DETROIT – Watch Justin Abdelkader on the ice during an average 40-second shift and it becomes abundantly clear there’s no quit in his game.
The same can be said about his academic pursuits.
See, when the Red Wings’ star began his collegiate career at Michigan State University in 2005, he was determined to finish what he set out to do – win a national championship and earn an undergraduate degree.
His game-clinching goal in the waning seconds against Boston College in the NCAA finals lifted the Spartans to the national championship in 2007.
Now, as a newly-minted college graduate, the Muskegon, Mich., native can say he’s achieved both.
“It was something that I kind of promised my parents when I left (home) that I would get my degree,” Abdelkader said. “It’s something that I’ve always wanted and I think it’s a huge accomplishment, something that you’ll need one day whether it’s in the business world or coaching college hockey. To me the degree is important.”
From start to finish, it took nearly 10 years to complete. But it was all worth it for Abdelkader when he finally finished the prescribed requirements for his general business management degree – with over a 3.2 grade-point average – from MSU’s Eli Broad College of Business.
Unfortunately, Abdelkader won’t be at Saturday morning’s commencements at the Breslin Center with all the other recent graduates. He’ll be at practice at Joe Louis Arena where the Red Wings will be preparing for Sunday’s game against the Calgary Flames.
An intelligent student athlete, Abdelkader carried a 3.5 GPA through Mona Shores High School, where, as a junior, he also received the Mr. Hockey award from the state’s high school hockey coaches association.
After spending a year in Cedar Rapids, Iowa with the USHL’s RoughRiders, Abdelkader had his MSU path figured out, beginning with his academic major.
“I didn’t know exactly what but general business management would be something that I’m definitely interested in,” he said. “There are a lot of different ways with supply chain, finance, and accounting, I took a lot of different classes.”
After three seasons with the Spartans, Abdelkader headed to Detroit, where the Wings signed him to a three-year entry-level contract.
But he never fully left East Lansing.
Online classes and independent study programs helped Abdelkader remain on course. In the summer months it helped that he lived on campus, where he found it much easier to juggle the school work and every day training sessions.
“The summer classes aren’t as bad. It’s a shorter semester,” he said. “I got to train there, work out and skate, so it all kind of worked out well that I could be there.”
Aside from occasionally being recognized, Abdelkader didn’t feel like a non-traditional student, though he was fine with flying under the radar most of the time on campus.
“You don’t just have college-aged students in the business college, you have some older students, the classes in the summer are smaller,” he said. “It was a wide variety, so I didn’t feel out of place too much.”
According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the graduation success rate for Division I athletes has climbed to 86 percent, which is two points above 2014 figures and the highest rate ever.
Considering the number of NHL players that have gone to U.S. colleges only to turn pro before graduating, Abdelkader’s personal accomplishment is nothing short of remarkable.
There are nine current Wings’ players who went the college hockey route over developing their games in the Canadian junior leagues. Only Abdelkader and Luke Glendening possess college degrees.
Seven other Wings were student athletes at U.S. universities. But Jimmy Howard, Maine (2002-05); Drew Miller, MSU (2003-06); Brendan Smith, Wisconsin (2007-10); Gustav Nyquist, Maine (2008-11); Riley Sheahan, Notre Dame (2009-12); Danny DeKeyser, Western Michigan (2010-13); and Dylan Larkin, Michigan (2014-15) are a number of credits from fulfilling their requirements.
All but Miller and Howard have recently said that they’re still working toward their graduations.
Nyquist hasn’t put a timetable on when he’ll finish, but he’s closer to graduating than any of his teammates.
“I’m lucky that I’m only missing five classes, so I’m not that far off,” he said. “It probably would be a pretty quick fix. Hopefully I can get it done before I’m done with hockey. But it’s just hard to the find time.”
|Abdelkader's Bachelor of Arts degree from MSU's Eli Broad College of Business. (Photo by Dan Mannes/Detroit Red Wings) |
For many athletes, not just hockey players, the security of a large monthly paycheck is enough to derail an academic career. Then, there’s the time commitment – even in the offseason – that can deter other former collegiate stars from returning to the classroom.
“It’s not easy finishing your degree, especially with us playing a pro sport and getting paid and having a good livelihood,” Abdelkader said. “It’s not easy, but if you can get started right away it makes it a lot easier.”
Abdelkader’s studies didn’t miss a beat. Even after he was offered an amateur tryout, followed by the entry-level deal, from the Red Wings in April 2008 he stayed in class.
Torn between starting his pro career and graduating, he faced a difficult decision when the Red Wings called. The second-round pick from the 2005 NHL draft was a month from finishing the winter semester, while the Wings were days shy from starting their run at the franchise’s 11th Stanley Cup championship.
Since East Lansing is a short 90-mile drive to Detroit, and online courses as an option, Abdelkader figured he could manage both.
“I had 14 credits that I could have easily pushed aside and not finished,” he said. “But I finished during the first and second round of the playoffs. I had a good month of school left for that year when I signed and I still had 29 or 30 credits left after that semester.”
Glendening didn’t have the opportunity to leave school early. The former Michigan captain stayed in Ann Arbor for four years and earned his political science degree in 2012.
“It’s really impressive to be able to do that in the midst of training,” Glendening said. “Obviously, Abby has a bright future ahead of him, so to have that motivation to go back to get a degree, I mean, that’s very impressive.”
Like Abdelkader’s situation, Smith says he too made a promise to his parents that he would finish his course work at the University of Wisconsin. Each summer for the past five years, Smith has returned to the Madison campus.
“I kept getting pressured by my mother, so that’s my driving force,” Smith said. “For myself, if it wasn’t for her I don’t know if I would be going back. Maybe in the end, but she’s a really good driving force for me and my younger brother (Reilly), who took a class last summer and is trying to finish too.”