All I ever wanted to be was a Red Wing.
As a boy, that’s what I dreamed of.
It was a dream I felt like I could reach out and touch when I was five years old and I was at the Joe Louis Arena for the very first time.
I remember the drive to the arena. The tall buildings of downtown Detroit looked like they went up into the sky forever, and the traffic went down the road the same way. There were red-and-white sweaters and hats on everybody on the sidewalks. There was just this feeling in the air. Like my family and I were going somewhere special. Like it was something that not everybody got to do.
Walking through the concourse I must have looked like a kid on Christmas Day. I remember running up to the entrance of our section and peeking through the plastic curtains that hid the ice from the hallways — that was when I saw the Joe in all her beauty for the first time.
It was just perfect.
I knew that day that I wanted to become part of it.
And against the odds, I did.
I played on that ice for 13 years in red and white.
Now, though, my time as a Red Wing is up. But just because there won’t be a winged wheel on my jersey doesn’t mean I won’t always have a bit of Detroit in me.
It’s always going to be there, because we’re family now.
And yes, I’ve been in the family since I was five years old, sitting in the upper deck of the Joe, but it became real in the summer of 2005, when I was 18, sitting with my family and some close friends in a Buffalo Wild Wings in Muskegon, Michigan. Due to the NHL lockout, only a few players had been allowed to attend the draft in Ottawa. So we went to dinner to await the results of the draft. I was checking my flip phone obsessively, until the moment it lit up with my agent’s name. I picked up to hear those unimaginable words, “The Detroit Red Wings drafted you 42nd overall.”
My jaw dropped. My eyes teared up. My dad nearly fell out of his seat. I jumped up and shouted the news to the entire restaurant.
“I’M GOING TO BE A RED WING!”
The place blew up. There was yelling and cheering from every booth and table.
All I ever wanted to be was a Red Wing.
I rolled into the Joe for my first time as a Red Wings player on April 3, 2008, after being called up from Michigan State. I had an old beater college car that I drove everywhere. I parked it in the first spot I saw, grabbed my Spartan hockey bag and went for the doors. I was in awe just being in that locker room. Darren McCarty — the Darren McCarty — came up to me right away and welcomed me.
I was so nervous I could barely put on my equipment, let alone go through a full NHL practice. But I made it. We exited the ice and I was feeling like, I got this. I can do this. Then I locked eyes with Mike Babcock, our coach at the time. And he’s walking right at me. I’m just hoping there’s someone right behind me he wants to talk to. But, no, he wanted to talk to me.
“Hey, Abby, is that your car in my parking spot?”
I thought, You have to be kidding me. And, I mean, Mike was intense. I thought he was going to rip my jersey right off me.
“Oh, Coach, I di—”
And then he smirked and cracked up.
It was actually HIS spot I had pulled in to, which is like ... how could I make that mistake on my first day? But he was just giving me a hard time. He smiled and went down the hall. That night, I made sure not to park in the coach’s spot when I showed up for my first NHL game. We were playing the Blue Jackets, and my heart was racing well before puck-drop. I was feeling the same way I did when I was a kid, like I was about to do something special. Because I still was that kid. I was still Justin, the Red Wings fan. But I was also now Justin, the Red Wings player. And it hit me as soon as I got out on the ice. During warmups, I remember seeing all the fans — all the seats I used to sit in.
I really was a Red Wing.
I was feeling the same way I did when I was a kid, like I was about to do something special.
I played 11 minutes and 20 seconds that night, and for every one of them I had butterflies in my stomach. Aaron Downey was my linemate, and I remember during warmups he told me, “Play your game how you want. Don’t worry about anyone touching you on the ice.”
And that’s what I did. On my second shift, I high-sticked a Columbus player right in front of the Blue Jackets’ bench — and they let me hear it. But Downey skated down there and said something to them that made them all go quiet. Those were the kinds of guys we had in our room. Everyone had each other’s backs and they left everything on the ice for the guys beside them.
That’s the Red Wing way. That’s the Detroit way.
