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Red Wings give back

Young forwards make their first community appearance as Red Wings with a School Assembly Program visit Monday afternoon

by Josh Berenter @JBerenter /


LIVONIA, Mich. -- Andreas Athanasiou is an NHL speedster who's been a highlight-reel waiting to happen in his short stint with the Red Wings.

On Monday afternoon, Athanasiou added another title to his resume as the 22-year-old forward became a community leader and role model, making an appearance with the Red Wings School Assembly Program at Niji Iro Japanese Immersion Elementary School in Livonia, Mich., for a fun, educational assembly.

With help from Athanasiou and Wings prospect Tyler Bertuzzi, the School Assembly Team opened their program as they usually do at elementary schools across Michigan with an interactive lesson on exercise, healthy eating and the benefits of saving for college or higher education.

But the biggest message that Niji Iro principal Karen Young said she hoped resonated with her students was the emphasis on anti-bullying and the importance of celebrating cultural differences.

"I thought it was a really great message that they shared with us today. The healthy eating is perfect for students, but I really liked the anti-bullying message and embracing everyone's different cultures," Young said. "I think that's exactly what we need nowadays. And especially for our school, it was perfect the kids were able to see how the Red Wings share their different cultures with each other. It was a perfect tie-in to our school."

Although the Red Wings School Assembly Program visits 115 local schools each season, Monday's assembly was a unique one at the Japanese Immersion Elementary where 51 percent of the 207 students are Japanese and 49 percent are American.

According to its website, the school is one of only four of its kind in the U.S., where students are given the chance to be immersed in a second language, while learning from each other and becoming bilingual, respectful and globally minded individuals.

And while Niji Iro was a unique school for the School Assembly Program to visit, Young said she appreciated the originality of the assembly and the inimitable message the program delivered to her students.

"It's different than anything we've ever done before and it came at a really great time with the anti-bullying message that the students needed to hear with the diversity at our school," Young said. "And having role models like Red Wings players deliver it, they're going to take it differently than if it were coming from their teachers or parents."

Monday's assembly was the 56th school visit this season for the Red Wings School Assembly Program, reaching more than 19,000 students so far in 2016-17.

But the visit to Niji Iro was only the second assembly this season where a Red Wings player has attended, and it was one of the only times since the program's inception in 2010 where two players have been involved, which was something Young felt extremely lucky to receive.

"It was very special," Young said. "The students were excited when they thought one player was coming. And when they saw that two were here, they were extremely excited. The message was well received because these guys are role models to the kids, and these kids really look up to the players. So I think hearing from the players meant a lot to the students today."

Athanasiou said he was happy to be part of the educational assembly and deliver such a positive message to the students.

"I think it's a huge thing that they get the opportunity to hear it from us as professional athletes," the Red Wings forward said. "I think a lot of them will listen and take it with them. Even if they (only) take one thing out of it, I think it'll be a good learning experience."

Bertuzzi echoed Athanasiou's sentiments, recalling his youth days in Sudbury, Ontario where he received a similar assembly when he was in elementary school.

"I remember back in Sudbury, my hometown, there's an OHL team there, the Sudbury Wolves, and they came and did the same thing that we're doing for these kids," the 21-year-old Bertuzzi said after his first community appearance with the Red Wings. "I remember being so excited back then. It's good to come out here and support the local schools and make them happy."

In addition to the interactive assembly, each school the program visits receives two full sets of floor hockey equipment complete with Red Wings-branded hockey sticks and nets, courtesy of the Detroit Red Wings Foundation.

Athanasiou said he was thrilled to spend time with the adoring young fans and leave behind the floor hockey equipment for them to use on a daily basis.

"It's definitely a big thing," Athanasiou said. "You can see how happy the kids are to get the opportunity to hang out with us for a little bit, and teach them a few things here and there. And I think it's a big thing that we got to leave them with some ball hockey gear and give them an opportunity to play."

Despite his enthusiasm for being part of Monday's event, Athanasiou couldn't fully participate in the assembly's physical activities because of the sprained knee he suffered in Thursday's game against the Vancouver Canucks which placed him on injured reserve.

But despite the setback, Athanasiou said his knee is already healing and he's eager to get back to the ice.

"It's good," he said. "It's been getting better every day so far. Just taking it day by day right now, and hopefully it'll be ready soon."

The Red Wings return to the ice Tuesday against the division rival Tampa Bay Lightning, where the whole team will continue its community engagement with Military Appreciation Night at The Joe.

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