Ice hockey is already a big part of the sports culture all over the Detroit area and across the state of Michigan, but USA Hockey's annual "Hockey Weekend Across America" effort to promote the sport in the U.S. gave the Red Wings an easy reason to help out with the cause.
That's how this weekend's "24 Hours of Hockey" at Joe Louis Arena came about. Starting at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday -- following the Red Wings' game against the Nashville Predators -- the ice surface at "The Joe" will be filled with the sound of the game being played, taught and introduced to beginners for a 24-hour period.
HOCKEY WEEKEND ACROSS AMERICA
NHL, NBC Sports set for Hockey WeekendNHL.com
The National Hockey League is taking part in the celebration by serving up U.S. hockey-themed content through its multiple media platforms to support the nationwide initiative introduced five years ago by USA Hockey to celebrate the game and those involved at all levels while exposing hockey to new audiences. READ MORE ›
"It's a huge sport here in Detroit and this state," said Phil Pierce, fan development and youth hockey manager for Olympia Entertainment, which owns the Wings. "This is a great opportunity to promote the sport here in these parts, and what better way to do it at the home of the Detroit Red Wings?"
The festivities will begin with a game featuring local celebrities that will start at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday morning. Throughout the night, adult recreational leagues will play games at "The Joe" and then give way to youth leagues and youth clinics on Saturday morning -- which will lead up to a planned outdoor practice for the Wings at Clark Park.
The San Jose Sharks, who will be in town for a game on Sunday against the Wings, also have time slotted at Joe Louis Arena for a Saturday practice in the early afternoon, which will be followed by more local hockey action. After the Sharks leave the ice, there will be games in the afternoon, a high school state championship game in the evening and more adult games to round out the 24 hours.
Wings coaches will also be there on Saturday to help instruct some of the youth clinics, which will feature two "Try Hockey for Free" beginners sessions.
"I'll be out there on the ice in the morning with the kids and I look forward to it, because it's a chance for kids to skate at Joe Louis Arena," said Jim Bedard, who coaches the Wings' goaltenders. "It's so special. Kids can get used to hockey and it's a great way to [make] a memory. It's also a chance for kids to try on the equipment and maybe fall in love with the game."
Legendary Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom
agrees. He's from Sweden, but has played for two decades in Detroit and now has sons who play hockey all across the state.
"I think it's cool they're trying something like this," Lidstrom said, following the Wings' practice on Thursday. "I think the kids will love it and love being part of something like that, getting the chance to come down here and play and be a part of 'Hockey Weekend in America.' It's a great idea, especially being here in Michigan. Hockey's big here in Michigan, and I think it's great that it's growing across the whole country, too."
Lidstrom's teammate, forward Drew Miller
, is originally from East Lansing, Mich., and played both youth hockey and some junior hockey in the state before playing collegiately at Michigan State and then starting his pro career.
The Detroit Red Wings salute their fans after setting a new NHL record for most consecutive home wins on Feb. 14 against the Dallas Stars at Joe Louis Arena. (Photo: Dave Reginek/NHLI)
He knows how special it used to be when his teams got a chance to play where the Wings played. Miller's youth team program, which was sponsored by Honey Baked Ham, used to play the well-known Little Caesers' program started by Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch in games held at "The Joe."
"I played pretty much all of my [youth] career in Michigan, except for one year in juniors in Omaha, Neb., so I've been to a lot of ice rinks here," Miller said. "We'd play here occasionally. Maybe once a year we'd get to come here and play -- and that was the best, to get to come here and play. In college, too. We'd play Michigan here and the league playoffs were here, too, and it was great."
That feeling hasn't changed for kids in this area, either. It's what makes this weekend's "24 Hours of Hockey" event such an enticing option -- even if it's a huge undertaking for several Red Wings employees.
Long-time Joe Louis Arena ice guru Al Sobotka, especially. He's in charge of the ice both at the arena and for the outdoor practice at Clark Park, which has kept him going non-stop of late, including last-minute work at the outdoor rink to shave off extra layers of ice because of recent rainfall.
Each rink will have its own dedicated Zamboni this weekend and both are sure to put on some high resurfacing mileage. It's all just part of the fun, though, and also a good precursor to what it will probably be like next winter for the first annual "Hockeytown Winter Festival" held from mid-December to Jan. 1, 2013 at an outdoor rink placed inside Detroit's Comerica Park.
The "Hockeytown Winter Festival" -- which coincides with the 2013 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic outdoor game between the Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs at the University of Michigan's football stadium in Ann Arbor -- will feature hockey being played and coached at almost all levels, similar to this weekend's hockey festivities.
"This time of year, the Super Bowl's over and there's not much else going on right now," Bedard said. "There's a lot of winter left, so let's take advantage of being outside -- whether you're playing hockey in the street or wherever you can play the game. This is a great year to get it started and then really wrap it up next year with all of the outdoor stuff. It's going to be fabulous."