– As the Red Wings practiced Friday morning at MasterCard Centre, Joseph Abdelkader reminisced about his son’s early interest in hockey back home in Muskegon, Michigan.
“One of the first times he skated, we went out on this small lake. It was one of those winters like this, a little colder, but no snow and the ice on the lake was perfect ice,” Abdelkader said. “And the kids just skated all over the place and he just loved it. And you know what — that might have been the time where he said, ‘Hey, this is awesome.’ ”
After putting his son into organized hockey, the family noticed some early promise in young Justin.
“All of a sudden, at a young age he just seemed to be above everybody else,” Abdelkader said. “And it just kept continuing so we just kept pushing him to the next level and here he is.”
Over time, the Abdelkaders had familiarized themselves with the highway route to Toronto, where Justin participated on many weekend tournaments.
“They made a few trips here to Toronto, Chicago, Cleveland, the Midwest,” Joseph said. “I remember when we came here when he was in seventh grade, he broke his collarbone. He had to drive back with that broken collarbone so that was tough. Seven hour drive, but he survived it.”
In Abdelkader’s case, the road to the NHL implies more than just the symbolic trajectory of his career. His path to Detroit, the stops he made with junior teams and then Michigan State University, formed a well-defined easterly line that starts near Lake Michigan and ends next to the Detroit River.
“There’s a highway that goes from Muskegon to Detroit called I-96,” Joseph said. “Justin grew-up in Muskegon, he played at Grand Rapids in the American league, which is along I-96, he played at Michigan State University — I-96 and now he’s in Detroit — I-96. He covered the four major cities. I told him if he ever does a hockey school he’s got to call it “The I-96 Hockey School.’ ”
Nowadays, whenever they’re able to, the Abdelkaders take that very route on I-96 to make it to weekend games at Joe Louis Arena.
“We’re very fortunate. I look around at all the other families who have to fly in from Europe — they come here maybe twice, three times a year,”Abdelkader said. “We’re very grateful and very fortunate.”
Of all the spectacular moments that he’s witnessed in his son’s career, Abdelkader remembers one in particular that stands above the rest.
“The first time when he signed and played his first game, seeing him come out of that tunnel out of the locker room onto the ice with all of these Hall of Famers,” he said. “The goals are all special, but coming out of that tunnel was probably the coolest thing.”