DETROIT -- There have been several memorable moments and events so far during the Farewell Season at The Joe. But for a select group of special people, Tuesday night was the best yet as the Red Wings hosted their ninth annual Military Appreciation Night, presented by Applebee's.
For the celebration, the Red Wings Foundation partnered with Volunteers of America Michigan to honor active and retired military members and salute their service.
The military appreciation activities began well before Detroit's matchup against the Tampa Bay Lightning as the Red Wings Foundation invited over 60 service members and their guests from Volunteers of America Michigan to Joe Louis Arena to watch morning skate and get a behind-the-scenes tour of The Joe.
The most popular guest in attendance was Major General Robert W. Smith III, who is a Vietnam War combat veteran with a glowing 34-year military resume.
The major general, who's on the Volunteers of America Michigan Board of Directors, received countless accolades throughout his illustrious military career, including the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster and Meritorious Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, among many other awards and recognitions.
After morning skate, Smith and guests were treated to lunch in the Legends Club at The Joe, courtesy of Applebee's, where they were surprised by forward Justin Abdelkader, who thanked them for their service, engaged in a Q & A, signed autographs and took photos with anyone who was interested.
Smith said he was extremely impressed with Abdelkader's kindness, modesty and military appreciation during the luncheon.
"It made people really, really feel endeared to the Red Wings," Smith said. "To have a star like that be so humble and generous with his time, that humility makes a huge difference and (the veteran guests) will remember that and come back just because of that.
"The morning activities ran like clockwork. The staff was super supportive and I think every veteran gained an appreciation for the behind-the-scenes aspects of hockey and what it takes to play the game. It was just a fantastic day and we sincerely appreciate the Red Wings saying thank you to the service people."
The Volunteers of America Michigan guests returned to The Joe Tuesday evening where Smith dropped the ceremonial first puck for Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg and Lightning captain Steven Stamkos in front of more than 15,000 people.
The major general said it was a moment he'll never forget.
"It was overpowering," Smith said. "It was an honor to represent veterans. I tried to do it with pride and with dignity. It was a very humbling experience. To walk out in front of that crowd and drop the ceremonial puck is a feeling that will always be with me for the rest of my life. Also knowing that the Red Wings are leaving this historic building, it's part of Detroit lore, and that made the honor that much greater. This experience will never leave me."
And while Smith was thankful to be recognized for his service, Volunteers of America Michigan's community engagement manager Laura LeBlanc said she's equally thankful to have Smith represent the organization.
"Major General Robert Smith is truly a phenomenal man," LeBlanc said. "We're very blessed to have someone like him on our board rallying and being a champion for our veterans. It's important to our organization, if we're going to serve veterans, to have veterans in our company, and he truly understands who we're looking to serve because he's been there."
The ceremonial puck drop was just one of several initiatives throughout Military Appreciation Night to honor service members and raise funds for Volunteers of America Michigan.
The Detroit Red Wings encouraged fans to purchase Red Wings camouflage winter hats on the Joe Louis Arena concourse for Volunteers of America Michigan's Supportive Services for Veteran Families program, and the camouflage jerseys and camouflage-taped sticks the players sported during pre-game warmups are currently being auctioned online until Nov. 30.
The Wings also staged a "Show Your Support" social media station on the concourse, dedicated the Foundation's 50/50 Raffle proceeds to Volunteers of America Michigan and gave military members in attendance the opportunity to enjoy one-of-a-kind game day experiences, including Zamboni rides, pre-game penalty box visits, in-game contests and more.
"The Detroit Red Wings are proud to support our local men and women who valiantly served and continue to serve our country," said Kevin Brown, Director of Community Relations & Detroit Red Wings Foundation. "As an employer of more than 30 veterans, the Red Wings & Olympia Entertainment fully embrace our role in supporting military families throughout Michigan and those serving around the world.
"Funds raised during Military Appreciation Night and through the online auction will allow Volunteers of America Michigan to build centrally located offices in the city of Detroit - increasing access to vital resources for veterans and their families."
LeBlanc said she was thrilled the Red Wings chose to partner with Volunteers of America Michigan for the annual Military Appreciation Night celebration, and said it was a night that her organization will never forget.
"The Red Wings have been absolutely phenomenal," LeBlanc said. "The organization has been wonderful, always wanting to give back to our veterans, especially with Military Appreciation Night, and we're very thankful to be their recipient this year."
Although the Red Wings lost a 4-3 decision to the Lightning Tuesday night, Smith said the evening was a huge success and he was blown away by the Red Wings' efforts to honor veterans and members of service.
"It speaks to the ownership and the organization who feel the commitment to say thank you to service people," the major general said with a smile. "It's so prevalent that the Red Wings are in the community and they care about service people, and a lot of people take an immense amount of pride in that. Veterans will remember this night and will take the pride they felt tonight with them forever."