That spirit drove us to win the Cup that season. I only played two games that year, but to be around the team, to be in every practice and meeting during that run — it showed me what it took to be a pro. Being on the other side of a playoff run, I saw how much the support from Wings fans all over the great state of Michigan — the flags on the cars and hanging from the houses — meant for our group. We fed off the energy in the building every night. It pushed guys to prepare properly, to do everything they could to be ready.
When we beat Pittsburgh, and it was all over, I really couldn’t believe it. I didn’t play in that game, but I was able to go down to the ice and lift the Cup in a Red Wings jersey. That’s a moment, a feeling, that I will remember for the rest of my life. That’s what I had dreamed of so many times when I was growing up in Muskegon, Michigan.
All I ever wanted to be was a Red Wing.
As I grew as a player and as a person, I came to understand that playing for this extraordinary organization gave me the opportunity to use my platform for good. Being the son of a teacher, I knew the importance of education. Between myself and my wife, Julie, we made it one of our priorities to help kids in schools throughout the state. From library upgrades, to book donations and reading sessions, those moments with kids and teachers all around Michigan have meant just as much to me as my time on the ice.
I was able to visit quite a few classrooms in my time here, and I was even able to read to some of them from the children’s book I wrote, Shoot for the Goal. I wanted to share my story and hopefully inspire a little boy or girl to believe that they can do anything they put their minds to, even if it seems crazy — like playing for the Wings.
Sharing those moments, and giving our teachers the necessary tools to teach our youth is one way I hope to have a legacy in this city that goes beyond being a Red Wing.
I will truly miss all the amazing individuals I have met in this city, sacrificing their time and energy to help others.
Because that’s what Detroit is — that’s what the Red Wings’ organization is. It’s just people. It’s people doing their very best for one another, no matter what, and expecting the same in return. From the Ilitch family all the way down, that is the standard that is set.
It’s been an honor to play for you.
When I think of the people who make this organization so special, there are plenty who come to mind. But it’s the ones who aren’t seen as often on the outside, that are the glue that keep it all together.
I think of Jerry and Johnny. They checked I.D.’s and manned the door outside the Olympia Club at the Joe. They were the best, most positive pair of guys you could ever meet. It didn’t matter if I had 10 seconds or 10 minutes to talk to them, I always left feeling the same way — like I was a part of this big family.
I think of Al Sobotka, our famous Zamboni driver. He may be famous for his octopus waving, but he also always kept the best ice in the league. Al was my wingman and helped me set up my proposal to Julie in 2016. A true friend.
I think of Leslie Baker, who was the team mom to so many. She has been with the Wings for over 40 years and has put her heart and soul into this organization. During my time in Detroit, Leslie worked in the friends and families room, and everyone loved her. She did just about anything, and never hesitated to step in when she was needed. I’m sure if we had needed her on the fourth line she could have done it. She’s a staple of the franchise.
To all the Red Wings’ staff, you are the people that make this organization unbelievably special. Players come and go, but many of you have been here for years and take so much pride in the incredible work you do. Especially you, Piet, Russ, Pauly, J.R., Zubie, and Cheeka you guys have been there since my first day, and have helped me in more ways than I can express.
You have created a family that has a bond as strong as any I’ve ever experienced. It’s been an honor to play for you.
And to Detroit, our city, our fans: We’ve had ups and downs, there is no denying that. We’ve won and we’ve lost, but we’ve always done it together. And your support has been there throughout. You, the fans, have made me into the person I am today.
Thank you for taking a small town boy from West Michigan and showing him the ropes. Thank you for letting him grow.
Detroit is tough, Detroit is resilient. I know there are good times ahead. This team is building something special — trust me. I’ve seen this franchise at it’s best. I know what it takes. It will come. And when it does, that group of players will have the best fans in the world behind them, cheering them on.
Maybe one day I’ll be in the stands again, with all of you.
I’ll remember that dream I had when I was five.
I’ll know that I chased it with everything I had. I’ll know that I did it. And I’ll know that I’m exactly where I’m meant to be.
Because all I’ve ever wanted to be was a Red Wing.