By a stroke of fate, this year's winner was Drummond Island Elementary School, from Michigan's Upper Peninsula, about 350 miles from Detroit.
"We were sitting in our lunch room one day, there's only five teachers on Drummond Island, and there was a flier sitting there and it said Red Wings for Reading," Drummond Island Elementary teacher Stacy Geyer said. "I said, I wonder what this is. It was about two months before we had to have our submissions in and it goes by participation and we have 40 students. So I was like, I think we could get 100 percent participation in this. So it was a little bit of work on parents and students and everyone but sure enough, by the end of the time, the day before, we got our last entry in and we got 100 percent.
"Like I said, it was a flier that just happened to be sitting there. I think I was actually getting ready to throw it away. I don't know where it came from, I don't know who set it there, no one kind of admitted it or owned up to getting it in the mail so I think it was just destiny. It was just supposed to be."
The Red Wings community relations staff said that Abdelkader could either visit Drummond Island or they could bring the students to Detroit.
They decided they would make the trip to and from Drummond Island in just one day, which meant a very early start and a late return.
"With the buses only being able to go 75, we figured it would be about seven hours so counting back with a couple of stops along the way, we decided on a 3 o'clock a.m. boat," Geyer said. "So parents had their kids at the boat by 10 to three, the boat took off at 3 o'clock and here we are. We only had to make two stops so we were pretty impressed."
The kids, who are in kindergarten through sixth grade, were all excited to make the trip, no matter how far they had to travel.
"The bus ride was long but fun," said Sophia DePaul. "It was early, very early, and we were on there for a super long time. It was a good experience."
The Wings worked with the Tigers to get the group tickets to the afternoon game at Comerica Park to make it a full day of fun.
"I try to put myself in their shoes and it's always tough. But gosh, to have the opportunity to come here in the locker room, get the tour of the brand new facility, to meet a Red Wings player and then gosh, I never went to a Tigers game until I was in high school," Abdelkader said. "Just for the opportunity to come down and spend a full day here in Detroit, it's special that they've taken the time and commitment to come down here. It's just really exciting that a reading program like this can stretch as far as Drummond Island. To know that we have a ton of support up there and between the Red Wings and the Michigan Education Savings Program, we can send some things back with them, so I think that will be exciting for them to use."
In addition to a collection of big kids books, Drummond Elementary will receive Red Wings chairs to create an outdoor reading area.
Meanwhile, DePaul was looking forward to her first Tigers game.
"I've watched on TV but I've never been to actual games," she said. "So I'm excited for a live game."
Abdelkader's father is a retired sixth grade language arts teacher and his sister is a seventh grade teacher at Muskegon Mona Shores so education is important to him and his family.
"I wanted to do something and I've worked with children in the past with Children's Hospital visits, but I think reading, going to college and getting my degree, I think that's something that obviously I know the importance of it," Abdelkader said. "I think I can have an influence on these kids at a young age and make them strive to read more and finish books. Obviously as the reading program goes forward and knowing that schools can win that are as far away as Drummond Island and (they) can come down here. Hopefully it continues to motivate the kids to read."
Abdelkader said he enjoyed reading when he was in elementary school.
"I always liked the Dr. Seuss books so those were always some of my favorites," Abdelkader said. "Hockey books were always fun ones to read, too."
For DePaul, 11, this competition was in her wheelhouse.
"I was super excited because I love reading," DePaul said. "I'm always reading. I was pretty excited there was a chance we could get money donated to our library and get to meet Justin just for doing something I love to do every day."
Geyer said the competition inspired all the kids, the ones who already liked to read and the ones who weren't big readers before.
"Actually we were just talking to one of the students on the way down and we were asking, 'What books did you like' or 'what did you think about the books?' She is one of our readers and she picked 'Long Walk to Water.' We said, 'Do you think you would have read that book had you not done this program?' She said, 'Absolutely not but it was one of my favorites.' "A lot of the other students, even our students who aren't the best readers, we got books on tape and they were talking about how wonderful the books are so it really got them reading and energized and excited about reading and I'm hoping after this trip it'll encourage them even more."
After a brief tour of Little Caesars Arena, the students and teachers visited the Red Wings locker room, where Abdelkader read "Dino-Hockey" by Lisa Wheeler to them.
"That was very cool," DePaul said. "Not a lot of people get a chance to have a Red Wings player read books to them. And having a bunch of books donated to the library, it was really fun."
After reading to the kids, Abdelkader answered some of their questions.
He was asked how long he has been playing hockey and why he wanted to play (4 years old and because his dad's best friend's kids were playing), what his favorite hobby is (golf, biking, running or anything outside during the summer), what he got his college degree in (general business management), why he wears No. 8 (he wore No. 9 in college but that was not an option with the Wings as it was Gordie Howe's number and had been retired) and what he planned to do after "quitting" hockey.
"I don't know if quitting is the word, more retiring," Abdelkader said, laughing. "I want to play as long as I can. I've been so blessed and fortunate to play as long as I have. I want to continue to work and train and play a long as I can. I sit next to Dylan Larkin in the room and he's 21 years old and very fast and I want to keep up with him. I'm going to try to continue to play as long as I can."
Abdelkader said after he finishes playing hockey, he might want to stay in the game either in the front office or as a coach.
That and the promise he made to his parents was why he returned to Michigan State and finished his degree a few years ago.
Geyer said hearing the message about the importance of reading has even more impact coming from someone like Abdelkader.
"This is real life what education can get you," Geyer said. "He talked about, 'I can't be a coach unless I have a degree.' Those real life things that they probably don't really think about, it's not just us telling you, there are real things out there that you can do and it helps us just to let them know. It's not just about what we're trying to tell you or what mom and dad are trying to tell you, these are some of the things you can do if you work hard, study hard. He didn't have to go back and get his degree but I think them hearing that, it reinforces what we're trying to say or trying to tell our kids and our students."
The kids presented Abdelkader with a thank you letter they had all signed along with a gift bag that had some Drummond Island maple syrup.
"Drummond Island, I haven't been there but one day I'd like to come check out the chairs and books," Abdelkader said. "We have that connection now that without the reading program, we never would have had."