DETROIT - When the players skated onto the ice at Joe Louis Arena Wednesday morning, they probably weren't thinking of the significance of doing so.
They are among the last group of kids to take part in the Red Wings youth hockey camp at the Joe, which is set to close as the Wings get ready to play in the new, state-of-the-art Little Caesars Arena this fall.
"I don't think they totally do (realize it)," said Riley Sheahan, one of the guest instructors for this week's camp. "Some do probably a little more than others but it's cool for them to be here and it's cool for their parents and the crowd to sort of see their kid on some of the last ice that'll be here at the Joe. They're having fun and it's always fun to be out there. It's a special time."
Xavier Ouellet, another guest instructor Wednesday, agreed with Sheahan that they probably aren't thinking about it being the last time at Joe Louis.
"They're probably really excited to see the players and get to meet some of the Red Wings," Ouellet said. "I think later on they might realize more what it meant to be on that ice right before it actually closed."
More than 300 players from 16 states and four Canadian provinces are participating in the sold-out camp, run by former Wing and current pro scout Kirk Maltby.
Ouellet said he was most excited about being around the group of high-energy kids.
"I know they're all happy, I see them running around and trying to get signatures and stuff," Ouellet said. "I remember when I was a kid, I was in Montreal and I had a couple players from the Montreal Canadiens come in and I was super excited and I was so happy that they just talked to me and passed the puck to me and stuff like that. I kind of just want to do the same thing they did for me and enjoy the time with them."
Of course, kids being kids means they have lots of questions for NHL players like Sheahan.
"They asked me how many goals I scored last year and I try to not answer," Sheahan said with a laugh. "They're full of questions and random stuff. It's always good to be out there."
Sheahan had a challenging time putting the puck in net, recording his first two goals of the season in the final game at Joe Louis Arena against the New Jersey Devils.
"It was obviously rough last year," Sheahan said. "I guess it ended on a good note so I can take that with me and just try to forget about some of the rough patches and move on. It's been a good summer so far, just working on some different things and just looking forward to getting the season started."
In addition to working out, Sheahan has been spending a lot of time at weddings as Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm and former Wing Brendan Smith have all tied the knot this summer.
Ouellet has also been at the nuptials and celebrated an even bigger life milestone last month when he and his fiancee, Liz, welcomed daughter Thea.
"It is a big change," Ouellet said. "It's been three weeks now and it's been amazing so far. You see new things every day with a baby and she's growing so fast. I feel really lucky that the timing was pretty good in the summer, too. I get to be there every day with her and my fiancee so it's pretty cool."
Ouellet said he and Liz work as a team, with Liz taking most of the night duty so Ouellet can get his rest before getting up early for workouts and him spending time with Thea during the day so Liz can get some sleep.
Sheahan said being around the youth players has inspired him to not follow in Ouellet's footsteps right away.
"I'm probably going to be waiting a bit to have kids," Sheahan said. "They seem pretty excited out there, a little chaotic. They're having fun and I love being around kids. They bring a smile to your face so it was a good time."
Both Sheahan and Ouellet were disappointed about missing the playoffs last season and hope to change that this year.
"We had a lot of things happen," Ouellet said. "It's a long season. We had a couple of injuries, we struggled with consistency a little bit. We'd play really good games against really good teams and then slow down against other teams. I think our game was a little immature 'cause we were young. But we all learned. All the guys coming back, the (Andreas) Athanasious and the (Anthony) Manthas and the (Tomas) Tatars, coming in with big contracts, I think everyone is just really excited to get back to it and go through that challenge of making the playoffs again."
Said Sheahan: "There's a lot of things I think we're going to want to change, just being a little more consistent, trying to put together 60-minute games, trying to put together some wins, get on a few more streaks, things like that. We know we have a lot of talent in the locker room and the leadership's there, it's just a matter of putting it all together and kind of forgetting about a lot of the points last season and just moving forward."
A step in that direction was signing veteran defenseman Trevor Daley and versatile defenseman/sometime forward Luke Witkowski.
"I think it's great," Sheahan. "Playing against those guys, Daley brings some experience and he's a good D-man on the point and moving the puck and offensively he's great. Then Witkowski, I think he's pretty feared around the league and brings that little bit of an edge. I think that's something we need and we'll benefit from both players."
Ouellet is looking forward to learning a few things from Daley.
"He's obviously a great player," Ouellet said. "He's done a really good job in Pittsburgh. He's won Cups, he knows what it takes and he plays a really good overall game. He's good defensively, he's good offensively, he's a good skater. I think it's going to be really good for our team."
Meanwhile, both players have similar advice for the young campers as they welcome them to the Joe for the final time.
"I think just have fun at the age they're at," Sheahan said. "It goes so fast. I look back to when I was that age and it was so much fun. Just enjoy it and enjoy moments like this."
Ouellet said for these kids, hockey should not be a job just yet.
"I think the most important thing is for them to really develop that passion, realize how fun hockey is," Ouellet said. "Later on when you get to 14, 15, 16 is really when it starts to matter, where you need to put (in) a little extra work. It's when it gets a little harder physically.
"But when you're 10 years old, you should just enjoy it and have so much fun on the ice. Run after pucks and just play with your friends."