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Red Wings heat up Red Kettles

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
Ethan Heckman, 8, of Royal Oak, examines his newly signed puck by Justin Abdelkader at Hockeytown Authentics Friday afternoon in Troy. (Photo by Bill Roose/Detroit Red Wings)
TROY, Mich. – Tens of thousands of homeless families will go to sleep – more than likely while clinging to one another for warmth – on bitter cold city streets or parks in every major American city tonight. Their children will go to sleep without adequate warm-clothing and nothing in their bellies.

With unemployment at all-time highs and the economy not getting any better, these are the signs of our times, especially in southeastern Michigan.

A few years ago, a survey conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors found that families with children comprised 23% of the homeless population in 23 American cities. And all of these cities have seen an increase in the number of people requesting food assistance for the first time, particularly among working families.

People who never once held a hand out for support now find themselves turning to The Salvation Army, who stands ready to assist, indiscriminately. Last year alone, The Salvation Army was responsible for providing the needy of metro Detroit with more than 8,750 meals per day, while giving shelter to 1,880 people each night.

Red Wings rookie center Cory Emmerton has seen the hardships of people from his childhood hometown of St. Thomas, Ontario. From a very young age, he was part of the Catholic school’s volunteer events to bring non-perishable foods and clothing to local pantries and shelters in his neighborhood, which is southeast of the 401 between London and Lake Erie.

“I went to a Catholic high school and we would always have Caring Cupboard drives where we would bring in canned goods or boxes of cereal,” Emmerton said. “The one time we actually went to their warehouse and it was amazing just how many boxes of food that people have given.

“I grew-up where it was just a natural thing that we did each year around the holidays. It wasn’t about gifts or anything, it was straight food and the essentials that could be the best Christmas gifts for a lot of families.”

On Friday, Emmerton joined some of his teammates, along with Wings general manager Ken Holland and coach Mike Babcock, in giving back to the community, as volunteer bell-ringers for The Salvation Army’s annual Red Kettle campaign.

The Wings broke into four two-man teams and setup at local retail locations to help raise money for one of the most trusted human service organizations in the world.

“Obviously, we all know that in Michigan, and Detroit in particular, things aren’t going well for everybody, and that gives you a little perspective,” said Babcock, who along with Holland manned the kettles for two-hours at Hiller’s Market in downtown Northville. “You lose a game and you get twisted out of shape, when in reality it has nothing to do with cancer kids or people who can’t afford to pay their utility bills and feed their families. … I can’t even imagine.

“That’s why the Red Kettle thing that people do every year and the volunteers who raise money – and it’s fun for our guys and for Ken Holland and myself – but it’s important to make it a priority that we need to help out and do what we can. And part of the notoriety of our jobs is that it gives us those opportunities and we embrace them.” 
Justin Abdelkader signs an autograph for a fan Friday afternoon in front of Hockeytown Authentics. (Photo by Bill Roose/Detroit Red Wings)

Forwards Valtteri Filppula and Drew Miller rang bells and collected donations at the Kroger store in Plymouth, while Emmerton and defenseman Jakub Kindl visited the Kroger in Birmingham. All were repeat bell-ringers, except Emmerton, who made his bell-ringing debut Friday.

As someone who grew-up here and still calls Michigan his home year-round, Miller is aware of the devastation caused mainly by the high unemployment rate to the state’s citizens, which is why he feels the urgency to help.

“There are so many people working hard and getting by with what they have,” Miller said. “I think for us to be able to go and ring the bell and collect some money and help out anyway we can, that’s huge for our state, and we’ll help out and do our part.
You lose a game and you get twisted out of shape, when in reality it has nothing to do with cancer kids or people who can’t afford to pay their utility bills and feed their families. … I can’t even imagine. - Coach Mike Babcock
“I feel very fortunate for the life that I’ve had and you want to be able to help people who are having tough times and definitely we see it because we’re living here in Michigan and we know people who are affected by it or you see it in different ways. I think in the whole country there are people that are having tough times and counting on some help and this is a way to help out and raise some money. It’s a huge thing. You see people give whatever they can, whether it’s some change or a dollar and some people put a lot of money into it. Any little bit goes a long way and it’s very generous of people to give.”

For the second straight year, Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader were at Hockeytown Authentics in Troy, where for a $10 donation to the Red Kettle, fans could get an autograph from one of the Wings’ centers.

Despite the 20-degree temperatures, Paula Heckman and her four young sons, braved the chilly air to meet and get autographs from two of their Hockeytown Heroes.

“We thought this was a great opportunity to meet them and help The Salvation Army at the same time,” said, Heckman, who purchased an autograph for each of her sons, Ethan, 8; Keagan, 6; Preston, 3; and Finn, 16 months. “The kids love to come and see the guys and get an autograph and I love the fact that we’re helping at the same time, and I love that they’re so kind to give up their time to do it.

“I like that they come out and show themselves everywhere, that makes it’s so much nicer because they are human, you know? It’s fun to be around them because they treat you just like you’re their neighbor or on the hockey team with you, or you’re a kid in school. The come and see the kids, and they’re just super nice with my kids – all of them, everyone that I’ve ever met.”

Like Miller, Abdelkader too grew-up in Michigan, which, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, had the nation’s second-highest unemployment rate last month at 10.6%.

“Just the tough times that you see the state going through, all of the people who are in need of food and clothing, it’s just tough to see,” Abdelkader said. “It’s always nice to be able to give back and help out.”
A four-pierce Salvation Army band played in front of Hockeytown Authenics as fans gathered to buy autographs from Justin Abdelkader and Darren Helm. (Photo by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wngs)

Helm added, “I know that there are a lot of people who are suffering and going through some hard times. I like helping out anytime that I can, especially at Christmas obviously, it’s a little more special and there’s something about Christmas and how people get into the spirit and they put aside what they have going on to help others.”

The financial goal for the Red Kettle campaign this year is $8.2 million, and with the generosity of the Wings and Holland – who for the sixth straight year is the honorary chairman for the annual initiative – The Salvation Army will hit its mark.

“Both the players and staff have embraced The Salvation Army and have remained committed to helping people in need in our community,” Holland said. “We’re proud to support The Salvation Army again this year, and celebrate its 125th year of serving the people of metro Detroit.”

Besides their benevolence, the Wings’ competitive nature was on display at all four locations Friday with bragging rights at stake with the annual bell-ringing contest to see which twosome collects the most donations.

Helm and Abdelkader entered Friday’s event as the defending champions, having raised $2,900 last year, which was $500 more than their bosses.

“You know what, they’ll all be tough groups to beat and they all have a lot of pride, and we want to defend our title,” Abdelkader said. “We’re in a good location, but obviously it’s all for a great cause.”

For fans attending the next four Wings’ home games, the famous red kettles, along with a four-piece Salvation Army brass band, will play holiday songs prior to the opening face-off located on the concourse just inside the main Gordie Howe entrance (west end) of Joe Louis Arena.

For Filppula, who grew-up in Finland, where child poverty is relatively low, volunteering for The Salvation Army is a rewarding feeling.

“It’s a cool thing to do, and obviously it doesn’t take a whole lot of time,” said Filppula, a third-year bell-ringer. “I always enjoy doing things like this especially around holidays and Christmas when you start thinking more about the important things in life, and I’m glad that I get to be a part of it.”

Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @RooseBill

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