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First fantasy camp at Little Caesars Arena a big hit with campers

First-timers and veterans impressed with experience at new rink

by Dana Wakiji @Dwakiji /

DETROIT -- As the 2018 Detroit Red Wings Fantasy Camp players wandered out to watch the professional hockey players during their informal skate on the main ice at Little Caesars Arena, a realization dawned.

On the giant scoreboard overhead, the players noticed that it said, "Welcome Campers."

For some campers, that let the well-kept secret out of the bag that they would conclude the first fantasy camp held at the new arena by playing their final game where the Red Wings play their games.

"I just found out by reading the sign," said Michael Young of Edson, Alberta. "We're pretty excited right now. We were kind of misled, they don't want to tell you the whole story, every day there's a surprise. I doubted that it wouldn't be there but they were still playing with the ice there yesterday so you don't know, right? This is great."

Dave Ewald of Chatham, Ontario said, "I got chills when I saw that Jumbotron up there."

Carl Vanuden of Belleville, Ontario, said he had been told that they were playing on the main ice surface and couldn't wait.

"Nice! It makes it," Vanuden said. "It's all about this game. We won the first two so we're winners already but we need to win this one."

Vanuden did not need to worry.

He and the members of Team White had won the first two camp scrimmages at the BELFOR Training Center at Little Caesars Arena and the final game was no different.

Team White defeated Team Red, 10-8, giving them a perfect camp sweep.

Former Wing Kirk Maltby, currently a pro scout for the Wings, was amused by how seriously the campers took the competition.

"It's funny because we've had two kind of what we call exhibition games leading into today for the main game," Maltby said. "But the competitive juices get going in the guys. You can hear them on the bench talking. It's just funny to see how guys are in the dressing room are off the ice, when we're having the barbecue or breakfast or whatever, but when they put the skates on and get out there, it's like a switch turns on and they're all business and competitive. So it's fun to watch how some guys are so different."

Ewald, also a victorious Team White member, was participating in the fantasy camp for the first time, which came as a surprise.

"It was a 50th birthday gift from my wife," Ewald said. "I had no idea. It's just been fun more than anything. It's not really skill development at all. It's just fun to be with the guys."

Young, another Team White member, sought out this particular fantasy camp.

"I went online looking to see if Detroit had a camp because I've been to baseball camps and I wanted to try this, too," Young said. "I've cheered for Detroit since I was nine when I met Gordie Howe up in Manitoba. I'd like to have gotten here before he passed away."

Meanwhile, Vanuden was participating in his fourth straight fantasy camp but first one at Little Caesars Arena.

"Oh, it's great this year," Vanuden said. "The competition is good. It's just all-around great, new facility, lots of things going on. It's great. It's been the best one."

Ewald, who still plays hockey a couple of times a week back home, said one of the things that he's really enjoyed was getting to know former Wing Jason Woolley.

"Fantastic guy," Ewald said. "He's easy to get along with, good talker. Great guy."

That kind of connection with the coaches is something that Young experienced when he went to the Boston Red Sox fantasy camp in Florida.

"The whole thing, as far as the coaches, it's the same as when I went to Florida for the Boston camp," Young said. "It's the coaches that help make it. The camaraderie that you build with (everyone), and they just fit right in. It's like they're part of us. That's been the best part of it."

As a repeat camper, Vanuden treats the event like a reunion.

"Seeing all the guys that I've been with before, seeing them back here because I only see them once a year," Vanuden said. "So it's good to catch up with all of them and meet a bunch of new guys. It's all great. It's all good. Then different alumni this year, that's been good. It seems like they're here more so we spend more time with them so that's really nice."

Maltby used to help out with the fantasy camp when former Wings assistant coach Dave Lewis ran the show.

The camp took a hiatus for a while but when it returned, Maltby was the one running the on-ice show.

"It's funny talking to the guys, especially the ones that were part of the fantasy camp at the Joe to here," Maltby said. "I think the consensus with just people in general, everyone loved the Joe, everyone misses the Joe and all of the great memories that were there. But you can't even compare it to this rink, to be honest with you, as far as just the amenities and what it has to offer. They did a tour yesterday and probably didn't get to see half of what they could have or should have seen. But that'll be good reason to come and watch a game, buy a ticket and stuff.

"It was a little more intimate at the Joe, where everyone was kind of right on top of each other, no one kind of got lost and you knew where everyone was. Now this one, they're watching the skate on the main rink and guys are in the club lounge or getting dressed. It's a little more spread out but I think all in all, it's still been a good response this year."

Young was impressed with the way the modern arena fit into the surrounding neighborhood so seamlessly.

"What blew me away is when we first came on the night before it started, we came down here and had pizza," Young said. "When we parked on the street, I said, 'Is this it?' Because it looked like all older buildings with the decor. It kind of blew me away that they fit it right in and you'd think it's just a whole bunch of separate buildings. Then when you come inside, especially the tour yesterday, I thought it was pretty nice and well-built. The lighting in there right now and even in the hallway upstairs, the natural lighting especially, it's pretty neat."

Like Vanuden among the campers, there are former Wings who keep returning to help out at the camp, including Larry Murphy, Mathieu Dandenault and Anders Eriksson.

Drew Miller and Jason Woolley are also among the camp counselors.

"I don't think the counselors have had a bad time," Maltby said with a grin. "They had fun. The first night was the Tigers game. Larry lives here year round and Woolsy and Millsie, but Dandenault and Eriksson come in, they get to see where Detroit is. It's more than the camp. They can see the downtown, how it's evolved even just since last year's camp. So I think they enjoy coming in. I think if they didn't enjoy it, they wouldn't come in from Montreal and Florida and whatnot to come up here and do it. So I think they enjoy it. There's a lot of returning people but then there's a lot of new people, too, so it's always nice to have that good mix. You can see some of the ones that have been here a few different times, that they're giving the newbies, rookies, whatever you want to call it, kind of just some ideas and talking to them about how to enjoy the experience the best they can."

Young has had such a good time that he is hoping to return and make it a family affair.

"I've actually told my son to start saving his money because he'll be 37 next winter and if I can get him to come with me - if we can get in," Young said. "That would be kind of cool. I have a grandson that's 19, so he plays hockey. That would be kind of neat, too."

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