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Athanasiou gets a leg up

by Andrea Nelson / Detroit Red Wings

Andreas Athanasiou, the Red Wings' fourth-round draft pick last month, is getting used to life as an NHL prospect in Traverse City this week. (Photo by Dan Mannes/Detroit Red Wings)

TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. – Most hockey players listen to their favorite pregame music before taking the ice. Andreas Athanasiou has a different strategy. He plays sepak takraw.

Sepak ta-what?

“It’s like a foot volleyball,” Athanasiou said of the sport. “I got started in grade 8 and I went in the summer with my school, I went to Calgary for an All-Canada championship, we finished second. It’s a pretty unique sport. It involves a lot of athleticism so I picked it up and got used to it.”

It’s hard to imagine how any athlete could get used to the awkward twisting movements the sport demands. Sepak takraw is native to the Malay-Thai peninsula and only allows players to use their feet, chest, knees and head to touch the ball.

The agility Athanasiou acquired through sepak takraw translates well to his hockey game. He doesn’t mind that the sport isn’t popular. It’s his secret weapon.

“I think just because it’s a unique sport and not many people know about it, having the ability to play a sport that not many know about and be able to succeed, it’s just really good,” Athanasiou said.

A sepak takraw ball might even make an appearance in the locker room if Athanasiou decides to culture his teammates. But before taking on that challenge, they’ll have to conquer the 17-year-old’s last name.

Athanasiou has heard his name pronounced in every way, shape and form since the Red Wings drafted him in June. His last name, (Ath-on-es-yew) isn’t the easiest name to say, but that’s a small price to pay for the reward of being a Red Wings’ draft pick.

“It’s an unbelievable feeling, just getting drafted in the NHL and getting drafted by one of the most respected teams in the NHL, the most respected organization,” Athanasiou said of being Detroit’s fourth-round pick. “The people here are very genuine and they’re really welcoming. It’s just an honor to be a part of one of the greatest organizations.”

It’s a goal that the London, Ontario, native started working toward before he had his first birthday.

“I think I was in skates when I was 8-months-old,” Athanasiou said. “I can’t even remember. I just remember sitting on the chair and my dad pushing me and I fell in love with it right at the start. My dad put me in skates and then I was playing in London where I grew up to play my junior career.”

Athanasiou left London to play in Toronto. There’s no place like home, but he found the next best thing when he arrived in a different city. His travels haven’t slowed down either, with his latest adventure bringing him to northern Michigan for the 2012 Red Wings’ development camp.

“I’ve never been to Traverse City,” Athanasiou said. “It’s unbelievable. It’s really nice, the people are nice. At the Cherry Festival they were really welcoming and supportive. It’s an unbelievable place along the beach and it’s really relaxing.”

The prospects haven’t been able to do much relaxing, though. They’re too busy practicing, weightlifting and scrimmaging to do much else. But Athanaiou knows how important this training is to his growth as a player.

“You’re learning a lot of little things,” he said. “They want to make you the best player you can be and they teach you a lot of little things, the ins and outs, and you can bring that back to your development wherever you’re playing next year.”

Despite the long hours, the prospects have still found time to enjoy Traverse City, especially the mini-golf courses.

“Ah, it was alright,” Athanasiou laughed about his mini putt performance. “Not the best, not the worst, I was right in the middle.”

Athanasiou will probably stick to hitting pucks instead of putts. And he’s perfectly fine with that.

“Waking up and knowing that you get to do something you love, I think there’s a passion for the game and you either have it or you don’t,” Athanasiou said. “Ever since I was a kid I had it and I just kept going.”

The forward plans to continue playing with that passion when he returns to play for the OHL’s London Knights.

“Just do the best I can and try to produce as much as possible,” Athanasiou said of his goals for next season. “But it comes with opportunity. Last year we had a deep team in London, going to the Memorial Cup finals. I didn’t get too much ice, I think I was averaging 5-10 minutes, but whenever I get ice time this year I’ll produce as much as I can and just get bigger and stronger.”

Athanasiou hopes to improve his strength and size over the next few years, but knows that development will come as he matures. Remember, he’s only 17 years old. He still has a few years before the Wings will come calling. And when they do, Athanasiou will be ready – sepak takraw and all.

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