove yourself at every level," Abdelkader said.
"Certainly, Justin is making a case for his role in the future with the Detroit Red Wings
," Fraser said. "He has good skill, great speed and is tough. From the opening faceoff at the Traverse City prospects camp, he's been an impact player. Every game he steps on the ice, you notice something from this kid. He's a special player."
They may be biased, but a large group of Griffins fans agree. With Muskegon just 40 minutes from Grand Rapids, Abdelkader has a sizeable cheering section at every game and even more reason to appreciate staying close to home.
"I feel really fortunate to be able to play in front of my home fans like this. I just want to make them proud," he said. "It's not pressure. The pressure is just to have a winning team here."
That task couldn't be in more credible hands.