Nearly 11 years ago today Jim Nill first caught eye of number nine in Cedar Rapids green and white. The six-foot, 200-pound forward was parked in front of the net taking cross-checks and slashes without reciprocating the favor. The player continued to get back up after getting knocked down. Nill, then with the Detroit Red Wings, knew he had his guy.
Nill and the Red Wings, Justin Abdelkader’s hometown team, would select the Muskegon, MI native in the second round of the 2005 NHL Draft later that summer. Abdelkader and the RoughRiders had just won the USHL’s Clark Cup and Anderson Cup that season, and he was planning on returning to the state of Michigan to play for Michigan State University that next fall. Today, Abdelkader is a cornerstone of the Red Wings and recently signed a seven-year contract extension through the 2022 season.
“Justin was everything you could ask for as a RoughRider: hardworking, mentally and physically tough and he put the team first,” Cedar Rapids RoughRiders head coach and general manager Mark Carlson said. “He is a great role model for people of all ages because he maximizes his abilities on and off the ice every day.”
The RoughRiders organization reached out to the Red Wings earlier this season and requested for Abdelkader to visit Cedar Rapids, IA during the busy NHL season. Cedar Rapids hoped to enshrine Abdelkader in the RoughRiders Hall of Fame, the first of any player in the team’s history. After looking through both the NHL and USHL schedule, Abdelkader graciously found a weekend that would work for travel and arrangements were finalized.
Joining Abdelkader on the ice during last Saturday’s ceremony were Carlson, Justin’s parents Joe and Sheryl, his girlfriend and the original Clark Cup that he and his teammates won in 2005.
“It’s a huge honor, a tremendous honor and I’m glad I could be here and be a part of it. Being a RoughRider means a lot to me,” Abdelkader said. “It was a special year and obviously hoisting the Clark Cup at the end was tremendous. We had a great group of players and obviously without them this all wouldn’t be possible. I owe a lot to those guys.”
Looking back, Abdelkader and his family understand why he had to make sacrifices in order to play in the USHL. But at the time it wasn’t such an easy decision.
“It was his first time leaving home so it wasn’t easy for any of us,” Justin’s father Joe Abdelkader said. “I’ll never forget the first time we dropped him off as we were leaving. It was quite emotional. We were leaving him in a place none of us had ever been to. We didn’t know the coach, the players, but it all seemed to work out.”
It was Justin’s senior year of high school when he was invited to join the RoughRiders. In what some students may value as their most important year to be at their local high school, Abdelkader was willing to leaving his home in Michigan for the first time and prove that he was ready for the big stage.
Abdelkader shared the ice with future NHL players Teddy Purcel, Alec Martinez and Alex Stalock. Three of the four are part of the 25 NHL Draft picks that Carlson has coached while in Cedar Rapids. With the on-ice schedule and off-ice training, Abdelkader made the most of the opportunity in order to succeed.
“You look back and so many memories start right here for us,” Joe said. “If he doesn’t come to Cedar Rapids, he’s not where he is at today.”
The ceremony in Cedar Rapids was more than just a formality to forever enshrine one of the greatest players in RoughRiders history. It was an opportunity for Justin to revisit the only city he has played organized hockey located outside the state of Michigan. It was a chance to go back to a restaurant he and his teammates regularly ate it due to it’s large portions and rather low prices. It was an opportunity for Justin to share with his closest family what it was like to chase an NHL dream at 17-years old, moving away from home to Iowa where he knew no one. It was also a chance to say thanks to everyone that supported him during that crucial year.
Abdelkader took time to thank fans and sign every autograph in The Stable. Twice during the game he traveled to the concourse to finish signing jerseys, bobble heads and photos, much beyond the required time provided by the RoughRiders. He also spent time with his second teenage home, the billet family that took Justin in as a young man and made sure he was meeting all of his team and schooling responsibilities. It was the same billet family that keeps in contact with him today, and traveled to see him play at Michigan State and the AHL Grand Rapids Griffins as Justin continued to work toward his NHL dreams.
The visit was also an opportunity to hear something for the first time in over a decade: the cowbells.
“I do miss the cowbell,” Justin said grinning. “It was good to see when I was signing autographs most people had a collection of different cowbells. It’s great. This all brings back wonderful memories.”
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 14th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2015-16. A record 37 players were chosen in the 2015 NHL Draft and more than 375 players on team rosters last season committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent.