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Larkin surprises Special Olympics athletes, who then give him a surprise

Red Wings center gives back in his hometown of Waterford

by Dana Wakiji @Dwakiji / DetroitRedWings.com

WATERFORD -- Detroit Red Wings center Dylan Larkin had a surprise for some special people from his hometown of Waterford but it turned out they had a surprise for him, too.

On Thursday night at Hess-Hathaway Park in Waterford, the local Special Olympics athletes gathered for a pizza party. They were told a special guest from the Red Wings would be there.

After everyone was seated, in walked Larkin, who welcomed the athletes and their families and took a few questions.

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: We���re in Waterford with @Dylanlarkin39 as he surprises a few @SpecialOlympics athletes from the Waterford-area. 😊 pic.twitter.com/2cmeDwPMx3

One person asked about having Steve Yzerman rejoin the team as the new general manager.

"We're pretty luck to have him back," Larkin told the group.

Another athlete asked when Larkin first realized he wanted to be a professional hockey player.

Larkin said, "Since I can remember, I always had a hockey stick and dreamed about playing for the Red Wings."

Now that Larkin's dream of playing for his hometown team has come true, he wanted to help other athletes from his hometown of Waterford help make their dreams come true.

"I am very proud to be from Waterford, it's a special place to me," Larkin said. "Seeing these athletes, they're my heroes from Waterford. It's something that I'll always remember tonight, I'll always try and think about them when I'm in hard times or things aren't going my way. I'll remember their big hearts and warm smiles. I had a cool conversation with one of the athletes. He said I inspire him and I told him that he inspires me and I want to work hard for him and that's what tonight's all about."

Ted Grossnickle, Special Olympics Michigan development and events manager, is based in Auburn Hills but is also from Waterford himself.

"It's very exciting," Grossnickle said. "As a Waterford native and seeing so many Waterford Special Olympics athletes and a professional athlete here from Waterford, it's great to have that hometown pride and to represent not just Waterford, our home community, but also all of Oakland County, and give back is really awesome.

"They get so excited and they're so inspired by professional athletes. Tonight was a really big deal for them."

While everyone noshed on Little Caesars pizza, Larkin went around the room and chatted with the Special Olympics athletes.

After the pizza and cookies, Larkin presented a check for $8,500 to the Waterford Special Olympics athletes for them to use for tournaments and other expenses.

"I have a close family friend, Tracy Maas, she does a lot of work with the Special Olympics," Larkin said. "Just with talking with her and realizing that these athletes aren't as fortunate as we are as athletes and they need support, I came up with the idea a little while ago to donate some shoes and join with Autographs for a Cause.

"Just a special night for me to be back here in Waterford with these athletes and hopefully something that I can continue to grow. To see the smiles on the faces and how happy they are, something simple for us to give back is really special."

Autographs for a Cause is a program in partnership with the Red Wings Foundation in which fans can send in hockey cards, pucks or photos to be signed in exchange for a donation to a player's favorite charity.

In Larkin's case, that was the Special Olympics and he matched all the money raised for a total of $8,500.

After that surprise, Larkin took it a step further as he and Grossnickle announced that each athlete would receive a new pair of New Balance athletic shoes, socks, a hat and a bag to carry all the gear.

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: On behalf of @Dylanlarkin39, the #RedWings Foundation & @WarriorHockey, Dylan presented @SpOlympicsMI with an $8,000+ donation + new shoes, socks, bags and hats. 🙌🏼 pic.twitter.com/WP7TxEUiZE

"Many of our athletes we know have limited access to some of the resources they need to compete at their best and train at their best, Grossnickle said. "So tonight, all of our athletes are walking away with a pair of shoes, which is going to be huge, not only for their personal health but for their training and preparation for their tournaments."

One athlete gazed lovingly at her shoes, which were purple and covered with sparkles.

"If Cinderella wore sneakers, those would be hers," the athlete's mom said.

Danny Plotzke, a Special Olympics basketball player who was wearing a Henrik Zetterberg t-shirt, said he was not expecting Larkin to be there but was happy to see him.

"He's doing great," Plotzke said of Larkin.

Plotzke couldn't wait to see how his shoes fit so he tried them on immediately and said they fit perfectly.

Tweet from @Dwakiji: Danny Plotzke, a Special Olympics athlete from Waterford, immediately tried on his new New Balance shoes that #RedWings Dylan Larkin presented to him and the other athletes at a pizza party in Waterford. pic.twitter.com/r7bUlr6925

"It's really cool," Larkin said. "Just seeing their smiles and how thankful they were. Like I mentioned, they aren't as fortunate as we are with equipment and all the perks we get for being professional athletes. They're just as deserving as we are and they have even bigger hearts. Seeing their smiles, they definitely have bigger smiles. Very special to see that and be here. It's one thing to just write a check and not see this. This is way more special to me being with the athletes first-hand with them, seeing their smiles and feeling their love."

Maas, the former Oakland County Special Olympics area director, has known the Larkin family for years.

"My son and Dylan's brother (Colin) started kindergarten together and (Dylan and Colin's mom) Denise and I became friends because the boys were always in sports and we would do team dinners or spaghetti dinners or help get the guys where they needed to go," Maas said. "That's how our relationship started."

Maas and Larkin's mom, Denise, were both at Thursday's event, helping make sure everything went smoothly.

"Like I said, Tracy Maas is a close family friend to me and best friends with my mom so they did a lot of behind the scenes work to make this possible and I thank them for that," Larkin said. "It's a huge reason why this night happened."

Having watched the Larkin kids grow up, Maas said it was special to see Dylan giving back to his hometown this way.

"I'm very proud of him," Maas said. "You just couldn't be prouder of him. Seeing that it brings joy to him as well."

Among the many athletes in attendance was Danny Ristich, a goalie for the Waterford Warriors poly hockey team and the ambassador who helped Larkin walk the red carpet at Little Caesars Arena before the home opener Oct. 6.

Tweet from @Dwakiji: #RedWings Dylan Larkin surprised Special Olympics athletes in his hometown of Waterford with New Balance shoes and gear at a pizza party he threw. Danny Ristich is the goalie who helped him walk the red carpet at the home opener. pic.twitter.com/cL5WNtI134

While Ristich was excited to see Larkin again and to receive his new shoes and other gear, he was also thrilled to help surprise Larkin.

The Waterford Warriors poly hockey team won a gold medal in a tournament and Ristich presented Larkin with a gold medal.

"That's pretty special. I didn't expect that at all," a visibly touched Larkin said. "It's really cool. To see how proud they were, I know a couple of them mentioned they won a gold medal and (that's) something I haven't done. It's very special. I'll always keep this. A very thoughtful gift. I'm flattered and just as appreciative as they are."

Tweet from @michaelcaples: To thank @Dylanlarkin39 for his visit tonight (and #RedWings donation/@newbalance gear), @SpOlympicsMI athlete Danny Ristich presented No. 71 with a gold medal that his team won last year. pic.twitter.com/suJcC7pErb

Although the Red Wings are going through a tough stretch, Larkin was able to gain some perspective through the joy his event brought to the Waterford Special Olympics athletes.

"It's not the greatest time around the rink for us but to get to the grassroots and to get to people that are in need of our help and just to feel the love from the community and from these athletes and to meet them, it definitely makes me want to go out there tomorrow night against Boston and work as hard as I can and have a smile on my face doing it and think about these athletes that would do anything to be in my shoes and be playing at Little Caesars Arena and playing hockey," Larkin said. "I'm very fortunate and tonight is a great reminder and a great night to feel (the impact of) this sport."

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