All I ever wanted to be was a Red Wing.
As a boy, this is what I dreamed of.
It was a dream that I felt I could reach and touch when I was five and at Joe Louis Arena for the very first time.
I remember the ride to the arena. The tall buildings of downtown Detroit seemed to have gone up into the sky forever, and traffic was coming down the road the same way. There were red and white sweaters and hats all over the sidewalks. There was just that feeling in the air. As my family and I were going somewhere special. Like it’s something not everyone has to do.
As I walked through the lobby, I must have looked like a child on Christmas Day. I remember running to the entrance to our section and peeking through the plastic curtains that hid the ice in the hallways – that’s when I saw the Joe in all his beauty for the first time.
It was just perfect.
I knew that day that I wanted to be a part of it.
And against all odds, I did.
I played on this ice for 13 years in red and white.
Now, however, my time as Red Wing is up. But just because there won’t be a winged wheel on my jersey that I won’t always have a bit of Detroit in me.
He will always be there, because we are family now.
And yes, I’ve been in the family since I was five, sitting on the top deck of the Joe, but it became real in the summer of 2005, when I was 18, sitting with my family and close friends in a Buffalo Wild Wings in Muskegon, Michigan. Due to the NHL lockout, only a few players were allowed to attend the draft in Ottawa. So we went to dinner to wait for the results of the project. I was obsessively checking my flip phone, until it lit up with my agent’s name. I resumed to hear those unimaginable words: “The Detroit Red Wings drafted you 42nd overall.”
My jaw dropped. My eyes are torn. My father almost fell out of his seat. I jumped in and shouted the news to the whole restaurant.
“I WILL BE A RED WING!”
The place exploded. There were screams and cheers from every booth and table.
All I ever wanted to be was a Red Wing.
I first entered the Joe as a Red Wings player on April 3, 2008, after being called up from Michigan State. I had an old college drummer car that I drove everywhere. I parked it in the first spot I saw, grabbed my Spartan hockey bag and went to look for the doors. I was amazed just to be in that locker room. Darren McCarty – the Darren McCarty – came up to me right away and greeted me.
I was so nervous that I could barely put on my gear, let alone participate in a full NHL practice. But I did. We came out of the ice and I felt like, I have this. I can do it. Then I crossed my eyes with Mike Babcock, our coach at the time. And he walks right on me. I just hope there’s someone 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 are joking. And, I mean, Mike was intense. I thought he was going to rip my jersey off.
“Oh, coach, I say-“
And then he smiled and cracked.
This was actually HIS place I left off, which is like … how could I make this mistake on my first day? But he was just giving me a hard time. He smiled and walked down the hall. That night I made sure do not park in the coach’s place when I showed up for my first game in the NHL. We were playing the Blue Jackets, and my heart was racing long before the puck dropped. I felt the same as when I was a kid, like I was about to do something special. Because I was still This child. 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 stepped out onto the ice. During warm-ups, I remember seeing all the fans – all the seats I used to sit in.
I really was a Red Wing.
I felt the same as when I was a kid, like I was about to do something special.
I played 11 minutes and 20 seconds that night, and for each one of them had butterflies in my stomach. Aaron Downey was my line mate, and I remember during warm-ups he said to me, “Play your game the way you want. Don’t worry if someone touches you on the ice.
And that’s what I did. On my second shift, I held up a Columbus player right in front of the Blue Jackets bench – and they let me hear him. But Downey skated over there and said something to them that calmed them all down. He was the kind of guy we had in our room. Everyone was holding their backs and they left everything on the ice for the guys next to them.
It’s the Red Wing way. It’s the Detroit way.
That spirit drove us to win the Cup this season. I only played two games that year, but being in the squad, being in every training and meeting during this race – it showed me what it takes to be a pro. Being on the other side of a playoff race, I saw just how much support from Wings fans across the great state of Michigan – the flags on cars and hanging on houses – went to our group. We fed off the energy of the building every night. It made the guys prepare properly, do whatever they can to be ready.
When we beat Pittsburgh, and it was over, I really couldn’t believe it. I didn’t play in that game, but I was able to get out on the ice and lift the Cup with a Red Wings jersey. It is a moment, a feeling, that I will remember for the rest of my life. This is what I dreamed of so many times when I was growing up in Muskegon, Michigan.
All I ever wanted to be was a Red Wing.
Growing up as a player and as a person, I understood that playing for this amazing organization gave me the opportunity to use my platform for good. Being the son of a teacher, I knew the importance of education. Between me and my wife, Julie, we’ve made it one of our priorities to help kids in schools across the state. From library upgrades to book donations and reading sessions, those times with kids and teachers across Michigan have meant as much to me as my time on the ice.
I was able to visit several classrooms during my stay here, and I was even able to read some of them from the children’s book I wrote, Aim for the goal. I wanted to share my story and hopefully inspire a little boy or girl to believe they can do whatever they want, no matter how crazy it sounds – like playing for the Wings.
Sharing those moments and giving our teachers the 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 people 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. They are just people. These are people who do the best they can for each other, no matter what, and expect the same in return. From the Ilitch family down below, the standard is established.
It was an honor to play for you.
When I think of the people who make this organization so special, there are many that come to mind. But it’s the ones that aren’t seen outdoors as often that are the glue that holds everything together.
I think of Jerry and Johnny. They checked the IDs and guarded the door in front of Joe’s Olympia Club. They were the best, most positive couple of guys you have ever met. No matter if I had 10 seconds or 10 minutes to talk to them, I always left with the same feeling – like I was part of this big family.
I think of Al Sobotka, our famous driver Zamboni. He may be famous for his octopus bustle, but he’s also always kept the best ice cream in the league. Al was my winger and helped me pitch my proposal to Julie in 2016. A real friend.
I think of Leslie Baker, who was the mother of many. She has worked with the Wings for over 40 years and has put all her heart and soul into this organization. While in Detroit, Leslie worked in the Friends and Family Room, and everyone loved her. She did just about anything and never hesitated to step in when needed. I’m sure if we had needed her on the fourth line, she could have. She is a staple of the franchise.
To all the staff of the Red Wings, you are the people who make this organization so incredibly special. Players come and go, but many of you have been here for years and are so proud of the incredible work you do. Especially you, Piet, Russ, Pauly, JR, Zubie and Cheeka, you have been there since my first day and you have helped me in more ways than I can express.
You have created a family that has a bond as strong as anything I have ever experienced. It was an honor to play for you.
And in Detroit, our city, our fans: we’ve had ups and downs, that’s undeniable. We won and we lost, but we’ve always done it together. And your support has always been there. You, the fans, made me who I am today.
Thank you for taking a little boy from West Michigan and showing him the ropes. Thank you for letting it grow.
Detroit is tough, Detroit is resilient. I know there are good times to come. This team is building something special – trust me. I have seen this franchise at its best. I know what it takes. It will come. And when it does, this 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 will remember this dream I had when I was five years old.
I will know that I chased him away with everything I had. I will know I did it. And I will know that I am exactly where I am supposed to be.
Because all I ever wanted to be was a Red Wing.