DETROIT -- Of the many community events that the Red Wings participate in each year, one stands out from the rest.
That is their annual visit to the Children's Hospital of Michigan, which takes place in December right before the holidays, and Thursday's event had a special highlight.
"We really enjoy coming here and interacting with the kids," alternate captain Justin Abdelkader said. "Obviously whatever they're dealing with, it's nice for us to come in and hopefully put a smile on their face, get them excited, interact with them. I know the team, we always really enjoy coming here.
"It's something that we're in roles that a lot of people look up to us around this community and we want to have a strong presence here."
Coach Jeff Blashill said seeing the kids and their families also brightens his day and that of the players.
"I think it's a great opportunity for us to come," Blashill said. "I've had lots of situations in my life of people that I care deeply about whose children have had to go through differing hardships and they all vary, but these can be tough times and at a time of year when it should be a fun and joyous time of year, it can be tough times. We just hope coming here today we can put a smile on each person that we run into, on their faces.
"The reverse though is also true. It's a great opportunity for us to kind of get a smile back on our face. Not think about necessarily our day-to-day jobs and just what this season means and the caring and the love that it's about."
Blashill can honestly relate to what the families are going through as his son went through his own health issue when he was younger.
"My son had to have heart surgery when he was 2 years old, open-heart surgery, and it was scary," Blashill said. "I remember being at Mott Children's Hospital and just feeling real fortunate that it was something that it was a defect that was curable. And again, everybody that's in this hospital has differing degrees of things that they're going through but your heart just goes out to those and the struggles that they're going through. Certainly again, feel fortunate for the health of my own family but never take that for granted as well."
Quite a few of the Wings are parents so the visit carries extra meaning for them.
"Being a dad for the first time, it opens your eyes up to a lot of different things for sure," Abdelkader said. "To see some of the kids here at the hospital, it's really tough. We just try to come in and put a smile on their face and sign some autographs, we're giving some stuff away today, hopefully take their mind off whatever they're dealing with and be here to support them."
Abdelkader's son, Jaxon, was born before training camp last season.
"I've got three girls so seeing families going through some harder situations, hockey's a small part of what's going on in the world today," forward Darren Helm said. "We're happy to be playing it but there's definitely situations that are a lot worse. For us to come out here and be able to make some people's hour or day, it definitely makes it worth it to be out here and spend some time with them."
The people who work at the hospital say the Wings' visit always has an uplifting effect on everyone.
"I think for our patients and families, particularly in Detroit, such a hockey town, to have these figures that they see on TV and if they're lucky enough to get to go to games, these large- than-life figures, then to have them take the time to come here to the hospital to walk around our rooms, spend time with patients and families, find out how they're doing, ask about their interests, I think it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience for those patients who get to do it," said Sinead Nimmo, child life project specialist. "I think it's really a wonderful demonstration of the care that they have for our patients and families and I think it's so great for them to get to experience that first-hand, that they took the time to come here."
The hospital visit also marks the second part of the Wings' Hometown Holiday Assist.
"Hometown Holiday Assist is all about making sure that we're taking care of our community," said Kevin Brown, director of community relations and the Detroit Red Wings Foundation. "Earlier on, our children from the Boys and Girls Club came and helped our players and our Lady Wings to pick out toys at Meijer that ended up coming here to the Children's Hospital of Michigan to support their SNOWPILE program, which provides those gifts to kids here in the hospital that will have to stay here during the holidays and give them a holiday that truly is special."
What made everything more special for the Wings is a group of them got to celebrate the graduation of 11-year-old Kamari, who was finally going to leave the hospital after six weeks of physical therapy.
"No one has ever graduated with the Red Wings," said Dawn, one of the therapists working with Kamari. "This is the best ever!"
Frans Nielsen, Trevor Daley, Abdelkader, Jonathan Bernier and Blashill all took part in the celebration.
"We play and coach a sport that we love and it means a lot to us and it's our livelihoods and all that stuff, but nothing is like the health of your family," Blashill said. "Certainly that's what's most important to me and that's what's most important to each one of these families. This is a great reminder of that. I think we do a good job of keeping that in perspective anyways, but it's a great reminder of that."