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Red Wings surprise sled hockey players with jerseys and gear

Michigan-based team will represent Detroit at the USA Hockey Sled Classic in November

by Arthur J. Regner & Dana Wakiji @Dwakiji and @ArthurJRegner / DetroitRedWings.com

DETROIT -- Members of the Michigan Sled Dogs and the Grand Rapids Sled Wings thought they were spending their Saturday afternoon catching Red Wings practice and meeting some of the Wings players afterward.

The Sled Dogs, based in Detroit, and the Grand Rapids Sled Wings are combining teams to represent the Red Wings at the USA Hockey Sled Classic to be held in St. Louis from Nov. 14-21.

And what better way for these on-ice rivals to bond as one than hanging out with some of the players from their favorite NHL team.

So after practice the sled players gathered at ice level in the BELFOR Training Center and were greeted by Wings' alternate captains Justin Abdelkader, Frans Nielsen and Dylan Larkin, as well as defensemen Mike Green and Dennis Cholowski and forwards Anthony Mantha and Valtteri Filppula.

Abdelkader was the master of ceremonies as he addressed the sled players while his teammates introduced themselves.

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: "They have the same passion for hockey as I do." @WarriorHockey #HockeytownCares pic.twitter.com/CZYc9nq1YT

Once the pleasantries were exchanged, Abdelkader directed the players to a locker room where the Red Wings and Warrior Hockey presented each player with their own official Red Wings jersey with their name on the back and new equipment, including hockey gloves and sticks.

Needless to say, the players were completely -- and joyfully -- blindsided.

"Honestly, it's really hard to put it into words," Sled Wings defenseman Tyler Anderson said. "Being a Red Wings fan forever, it's a really neat opportunity. We're really, really thankful that they were willing to give us the time today to come down here and hang out with them and skate with them.

"They (the Red Wings and Warrior) stepped up big and gave us the time today and all the equipment. We have to represent them well and make it worth all that effort that they put in. We're going to give them a strong effort out there on the ice."

Sled Dogs defenseman Jake Jones relishes the opportunity to put on the winged wheel and is happy the Red Wings and Warrior are supporting disabled players.

"Getting the funding and support, more so than anything, is just a dream come true," Jones said. "Most of us grew up wanting to play hockey to some extent, whether we were actually able to or not, wanted to try to be a pro athlete of that level.

"This gives us that opportunity. We get to represent the Wings as competitors in the best (way) that we possibly can on the ice, playing the sport that we love."

As appreciative and surprised as the sled players were, the Red Wings were just as giddy to be able to meet and swap stories with their fellow hockey players.

"Seeing them with their official Red Wings jerseys with their names on them and the jerseys they'll wear in the tournament is pretty exciting," Abdelkader said. "I think between Warrior and the Detroit Red Wings Foundation, it's a great way for us to give back and interact with the players and connect with them.

"I know they watched practice and they didn't realize this was all happening today, so it just really exciting and it's always great to give back to our community. (This) is one of the most important things we can do.

"We're role models, we're in positions where we can have a positive effect on so many different people and it's just a way for us to connect and be engaged with our community that supports us so much; it's a little way we can give back."

After the players received their swag, Larkin and Filppula joined them on the BELFOR ice for a little practice as the sled players were breaking in their new equipment.

Larkin and Filppula were also donning new equipment in the form of a hockey sled, a first for both players.

"That was the first time. Really cool, really special experience," Larkin said. "I've watched it in the Olympics, watched games as a kid, so it was fun to be out there."

When asked what was the key to staying on the sled, the Michigan native made it sound simple, which it isn't.

"Balancing. They make it look easy," Larkin said. "It's something that when you're out there, you just have to balance and your arms have to move similar to getting your feet moving on the ice and handling the puck and doing everything the same."

The Wings were challenged to a race and though Filppula struggled a little more on his sled than Larkin, they were eager to race.

"They gave us a head start at first, the experienced guys. Then the next one (race), we all started at the same time and they blew us out of the water," Larkin said. "Val had some technical difficulties starting and I got out of the gate pretty hot. Felt pretty good."

For the past several years the Detroit Red Wings Foundation and Warrior Hockey have donated jerseys and equipment to teams with special needs, but this year is different because the sled players will be Red Wings when they hit the ice in St. Louis.

"This is huge, often times disabled sports tend to be put on the back burner and the NHL is working really hard to put it on the front burner now, and we're getting that through events like the NHL Sled Hockey Classic, put on by USA Hockey," said Marie Sly, Director of Disabled Hockey for MAHA (Michigan Amateur Hockey Association) and USA Hockey representative for Michigan. "It's hugely important because they get to go out and wear the sweater of the team they've grown up cheering and they're out on the ice with these guys (the Red Wings) and they're in the Red Wings practice facility, it's a huge shot in the arm for them.

"They will take this with them for the rest of the season, to all the tournaments they have coming up and the big national tournament in March and April."

Tweet from @DetroitRedWings: We���ve partnered up with @WarriorHockey to provide the #RedWings Sled Hockey Team with new jerseys and equipment as they head out to the @usahockey Sled Hockey Classic in November.#HockeytownCares ������ pic.twitter.com/bDHZWO7jlm

Doug Todd, associate brand manager for Warrior Hockey, said the event planning with the Red Wings Foundation begins once they know which team will be the recipient of the equipment donation.

Warrior and the Wings want to make sure each player has the right size equipment and jersey when they walk into the locker room for the first time.

For Todd, this is one of the most gratifying experiences of his job.

"This is always one of our favorite events of the year," Todd said. "It's a cornerstone for Warrior and New Balance to give back to the community, and to be involved with the Hockey is for Everyone program with the Red Wings is just a fantastic way to give back to the community. It's hockey players helping hockey players. That's what we love to do.

"It's great. Warrior, we're based here in Michigan, in the Detroit area, so anytime we can help out a local program that needs it, we're happy to do it. It's a great day and hopefully this continues for us and this relationship with the Red Wings for the near future."

When they compete in St. Louis next month, the players will have the support of the entire Detroit team, especially Larkin, who feels a special kinship with his fellow Michiganders.

"Seeing these guys, they have the same passion for hockey as I do and as we do," Larkin said. "It's pretty cool, we're from the same state and to see them with the winged wheel on and they're going to St. Louis to represent the Detroit Red Wings. I know they're going to do a great job of it and it was pretty special for us to partner up with Warrior Hockey and send them on their way with nice jerseys and new sticks and gloves.

"They look the part and I know they're going to play hard and represent the Red Wings well."

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