Abdelkader travels unusual route to success
"They had a really awesome assembly for me," said Abdelkader. "Hopefully it's an inspiration for the kids."
Now 21, Abdelkader is taking part in the Red Wings' annual prospects tournament up the road from his Muskegon birthplace in Traverse City. More than that, Abdelkader is one of the Detroit organization's top prospects, being tabbed as a future hard-hitting, skilled NHL forward.
Of the 22 players on the Detroit roster at the prospects camp, Abdelkader is one of nine under contract with the Red Wings. And he's one of just three -- Jakub Kindl and Cory Emmerton are the others -- who were valued enough to be kept with the team during the playoff run last spring. Those three each wears an 'A' at the prospects tournament as alternate captains (there is no captain), tabbed as the leaders.
"I think being with us in the playoffs was huge for him … it's invaluable that kind of experience," said Detroit assistant general manager Jim Nill. "He brings an element that we don't have a lot of. He's a Dallas Drake type of guy. He's in your face and he's got good skills to go with it and the size to go with it. He's a good combination of something we don't have."
But what Abdelkader didn't have when he was entering his sophomore year at Mona Shores High was this -- a lot of options.
He had played travel hockey as a youth, skating with the Muskegon Chiefs in AA hockey before graduating to the AAA West Michigan Warriors. But the AAA landscape changed when Detroit area teams formed their own league, leading to the Warriors' AAA club folding.
So Abdelkader went back to AA, playing one year of Bantam. His coach there, Shawn Zimmerman, was also the Mona Shores coach and as a sophomore, Abdelkader decided to make the jump to high school hockey.
High school competition includes the best athletes in most sports. Not in hockey. Because of overlapping seasons, hockey players have to choose between travel hockey and the high school game, and in Michigan, travel hockey is where the top players compete. (In the country's other two hockey hotbeds, Minnesota and Massachusetts, high school hockey is stronger than travel hockey.)
By playing for Mona Shores, Abdelkader took a step back that turned into two steps forward.
"I was back and forth …. Either stay back and mature and play high school or move away from home," said Abdelkader. "After a talk with my family, it was definitely the right move to stay home."
Abdelkader had a good sophomore season after which, he was invited by Honey Baked -- one of the elite youth programs in the country -- to play AAA hockey in the Detroit area. Once again, Abdelkader opted to stay home and play for his high school. He led Mona Shores to the Division 2 state championship game and was named Michigan's Mr. Hockey.
"That's amazing to come from high school to this level," said Nill. "I think we forget (that) sometimes the best development is to be the big fish in the small pond. You're better to be the guy who's got the puck all the time and developing your skills or are you better playing at a high level but on the fourth line and not playing as much? That's our philosophy with the Detroit Red Wings. Are you better being a young kid coming in, not in the lineup much and watching the games, or are you better being in Grand Rapids playing 20 minutes a night? How do you develop better?"
Nill now labels Abdelkader as "worldly" and "mature."
But of all the places in the world that Abdelkader could take the Stanley Cup on his one and only day with the trophy, he chose his old high school. A mature thing to do.
"I matured when I was there, kept my grades up, had a really good year as a junior," said Abdelkader. "It was definitely the right move for me (playing high school hockey), especially off the ice. I wasn't ready to move. Sometimes you see guys move too early and screw their career up."