DETROIT - Toast of Hockeytown is always one of the highlight events of the year but never more so than in the farewell season of Joe Louis Arena.
That is why Mandy Bruyere of Thunder Bay, Ontario, decided to fly in just for the occasion.
"I've been a Red Wings fan for quite a long time, for many, many years," Bruyere said sitting in rink-side seats.
"Every year my husband and I try and come, we try and get back-to-back games or two games close to each other. So we were here actually two weeks ago for weekend games. Then I came for the first time to this in 2013 and I really liked it so much we wanted to try it again. We thought this would be a good time to come with it being the farewell season. I would love to have season tickets but it's kind of far. We at least come once a year anyway to get to a couple games. We do love it."
Bruyere said the occasion was special enough that they decided to get the VIP tickets for some extra time with some of her favorite players.
"(Henrik) Zetterberg was there, so it was really great because you didn't have as many people at this event so the lines weren't as long," Bruyere said. "You could talk a little bit more to them. It was really nice. Getting into that (Olympia) Club room, that's something I've seen but I always wanted to get in there. That was really nice to see that place."
Zetterberg, Jimmy Howard, Drew Miller and Luke Glendening all took part in the VIP pre-party, along with coach Jeff Blashill.
Then they joined the rest of their teammates on the covered Joe Louis ice in the beautifully lit arena. There the players and coaches met some of their most ardent fans.
"I like that we get to hang out with the fans in a little bit different environment," Niklas Kronwall said. "Everybody's dressed up and enjoying themselves. It's probably my favorite event of the ones that we do."
Kronwall was at a table with fellow veteran Swedish defenseman Jonathan Ericsson, who said Kronwall was holding up the line because he was having too much fun chatting with everyone.
Xavier Ouellet was meeting with fans alongside Anthony Mantha. It was Ouellet's second Toast of Hockeytown and Mantha's first.
"I think it's fun, it's fun for everyone," Ouellet said. "Everyone dresses up nice and gets to come drink a little bit of wine and meet the players. I think it's fun for the players and fun for the people, too."
Newcomers Steve Ott and Thomas Vanek took a different approach to the evening, preferring to walk around and mingle with the fans rather than staying in one spot.
"This is great," Ott said. "These experiences when you get to meet the fans and they get to put a face that's kind of hidden behind a helmet or sometimes your visor, your mask, and be able to interact with people on a one-on-one basis, kind of see your type of personality. Some people have some funny questions they ask you. All in all, it's raising funds for our great charity. When you put all that together, it's a pretty awesome night."
Ott has a reputation for being a scrappy, get-under-your-skin type of player so that's where some of the funny questions came from.
"I get asked if my knuckles hurt, if my face hurts or my head hurts or my body hurts or whatnot," Ott said with a laugh.
Ott is from Windsor, Ontario, right across the border, and said when he signed with the Wings that it was always his dream to play in Detroit.
"I'm having a blast," Ott said. "A lot of people actually truly care if I'm enjoying my time here in Detroit. Obviously a lot of people know that I'm from Windsor and I've met a lot of Windsor people that are here as well. When you have that kind of Canadian-American border town that you get to play (near) home for myself, it's pretty neat to hear people like the last person came up to tell me they know friends of mine. It's an honor to play in front of friends and family, like I said, but then when you truly know somebody that knows one of your friends or family, it makes it that much more important."
Two of those people were cousins from Leamington, Ontario, Ken Paglione and Cory Cacciavillani.
"He has a history in our area, Steve Ott," Paglione said. "He trained in the Kingsville-Leamington area so we have some mutual friends. We were just chitchatting. He's actually very personable. You can just walk up to him and talk to him, at ease, and that was the best part of the experience."
It was the first time that Paglione and Cacciavillani had been to Toast of Hockeytown.
"I didn't expect it to be like this," Cacciavillani said. "I didn't think we'd just be able to walk up to the players and have conversations and take some pictures. It's awesome."
When they weren't getting photos with the Wings, fans had plenty of other things to enjoy at the 17th annual Toast of Hockeytown.
There were many local restaurants providing all kinds of food from tacos to sushi to pasta to cherry pie and fudge.
There were more than 50 different wines from Michigan, California, France, Italy and Spain, in addition to local craft beer and spirits.
There was live entertainment with The Persuasion Band performing.
Fans could also tour the Red Wings dressing room and take photos with retired jersey banners. There was a prolific silent auction with items from the Wings, Tigers, Pistons, Lions, Michigan State, Michigan, concert and comedy show tickets, plus favorite things baskets from the players and coaches.
Mike Green's basket had a vinyl copy of Sam Cooke's Portrait of a Legend.
Luke Glendening had a wooden "Go Blue" sign next to Justin Abdelkader's basket, which had a Michigan State hat.
Blashill's toast to the crowd kicked off the live auction part of the evening, a highlight every year.
FOX Sports Detroit play by play announcer Ken Daniels and Joe Louis Arena public address announcer Erich Freiny auctioned off autographed, game-used hockey sticks, a Wings road trip to Pittsburgh on Red Bird III, a trip to the NHL Awards in Las Vegas, a trip to the NHL Draft in Chicago and a meeting with Wings executive vice president and general manager Ken Holland and assistant general manager Ryan Martin and a one-of-a-kind hard hat tour of the new Little Caesars Arena with Olympia Entertainment president and CEO Tom Wilson.
All the proceeds from the event go to the Red Wings Foundation, which helps provide funds and resources to causes that help grow the sport of hockey.
"For your first year, to do it in the last year at the Joe, it had to be done," Cacciavillani said. "We had to take the opportunity and here we are. It's a good night."
Paglione, the older of the two cousins, said the night was something he'll never forget.
"I have a little bit more past history here in the Joe and I wanted to cement my experiences." Paglione said. "I was here when (Steve) Yzerman hoisted the Cup in '97. Unfortunately, I also watched Sidney Crosby put the Cup up in the air here.
"But this was part of the farewell season and I'm excited to be a part of it."