Over the weekend, 34 people from all over the country got that chance during the fourth annual Detroit Red Wings Fantasy Camp at The Joe.
Campers from as far away as California and Utah joined Canadians from London, Toronto and Belleville, Ontario, as well as local skaters ranging from age 22 to 65 to mix it up with Red Wings alumni Larry Murphy, Kirk Maltby, Darren McCarty, Dallas Drake, Mathieu Dandenault and Kris Draper for the annual three-day camp at the historic Detroit arena.
The fourth installment of the annual camp featured 20 returning participants, seven of whom have come back to The Joe each year since 2013 to indulge in camp activities with their favorite Hockeytown legends.
|2016 Fantasy Campers enjoy the traditional post-game handshake after the camp's championship game on Saturday afternoon at Joe Louis Arena. (Photo by Dan Mannes/Detroit Red Wings) |
“The best part for the campers is getting to interact with their heroes—the former NHL players—and realizing that they’re everyday people like you and me,” said event organizer Phil Pierce, the Red Wings’ manager of youth hockey and fan development. “They sit down and listen to stories, share a beverage with some of our alumni, and they see how normal and kind they are.”
The Red Wings’ staff rolls out the red carpet every year for Fantasy Camp participants, providing campers their own personalized Red Wings jersey and locker room name plate, Wings gear and apparel as well as a two-night stay at MotorCity Casino Hotel, behind-the-scenes tours of Joe Louis Arena and a group trip to a Detroit Tigers game.
Pierce’s staff always tries to find new ways to improve the campers’ experience, so additional activities this year included a tour of the District Detroit Preview Center and an “Al-B-Q” with longtime Joe Louis Arena operations manager and fan favorite Al Sobotka.
But even with all the bells and whistles that come with the experience, the best part for the campers is always the simple interaction on and off the ice with the players they watched growing up.
“These are the guys that I grew up watching,” said fourth-year camper Lydia Garcia. “From the ’97 and ’98 Stanley Cup runs and everything, I saw a lot of these guys start their career and transition into their positions today. These guys are very humble and very personable. They just play jokes on each other and do brotherly things, and they still keep that up with us. It’s fun to see and be part of.”
Although she’s a resident of Los Angeles, Garcia said she’s a die-hard Red Wings fan and wouldn’t miss Fantasy Camp for the world. And even though she was the only female camper this year, Garcia said she wasn’t afraid to stick her nose in the action and mix it up with everyone.
“Growing up with brothers and male cousins, I did a lot of masculine things like changing oil and rotating tires, fixing brakes,” Garcia said. “And I’ve always played hockey, so it’s definitely not intimidating.”
Garcia definitely held her own as the only woman on the ice among the boys. She was even involved in the biggest collision of the weekend, crashing into a fellow camper during a drill on Thursday. After the collision, though, Garcia popped back up to her feet as quickly as she fell, delivering the brunt of the hit to her male counterpart.
Garcia’s tenacity is renowned at camp and she received rave reviews from everyone including McCarty, who was impressed with her resolve despite her non-traditional hockey frame.
“She’s a good player. She’s 5-foot-nothing and probably less than 100 pounds, but she’s got good skills,” McCarty said with a laugh. “I’ve ripped passes to her stick, even on her backhand and she’s able to pick them up. She’s got some hockey sense to her. And she’s been here before so you see the improvement over the years.”
|Former Red Wings Mathieu Dandenault (left) and Kirk Matlby (right) pose with the championship game's Three Stars of the Game on Saturday afternoon at The Joe. (Photo by Dan Mannes/Detroit Red Wings) |
McCarty said there were some talented players in camp and it gets competitive, but at the end of the day, it’s all about having fun, becoming a better hockey player and enjoying the experience.
“One of the things we try to emphasize is whatever talent level you’re at when you come here, you’ll be better when you leave. And you’ll have fun doing it,” McCarty said. “It’s always fun setting somebody up for a goal or just skate around and have some conversations and interact on the bench. I’m usually the one doing all the talking, but we’ll chirp at different guys and stuff like that just to give them a feel of how it was for us on the ice.”
As usual, McCarty was smack talking to anyone who would listen throughout camp, but the four-time Stanley Cup champion also expressed how happy he was to be part of Fantasy Camp and help with organization initiatives.
“I’m happy to do anything I can do for this organization,” McCarty said. “The best thing about it that’s instilled in you from Day 1 from Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch and down is the team concept. We all have a role to play and we do it together. And that’s why it’s all fun to be part of. We’ve had our successes in the past, and we still carry it out and cheer (the current players) on. It’s about the whole Red Wings family, and that starts on the ice, but it includes everybody in the community, too.”
Camp festivities wrapped up Saturday with the championship game at Joe Louis Arena, which was called by radio play-by-play announcer Ken Kal. The final game is always the icing on the cake for campers as it mimics a normal Red Wings game with player introductions, playing of the National Anthem, Kal on the mic and the presentation of the three stars of the game afterwards.
McCarty said the little details that Pierce and his staff make sure to include at camp each year is a testament to the overall philosophy of the entire Red Wings organization.
“Between Phil and his staff, and PR, marketing and all the people that do all this great work, that’s what it’s all about,” McCarty said. “It’s all about the team. It’s not about the name on the back, it’s about the crest on the front. That’s the best part of the whole organization. Sure, we’re the faces and the names you remember for playing the game, but this is way more than that. This is about the community and the great fans, too.”
Team White defeated Team Red, 7-4, taking home the championship crown and earning the bragging rights until next year.
But most participants won’t wait until next year’s camp to reminisce on their 2016 experience. Because most participants are returning campers, they’ve formed friendships and a bond that continues throughout the year.
“We’re all from different parts of the country, but we’ve formed a strong bond,” Garcia said. “We have a Facebook page that keeps us in tune with each other. We’ve formed relationships with these people and we connect with them any chance we can. We’ll be in touch with everyone and we look forward to coming back next year.”