DETROIT -- The Detroit Red Wings helped grow the game of hockey at their morning skate Tuesday when more than 50 youth and adult players representing groups that haven't always been part of the sport's mainstream were treated to a VIP experience.
As part of their Hockey Is For Everyone Awareness Day, the Red Wings hosted sled hockey players, LGBTQ players, players with disabilities and others representing all genders, races and socio-economic statuses.
They were originally scheduled to visit last week, but the event was rescheduled after the death of Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch. Many of them attended Detroit's 3-2 shootout win against the Washington Capitals on Saturday, with several taking part in a ceremonial faceoff.
But on Tuesday, they sat behind the Red Wings bench, were treated to lunch in the Joe Louis Arena Legends Club and were able to meet players and coaches. They will also be attendance when the Red Wings host the New York Islanders on Tuesday (7:30 p.m. ET; FS-D, MSG+2, NHL.TV).
The Red Wings were thrilled at the opportunity to meet fans and fellow hockey players, especially those who are getting their first opportunity to play.
"I think I enjoy days like this even more than the people we are meeting," Red Wings defenseman Brendan Smith said. "I remember when I was a kid and I got to meet Brendan Shanahan, who was my hero, and it was an amazing experience that made me love hockey even more. It's really cool that I can do the same thing for other people."
Smith, who did an autograph session on Monday as part of the Hockey Is For Everyone program, thinks this event is more enjoyable because of the outreach to non-traditional groups.
"We're meeting a lot of people who might not have had the chance to play hockey before, and that's always special," he said. "When you become a hockey player, you become a hockey fan, so this program is growing the game with a lot of groups."
Smith wasn't the only player excited about the opportunity to meet the Red Wings' guests.
"This is great. It is a huge part of the whole Hockey Is For Everyone month," Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader said. "The whole idea, like the name says, is to make the sport available for everyone. All of us got a chance to play hockey when we were growing up, and we were lucky enough to end up here. Now we can help give a lot of new people the same opportunity to play.
"It's a fantastic experience."
Abdelkader is American (Muskegon, Michigan) and Smith grew up in Canada (Mimico, Ontario), but the desire to grow the sport goes far beyond North America.
"This is an awesome thing to be a part of," said Red Wings forward Tomas Tatar, who was born in what was then Czechoslovakia. "We get a chance to help people play hockey, something we've loved for our whole lives. That is a great feeling."