by Josh Berenter @JBerenter / Detroit Red Wings
TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Believe it or not, the Red Wings take the ice at Joe Louis Arena in just five days for their preseason opener against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
But before the puck drops for the Farewell Season at The Joe, Red Wings players hit the road Wednesday for the eighth annual MI Wings Community Tour, presented by ITC Holdings Corp., to say thank you to members of the community on their way to training camp in Traverse City.
The east leg of the 2016 Community Tour got underway at the Detroit Public Safety Headquarters as Wings forwards Drew Miller and Darren Helm served breakfast and coffee to 200 Detroit Police Department and Detroit Fire Department members.
The Red Wings’ visit was much needed for the officers, who were mourning the loss of fallen 46-year-old police sergeant Kenneth Steil, who died last Saturday after complications from a gunshot wound.
“Obviously what they’re going through right now is a tough time, so to be able to come here and just kind of light up their day a little bit, take their mind off what they’re going through, it’s good timing for that,” Miller said. “We obviously respect and appreciate everything that they do for our city and keep us safe and give us the opportunity to play hockey in a great city.”
After breakfast, Miller and Helm engaged in a Q & A session with the police officers and firefighters to cheer them up and give them insight into the lives of professional athletes.
One of the happiest people to see the players was 15-year Detroit Fire Department veteran Justin Hegedus, who said he was a lifelong, die-hard Red Wings fan.
“It’s special. I feel like a little child,” Hegedus said. “I’ve been a Red Wings fan my whole life, been playing hockey my whole life. Obviously it’s special to have these guys come out. As a fan, it’s really special but as a member of Public Safety, it means a lot.
“Most of these guys just come in and put in a really, really hard day’s work every day, and I don’t think that gets recognized a lot. So to have your local sports heroes come and participate in something like this, it means a lot.”
Jennifer Moreno, a Detroit Police Department officer for 15 years, said she was honored to have the Red Wings players visit the station and show their appreciation for the sacrifice that officers make every day.
“It’s exciting,” Moreno said. “It’s an honor to have them here. It’s exciting that they have a tour like this, and it’s nice to know that what we do is appreciated. We’re very grateful for someone of their athletic stature, that plays professional hockey, to take time out of their schedules to just come and pay a visit.”
The east leg of the Community Tour continued in Flint where the players worked with members of United Way of Genesee County’s Flint Urban Safety Corps to assist with blight removal and neighborhood cleanup efforts near the Flint River Trail.
The Red Wings and ITC also provided a donation to United Way of Genesee County for additional cleanup services.
While Miller and Helm made their visits on the east side of the state, Red Wings forwards Luke Glendening and Riley Sheahan traveled west, starting with a stop at the Wesley School in Muskegon to surprise special needs students with a Little Caesars pizza party.
Glendening and Sheahan also participated in an interactive floor hockey clinic with the students, with each forward switching positions to play goalie on opposing teams.
“It was awesome,” Glendening said about the floor hockey game with the studnets. “It was a great experience for us and I’m sure we probably got more out of it than they did. It was a blast. I wasn’t very good in net, but to see the smiles on those kids’ faces reminds you of why you play and reminds you of the enjoyment that hockey can bring.”
Before leaving the school, the Red Wings and ITC delivered one more surprise for the Wesley School students, donating a complete set of Red Wings-branded floor hockey equipment for the school to keep.
After visiting the Wesley School, the Wings wrapped up the Community Tour with a visit to the U.S. Coast Guard Air Station in Traverse City, where Glendening and Sheahan toured the facility and learned about how the Coast Guard protects the Great Lakes.
During their visit, the players got to be part of a search and rescue alarm simulation, test out high-tech night vision goggles, tour the hangar and get inside the cockpit of a rescue helicopter.
Sheahan said it was an honor for him and Glendening to be able to say thank you to the people who keep us safe on the water and risk their lives for a living.
“Everything was so impressive,” Sheahan said. “Their job is very hard to do, and hearing what they go through on a daily basis is pretty amazing. You don’t really think about what their whole process is when they go rescue someone. Just hearing that and hearing the storms that they fight in, it’s pretty amazing. You’ve got to give them a lot of credit.”
One of the biggest highlights for Glendening and Sheahan was getting to meet the on-site wildlife control canine, Piper, who has become a viral star on YouTube for chasing away birds and pests from the Cherry Capital Airport runway while wearing his signature goggles.
“It was pretty cool,” Sheahan said. “It’s amazing that you can train a dog like that. He was so obedient. It was definitely cool for Luke and I. We’re both dog lovers, so it was cool to see.”
Before ending the tour, the players showed their appreciation for the 121 coast guard members at the Traverse City Air Station by distributing Red Wings training camp tickets for the members and their families.
“It’s great to meet these people,” Glendening said. “They’re risking their lives to save ours, so it’s awesome to be here. We’ve got to support them as much as they support us. These guys are doing the real stuff, we’re just playing a game, and although it’s fun, we owe a lot to those people.”
The Red Wings begin training camp on Friday at Centre Ice Arena in Traverse City for four days of on-ice and off-ice training sessions before starting the 2016-17 season.
“Excited would be an understatement,” Glendening said about the season starting soon. “It’s been a long summer. To get back at it with a new team is exciting and here we are, so let’s get it going.”
Detroit Red Wings reporter Dana Wakiji contributed to this report.