DETROIT - The Michigan FAR Flyers thought they were just going to watch Red Wings practice but instead got a Valentine's Day surprise they'll never forget.
The FAR Flyers special hockey team is for the development and enjoyment of hockey for developmentally or physically challenged athletes and the group came to Joe Louis Arena to help the Wings kick off their Hockey is for Everyone activities.
After practice, Justin Abdelkader greeted the team outside the visitors' dressing room.
When the players entered the room, they found each player had his or her name on a stall and that stall contained new Warrior hockey equipment.
"Man, I love this," exclaimed Marshall, one of the FAR Flyers.
Parents and coaches looked on as the each player ran to find his or her locker and new stick, helmet, gloves and hockey bag.
"It's amazing, said Pamela Ayres, president of FAR Therapeutic Arts and Recreation. "I was lucky enough that I got to walk down a little early because I got to see everything before they walked in so I could get all the emotion out. Tears are definitely flowing for parents and for us here at FAR. Our players are just going to be so proud. This is just amazing. We thank the Red Wings and we thank Warrior for the beautiful gift."
The event was the first for the Red Wings in celebrating Hockey is for Everyone Month.
"It was unbelievable, first seeing all the equipment there and then getting to meet the kids and knowing the surprises in the locker room," Abdelkader said. "It really made my day, put a smile on my face. I know how excited they are. It's about giving back and giving back to the game. I know we're celebrating Hockey is for Everyone Month so this was really important."
Peter, another FAR Flyers player, was a little overwhelmed by everything.
"It's a lot different, professionals and special needs group," he said. "It's very emotional to us. It's very big for us."
Warrior Hockey's Keith Perera said they were excited to partner with the Wings for the special event.
"We're really happy to help," Perera said. "Our company, we're owned by New Balance and our owners, the Davis family, have always instilled in us to help in the community as much as we can so we thought that this was an amazing opportunity to help. We also offer and build equipment for everyone. We're the only manufacturer that makes sled sticks, sled hockey equipment for sled players. It's an amazing sport to see and we certainly believe that hockey is for everyone so we're glad to share anything we can."
Seeing the reaction of the players and their parents was an uplifting moment for everyone.
"I got emotional, to be honest with you," Perera said. "I'm just a marketing guy and you get into a groove at work every day and it's just a job, right? But something like this is unbelievable. I was touched emotionally just to see the happiness on the faces of the kids and the surprise. It really was unbelievable. I almost started crying."
Abdelkader couldn't stop smiling.
"I was so excited," Abdelkader said. "It was just awesome seeing the excitement on their face. I think that made everyone's day, especially mine."
Ayres said the FAR Flyers started 30 years ago and some of them have been playing together for 20 years.
The team has had a connection with the Wings for a while.
"The Red Wings Alumni has been amazing to us," Ayres said. "We've had alumni guys come out and skate, we've had alumni games but nothing like this. This is just amazing as you can see all the smiling faces in this room and all the beautiful equipment that they've been gifted. What a way to spend a day."
When it comes right down to it, it doesn't matter how good you are, it only matters that you get to play the game you love.
"That's what a lot of people don't understand is they want the opportunity to play just like everyone else does," Perera said. "They love the sport. Hockey is a passion sport, whether you watch it on TV or you participate in it. There's a guy that we sponsor that's been playing and I think he's in his 90's and is still playing. Men have been playing and women have been playing and kids love playing and they play all their lives and love the sport so we share that passion and these kids have that passion. That doesn't mean that they can't play if they don't have the equipment. We wanted to make it special for them too."