"This was the goal in my life, to play for the Red Wings one day, and to get this opportunity is something special."
-- Justin Abdelkader
Less than a year after scoring the biggest goal of his career to help lead Michigan State to its third national championship, there was Justin Abdelkader
preparing to hit the ice at Joe Louis Arena after exchanging his collegiate jersey for the red and white of the Detroit Red Wings
Abdelkader kept his cool, despite the fact his stall was stationed right beside veteran goalies Chris Osgood
and Dominik Hasek
, guys he marveled at on television in previous seasons.
"It was surreal and unbelievable at the same time," Abdelkader said. "I grew up in (Muskegon) Michigan and followed guys like (Nicklas) Lidstrom and (Kris) Draper and all the guys on those Cup-winning teams. Now here I am, a 20-year-old kid who just finished his junior year in college, getting the opportunity to wear a Wings jersey and skate on the ice in that arena with the NHL team. I skated before in 'The Joe' with Michigan State, but this was a totally different experience."
Abdelkader would hold his own that evening, earning 16 shifts and totaling 11:20 of ice time with three hits in a 3-2 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets
as Detroit secured the sixth Presidents' Trophy in team history.
"Putting that jersey on just gave me the chills," he said. "This was the goal in my life, to play for the Red Wings one day, and to get this opportunity is something special."
A lot has happened to Abdelkader in a very short period of time, but the 21-year-old left wing has taken it all in stride. He forfeited his college eligibility and attended Wings training camp this fall, but intends to "chip away"' at his degree with just 26 credits remaining. His storybook career includes earning "Mr. Hockey" in 2005 as the top scholastic player in Michigan at Mona Shores High School.
"I give my high school coach (Shawn Zimmerman) a lot of credit for developing me into the player I am," Abdelkader said. "We had a good team in high school and I played on an unbelievable line. When I was up for Mr. Hockey, I really didn't think I was going to get it, but when I did it was quite an honor and that's when everything started fast-tracking. It was a whirlwind for sure."
The year he won Mr. Hockey, Abdelkader was drafted by the Red Wings in the second round (No. 42). In 2007, he would score the decisive goal with 18.9 seconds left in the NCAA Frozen Four championship game against Boston College. It's a goal Abdelkader can still recall frame by frame.
"There was under one minute left and we came down on a 3-on-1 break and I remember shooting and hitting the right post, so I felt like I had just blew my only chance to score since you normally only get one good opportunity at that point in a game," Abdelkader said. "But we regrouped and our defense pinched down and I cycled up and took a spot. Winger (Tim) Kennedy won a battle behind the net, made a quick turn and hit me with a pass right on the tape coming through the slot and I kind of just bang it home. From that point on, I just kind of blanked out because guys were jumping all over the place."
On April 4, 2008, Abdelkader signed an entry-level contract with the Wings.
"My season had just ended at Michigan State (in 2008) after our loss to (Notre Dame) in the regional finals and I had no idea Detroit was going to sign me so fast, but I got the phone call from my agent saying that the Wings would like to sign me and possibly play me on Thursday (against Columbus)," Abdelkader said. "I got into two games, which was an awesome experience for me and I think that really helped me entering training camp this year. Having the opportunity to practice with the Wings during the playoff run and getting to know some of the guys in the locker room will only be to my benefit down the road."
Could the next chapter in the life of Abdelkader get any better? For starters, it'll be interesting to see how long it takes before the 6-foot-1, 215-pound grinder becomes a regular in the Red Wings lineup. After holding his own at the eight-team Traverse City prospects tournament in September and subsequent Wings training camp, Abdelkader was reassigned to Detroit's American Hockey League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins, on Oct. 6.
"If he plays well, he could force his way on at some point," Wings General Manager Ken Holland said. "If he's going to make us better, he'll be on our team, but our history has been that it's hard for young players to make our team. We like players with a professional foundation, but that said, Darren Helm
played just seven regular-season games with us last year and then played a nice role for us during our playoff run."
At the end of the 2007-08 season, Helm was called up from Grand Rapids. He played a vital role as Detroit's fourth-line center in 18 postseason games, posting 2 goals and 2 assists.
"We've got 12 NHL forwards on one-way contracts and many of the younger guys end up fighting for those final spots," Holland said. "But Justin's a local right up the road from Muskegon and we drafted him because we liked what we saw when he played in the USHL (for the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders)."
Abdelkader scored 27 goals and 25 assists in 60 games with Cedar Rapids before stepping on the campus at Michigan State as a freshman in 2005-06. In 124 collegiate games, Abdelkader scored 44 goals, 95 points and 281 penalty minutes.
"We like his size and strength and we like that he plays hard," Holland said. "He can play center and left wing, be a good checker and chip in with the odd goal every now and again; that's what we envisioned when we draft him."
While earning a roster spot is Abdelkader's ultimate goal, he realizes it may take some time.
"Whatever happens, it's an opportunity of a lifetime," Abdelkader said. "I just plan to go out there, play my best, and then hope for the best."
Contact Mike Morreale at email@example.com.