DETROIT — With baseball on Independence Day, football on Thanksgiving and basketball on Christmas, the NHL is the only major sports league in America to honor a holiday by taking a three-day break.
The time off is a chance for players to celebrate Christmas with loved ones, unwind, and exchange gifts.
“We play 82 games so that makes it a little bit different but it’s pretty cool to get that time off,” defenseman Brendan Smith said. “We’re always going, I feel like we play every second night. So for them to give us this time, it’s very convenient for us and it’s different than other sports, obviously, but it’s cool for us because then we get to sit down and watch some of those games and relax with the family.”
The Red Wings haven’t played on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day since 1972.
An avid sports fan, Smith will enjoy his down time by taking in some of the games that take place in addition to his abnormally large Christmas Eve party at the Smith house.
“We throw a pretty big bash on the 24th, just to have a lot of family and friends over. Do a little presents that day, that’s a pretty good experience. My parent’s house isn’t the biggest but it’s all packed with people so it’s pretty cool to have everybody there.
"It looks like a packed bar because there’s so many people there and nobody’s moving, everybody’s yelling and shouting. It’s pretty fun.”
Also going home for the holidays is Kyle Quincey, who will make the three-hour drive across the U.S./Canada border to his hometown of Kitchener, Ontario. He said one of the perks of playing in Detroit is being able to make the quick trek home.
“We have a golf simulator in our parents’ house so we play a nice round of golf on Christmas Day,” Quincey said.
Some Red Wings don’t have the luxury of going home, like Slovakia native Tomas Tatar. In which case, his family and brothers come to Detroit to visit during the winter break. He said the Slovakian Christmas celebration doesn’t differ that much from the American Christmas, with the exception being the food.
“It’s like potato salad with carp and chicken,” Tatar said about his favorite Slovakian holiday dish. “I don’t know how to explain it, it’s like a special made chicken.”
Food preparation, gift-wrapping and preparing the house for guests are holiday struggles that most Wings aren’t exempt from. But somehow, Justin Abdelkader — who’s hosting the Abdelkader family Christmas party for the first time at his home in Muskegon, Mich. — will get through the three-day break relatively unscathed.
“Actually, my parents luckily are doing a lot of the prep work,” he said. “So I’ll get back late the 23rd and won’t have much time to prep that way.”
For others, it’s a chance to give thanks to the people who have helped them along the way to becoming Wings. Like Stephen Weiss who will celebrate the holiday with the billet family that he lived with while playing junior hockey for the Plymouth Whalers.
“I’m very close with them still,” Weiss said. “Their son — who’s a year older than me — I’m actually the godfather to his boy so we’re very close. We try to see them as much as possible. Obviously, it’s tough during the season but they’ve come down to visit me in Toronto a couple times. So yea, they’re a huge part of my life.”
The Alberty family served as a home away from home for Weiss during his OHL career from 1999 to 2002. He said moving away at 15 years old to pursue a hockey career was not easy and that the Albertys helped him through a crucial part of his life. Being so close to them now in the state of Michigan, it was an opportunity for Weiss to include them in his family’s festivities.
One game stands in the way of the Wings and any holiday plans they may have this week in addition to another game coming out of the break as well. Both contests are against Atlantic Division opponents as the Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators are in last place and second-to-last place respectively in the highly competitive eight-team division.
The Wings are tied for fifth place in the NHL averaging just 8.8 penalties in minutes per game while both the Sabres (13.5) and Senators (12.4) are among the most penalized teams in the league. Emphasis on discipline, staying out of the penalty box and winning the special teams battles could be the difference maker in this week’s coming schedule.
With that, here’s a look ahead to this week in Hockeytown:
TUESDAY vs. BUFFALO (13-18-3):
Center - BUF
Goals: 8 | Assists: 14 | Pts: 22
Shots: 78 | +/-: -8
While the Sabres 28 points this season tops only the Edmonton Oilers, Carolina Hurricanes and Arizona Coyotes in the NHL, the team has been on its hottest stretch since April 2013. The Sabres have gone 10-5-0 picking up 20 points in a 15-game stretch for the first time since the lockout shortened season. Additionally, the Sabres strung together a four-game winning streak including a 1-0 victory over the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings. The Sabres won the previous matchup with Detroit in a shootout, 3-2 in Buffalo. Now, they will travel to Joe Louis Arena where they haven’t won since October 13, 2006. The Sabres are 1-12-0 when trailing after the first period and haven’t come back from a deficit after the second period yet this season.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Center Tyler Ennis was named the NHL’s First Star of the Week last Monday after recording five points in three games during the Sabres winning streak. The 25-year-old leads the depleted Buffalo offense — Buffalo averages a league-worst 1.76 goals per game — with eight goals and 22 points and is one of five Sabres to appear in 33 games this season. Ennis had an assist on the game-tying goal the last time he faced the Wings and converted on his opportunity against goalie Jimmy Howard in the shootout. However, that was in the confines of First Niagara Center where Ennis has recorded 16 points versus just six points on the road this season.
SATURDAY at OTTAWA (14-13-6):
Center - OTT
Goals: 7 | Assists: 16 | Pts: 23
Shots: 82 | +/-: -8
Ottawa will come out of the holiday break with a game at home, where the Senators are 7-4-3 this season. Like the Sabres, Ottawa is a highly penalized team and gives up a ton of power play opportunities as the Wings saw first-hand, tallying two power-play goals in their previous meeting. This will be the third meeting between these two opponents this season; the Sens and Wings have split the series 1-1 with the home team winning each game thus far. The Senators have gone to overtime or later in 11 of 33 games this season and have picked up a point in five of its last seven games. During that stretch, Ottawa has had 12 different scorers record at least one goal, getting production from a variety of sources.
PLAYER TO WATCH: In his last six games, Kyle Turris has recorded three goals and seven points, tied for the team-lead with 23 points. He shares that title with captain Erik Karlsson — the only other active Senator to record more points than Turris over the last three seasons. Playing center on Ottawa’s top line alongside Clarke MacArthur and Mark Stone, Turris recorded not one, but two game-winning goals last week in a 2-0 win over the New Jersey Devils and then again in a 6-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks. Turris is one of five Senators to appear in each of the team’s 33 games this season but has been a little quiet at home having recorded just seven points in the Canadian Tire Centre versus 16 points on the road.