Muskegon's Abdelkader has golden touch

4:15 PM, Jun 4, 2009   |    comments
Muskegon native Justin Abdelkader scored his first two NHL goals in the 2009 Stanley Cup Final.
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MUSKEGON -- In less dire times, it would have been a happier decision. But when the offer reached $200 for a jersey he paid $80 for, well, Nicholas Ransom figured that even the hometown hockey player behind the name and number -- Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader, No. 8, of nearby Norton Shores -- would understand.

"My mom's currently unemployed," said Ransom, 17. "We moved out of our house and into a rental. We've sold two cars, and we share an old pickup truck with 200,000 miles on it."

So he did it. Ransom sold his pride and joy. But he still has the Red Wings.

"Look around," he said.

It was just after 8:15 Tuesday night at the Buffalo Wild Wings at the Lakes Mall. Ninety percent of the televisions and big screens were tuned to Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals between Detroit and the Pittsburgh Penguins. The line to get in was out the door.

Ransom, who lives nearby in Spring Lake, was breathing in the playoff excitement, grateful for the chance to forget that his family is part of the area's 14.2% unemployment rate, among the highest in the state outside Detroit.

Ransom idolized Abdelkader, 22, before he became a national phenomenon by scoring two goals in the Red Wings' first two victories against the Penguins. "I've been a fan of Justin's before I was a fan of the Wings," Ransom said, wearing his Yzerman jersey.

...

NORTON SHORES -- Joe Abdelkader nervously stalked around the house chomping on a turkey sandwich -- a quick bite before heading out with his wife, Sheryl, to watch Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals.

Nearly 2 1/2 hours earlier, his son had called from the Red Wings' hotel in Pittsburgh, his voice as calming as the creek that runs in the woods deep behind their home.

"Justin's personality is just like his mother's," Joe Abdelkader would say later, "compassionate, kind -- a quiet confidence."

Father and son kept the conversation simple. That was what the father promised himself. No hockey talk.

Justin Abdelkader played two regular-season games for the Red Wings this season. He has played 10 more games in the playoffs.

The first two goals of his NHL career -- which came in the first two games of the Cup Finals, no less -- have loomed as large as the Norton Pines Athletic Club sign that flashed a bit of hometown pride Tuesday off U.S.-31: "Abdelkader 2, Penguins 0."

Joe Abdelkader didn't mention to his son the hoopla around town, but he did say this: "Put a big nail in their coffin. I hope Hoss (Marian Hossa) buries a couple."

The father laughed and said, "I couldn't help myself."

Led Spartans to a national title

It wasn't to be Tuesday night. The Penguins got back in the series, beating the Wings, 4-2, and cutting Detroit's lead to two games to one heading into Game 4 tonight in Pittsburgh.

But the loss hardly douses the pride that hockey fans share in this once-vibrant factory town of Muskegon, as well in cities to the north and south and points east along I-96, which juts through the state's midsection.

The major cities along the route: Grand Rapids. East Lansing. Detroit.

"Justin's career," Joe Abdelkader said, "has been touched by each of them."

He's referring to his son's three seasons at Michigan State, including his sophomore year in 2006-07, when Justin scored the game-winning goal in the NCAA championship game with 18.9 seconds left, giving the Spartans their first national title in 21 years.

He means the confidence that Justin gained with the 52 points (24 goals, 28 assists) in 76 games this past season as a member of the Grand Rapids Griffins of the American Hockey League. He was such a popular player that the Griffins issued a bobblehead and had his likeness printed on tin lunch boxes. He penned a biweekly sports column.

But Detroit is where Abdelkader's play has blossomed, beginning with his magic act Saturday against the Penguins in Game 1, when Abdelkader shot the puck, grabbed his rebound out of the air, dropped the puck and scored.

Strong family ties

The epicenter of excitement in western Michigan can be found in a leafy subdivision a few miles from Mona Shores High: the Abdelkader home. It's where Sabrina the cat prowls the backyard deck and neighbors honk their horns as they drive by to say hello.

Examples of the family's busy lifestyle are everywhere: The dining room table is filled with newspapers, the majority of it recent clippings and photos of their son. The footwear caddy near the front door is packed with 13 pairs of shoes.

Joe Abdelkader, 55, teaches sixth-grade science at Reeths-Puffer Intermediate School. Sheryl Abdelkader, 53, is a nurse for Mercy Health Partners.

"This has been great fun for us," Sheryl Abdelkader said. "It's all been happening so fast. We only get nervous for the games."

In addition to Justin, the Abdelkaders have a daughter, Jamie, 25, who's a teacher in Rockford. Sheryl recalled the day Justin was born. In the hospital delivery room, on Feb. 25, 1987, Joe announced: "I have a partner for the father-son golf tournament."

Growing up, Justin played about every sport, including golf. He also sang in the choir.

His family will tell you, though, that their diverse ethnic background is richer than their hockey history.

Their surname -- Abdelkader -- is Arabic. Justin's paternal grandfather, Joseph Abdelkader, was born in Jordan and emigrated to the United States when he was 19. He sold linens and eventually traveled to the west side of Michigan, where he met a Polish girl named Susie.

"They eventually fell in love and got married," said Justin's uncle, Jamal Abdelkader, 51. "My father died in 1993; my mom passed in March at age 91. She cooked Middle Eastern food and Polish food. She was equally good at making grape leaves, tabbouleh and pierogi.

"She used to tell Justin about her cooking, 'Babcock, he wants you to be tough and make goals.' "

Grandmother Abdelkader was referring to Mike Babcock, coach of the Red Wings.

After playing travel hockey through ninth grade, Abdelkader joined his Mona Shores High team and helped lead it to the state championship finals in 2004, his junior year. He earned the prestigious Mr. Hockey award, given to the best player in Michigan.

"That was a big deal because the east side" of the state recognized "the talent and potential that Justin had," said Pat Rabbitt, who was an assistant on the high school's varsity hockey coaching staff at the time. "Justin was a natural scorer. And you can see that now -- he has the golden touch. When the pressure's on, he plays big."

Pride shines around the state

The other day in East Lansing, Abdelkader's coach at Michigan State, Rick Comley, received a phone call from Roy Simon, husband of MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon, asking for Justin Abdelkader's e-mail address.

In Grand Rapids, at the Fan Zone souvenir shop at Van Andel Arena, Abdelkader memorabilia has been a hot seller all season.

And over at the pro shop at the Muskegon Country Club, where Abdelkader worked in the summers retrieving range balls before graduating to a job in the clubhouse, golf shirts with the Red Wings logo have been moving "exceedingly well," said Jamal Abdelkader, manager of the golf club.

On Aug. 28, 2008, Abdelkader's hockey jersey No. 89 was retired at Mona Shores High. Less than a week later, Abdelkader surprised the school when he walked in with the Stanley Cup trophy.

Though he didn't play in the finals last year, the Wings wanted Abdelkader to have it for a few hours.

"He's been a great ambassador for our school district," Mona Shores athletic director Walt Gawkowski said. "Make that a great ambassador for our state."

That was why earlier this week, Gawkowski opened the case to the marquee on Seminole Road and slipped in the letters for the school's newest announcement:

"GOOD LUCK

JUSTIN ABDELKADER

WE ARE PROUD OF YOU."

Contact JO-ANN BARNAS: 313-222-2037 or jbarnas@freepress.com.

 

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