When the puck dropped during the 10th annual USA Hockey Sled Classic on Nov. 21, the Detroit Red Wings were there — more than just in spirit.
Two Michigan Sled Hockey teams, the Grand Rapids Sled Wings and the Michigan Sled Dogs, joined forces to represent the Detroit Red Wings, and were crowned champions of their division during the four-day tournament in St. Louis.
To give the players a boost, the Detroit Red Wings Foundation and Warrior Hockey sporting goods surprised the team with new equipment and Red Wings jerseys during a practice at the BELFOR Training Center at Little Caesars Arena in October.
Several Red Wings players including Dylan Larkin, Justin Abdelkader and Valtteri Filppula, were present to interact, swap hockey stories and even try out sled equipment for the first time. Every jersey was personalized for each player, many of whom have spinal cord injuries and conditions such as Spina Bifida, Muscular Dystrophy, and Cerebral Palsy.
Sled Dogs defenseman Jake Jones relishes the opportunity to put on the winged wheel and is happy the Red Wings and Warrior Hockey are supporting disabled players.
“Getting the funding and support, more so than anything, is just a dream come true,” Jones said. “Most of us grew up wanting to play hockey to some extent, whether we were actually able to or not, we wanted to try to be a pro athlete of that level.”
The Red Wings were equally excited about the opportunity to help the sled hockey teams as part of the team’s Hockeytown Cares program.
“Seeing them with their official Red Wings jerseys with their names on them and the jerseys they’ll wear in the tournament is pretty exciting,” Abdelkader said. “I think between Warrior and the Detroit Red Wings Foundation, it’s a great way for us to give back and interact with the players and connect with them.”
The USA Hockey Sled Classic, hosted by the 2019 Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues at the Centene Community Ice Center this year, saw 30 teams compete with affiliations to a record-tying 20 NHL teams. Over 360 sled athletes competed in Chicago, and St. Louis is expected to experience similar numbers.
“It’s hugely important because they get to go out and wear the sweater of the team they’ve grown up cheering, and they’re out on the ice with these guys and they’re in the Red Wings practice facility. It’s a huge shot in the arm for them,” said Marie Sly, Director of Disabled Hockey for Michigan Amateur Hockey Association MAHA and the USA Hockey representative for Michigan.
The two teams will take their new equipment with them for the remainder of the season, including future tournaments in spring 2020, she added.