Even if he scores a hundred more goals in his life, Justin Abdelkader will never forget one in particular. As a sophomore at Michigan State University, he connected with just 18.9 seconds remaining in regulation for the decisive score that lifted the Spartans over Boston College in the 2007 NCAA Championship Game.
“It doesn’t get old, ” said of remembering the golden goal that earned Frozen Four MVP honors.
Now a forward with the Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League, the 22-year-old is still compiling accolades. He was tabbed as the AHL’s Rookie of the Month for October 2008 after he collected nine points in his first seven games.
“I think it’s gone well,” Abdelkader admitted of his first season in professional hockey. “I’ve felt pretty good so far, energy-wise, and I’m trying to eat the right things and get my rest when I can.”
Last year Abdelkader led the Spartans back to the NCAA Regionals, but then decided to forego his senior season and signed with his boyhood favorite team, the Detroit Red Wings, who drafted him 42nd overall in 2005.
“That was my first jersey,” recalled the Muskegon, Mich., native. “To finally get to wear it and play for them was a dream come true.”
Abdelkader skated in two regular-season NHL games, and then practiced with the Wings throughout the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He also got to hoist the famed silver chalice after Detroit won it all. “Everything happened so fast,” he said. “After the summer, looking back, it was a wonderful experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything.”
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound forward first starred for his hometown Mona Shores High School, where he earned Mr. Hockey in Michigan honors, and followed it up with a year of apprenticeship with the Cedar Rapids of the United States Hockey League,where he helped the Rough Riders to the Clark Cup.
He then tallied 44 goals and 95 points in three years at Michigan State before joining the Red Wings last spring, where he made his NHL debut on Apr. 3, 2008 against
“They [Detroit] approached me and told me they’d like me to come out of college,” said Abdelkader. “I talked with my family, and thought it was the right time, too.”
He had earlier participated in the 2007 World Junior Championships in Sweden, where he registered two assists in Team USA’s bronze-winning effort.
“That was my first time playing overseas, and representing my country and putting on the USA jersey was a big honor,” said Abdelkader. “It was a great experience with a great team, and it was a lot of fun.”
Abdelkader began this season in Grand Rapids, some 40 miles from Muskegon, and was the Griffins’ second leading scorer despite a brief recall to Detroit. He also took in several MSU home games, while some of his old college teammates trekked an hour or so west to watch him in return.
“A lot of my friends and family come to the games,” said Abdelkader, whose parents have attended every Griffins home game this season. “I’m very fortunate to play so
close to home and school.”
He’s also continued his work with“Shooting for a Cure,” a charity he started with an MSU teammate that auctions off hockey items to raise funds for children with cancer. One patient in particular, a teenage hockey player named Brandon Gordon who passed away this February, helped inspire the upstart Spartans two years ago on their way to their first NCAA title since 1986.
“We got really close to him on our national championship run,” said Abdelkader, who earned the Central Collegiate Hockey Association’s Humanitarian of the Year award in 2008. “After we won, it was cool that he got to celebrate with us on the ice.”