TRAVERSE CITY -- They may be big and tough hockey players in the throes of competing for the NHL Prospect Tournament title, but for a few hours on Sunday afternoon, they were once again little boys captivated by the joy of playing with cats and dogs.
As part of the Hockeytown Cares Community Tour, Detroit's entire prospects team paid a visit to the Cherryland Humane Society to tour the facility and spend some down time hanging out with the many adoptable pets.
"We're just so fortunate that they took time out of their schedule to come here. We're very blessed for that," said Heidi Yates, the executive director of the Cherryland Humane Society. "I hope if in any way, it just kind of sheds light, even just to one person, of what the Humane Society does and hopefully they can tell family and friends, whether it's just about pet overpopulation or just about what we do here, that will have been a success."
Before they toured the facility, the players received a brief introduction to Cherryland's everyday operation from Yates and her staff, which was pretty eye-opening.
Many of the prospects had no idea what the Humane Society even is, let alone all the services they provide to the community.
"It's my first time at being introduced into this, being at a dog shelter and a cat shelter. It's the first time I've actually ever seen this," said forward Givani Smith. "It's sad to see some of the puppies who are sad to see us leave as we walk out the door. As well, this place does a really good job of taking in stray dogs with families who can't take care of them, and cats. They do really good things for them."
Essentially, the Humane Society takes in the lost, stray and unwanted animals of the community they serve. They not only provide shelter for the animals, but they treat them for any medical conditions they may have and act as a surrogate family until the animal is reunited with their family or adopted into their forever home.
They also deal with the "court cases" of the community which involves animals that have been neglected and abused.
It was a sobering and uplifting experience to see innocent animals that have been mistreated so inhumanely, brighten up when the players walked in the room to spend time with them.
"It's really great to be here," said forward Gregor MacLeod. "It's kind of sad to see all those animals in there but hopefully they all find great homes in the future. It's fun to be here and just play with the dogs and stuff. I enjoyed it.
"Things like this (abuse and neglect) happen all the time. But it's great to see that they have a place like this to take care of them while they get processed to get adopted. I'm happy that they have places like this to take care of dogs and every animal."
The players were split into two groups with one group touring the facility while the other group was outside playing with several of Cherryland's adoptable dogs.
As popular as the dogs were, several of the players were drawn to the dozens of kittens.
There was a play room for the players and the kittens to get down to some serious frisky business with the kittens holding their own against the big, bad hockey players.
"I really do like kittens," said the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Smith. "Growing up, I used to have a couple of cats and kittens, so me and my brothers always played with them. So it was kind of nice to be able to see them again."
One kitten, Tigre, became Smith's kitten soulmate. So much so, Smith is seriously considering adopting the six-week-old ball of fur.
"(I'm) definitely going to think about it, he's definitely still in my heart," Smith said.
He also said his experience at Cherryland has given him a different perspective on animals.
"It's definitely changed my view on certain animals," Smith said. "Every animal has their own tendencies and their own anxieties, knowing how they were raised and how they feel, so you have to be very patient with them."
Yates got a kick out of the way the players interacted with the animals, especially the kittens.
"It made me smile and laugh a little bit because it was adorable to see all these guys with little kittens climbing on their shoulders and their backs," Yates said. "It's something I hope really resonated with them and realize that there's a lot of animals out there that need homes."
After the tour and roughhousing concluded, the Wings prospects posed for a group photo and signed numerous items which will be included in a special Red Wings prize pack, given to people who adopt Cherryland animals featured in photos shared on the Red Wings social media platforms.
Though their jobs are rewarding, there are some trying days for Yates and her staff. They rely on each other to get through the difficult times, but it's days like Sunday when a group of young athletes renew their compassionate spirit.
"It is hard. You have your good and your bad days," Yates said. "My solace is this team that I have now. When one of us is down, the other one picks us up and we really know when to take a break when we need to and have stuff like today happen.
"This really will give the staff a boost, knowing that you guys (the Red Wings prospects) took the time to come here. It really makes us feel good about what we do."
After their experience Sunday at Cherryland, you can add 27 young hockey players who feel good about what Yates and her staff do to enrich the lives of so many animals in need of a loving home.