Over the phone, Justin Abdelkader chuckles. No, the veteran Red Wings forward didn’t just wake up one morning and decide to write a children’s book. The idea originated with Abby’s All-Stars, his community program in which Michigan elementary school students read texts that Abdelkader personally recommends. Over the course of research, Abdelkader came across The Little Linebacker, an illustrated semi-autobiography by Stephen Tulloch, the former NFLer who played for Detroit 2011-15. Seeing another athlete author was inspiration enough.
“I thought that was something I could do,” Abdelkader says. “I have a really unique story to tell. I thought it was a natural fit.”
Officially published in late October, not long after the 31-year-old began his 10th NHL season, Shoot for the Goal traces Abdelkader’s journey from the frozen lakes of Muskegon, Mich., to the hallowed dressing room of his hometown NHL team. He is far from the only player sporting such a byline; Toronto’s Zach Hyman has already penned three children’s books, while Minnesota’s Eric Fehr wrote the delightfully titled The Bulliest Dozer in 2014, an anti-bullying tale about a mean bulldozer at a school for machines. Like them, Abdelkader has been making the publicity rounds, delivering readings at bookstores and conducting interviews … such as this.
Last week, a day before Detroit snapped its six-game losing streak with an overtime win over Nashville, Abdelkader spoke with SI.com about his foray into authoring, his role in the illustration process, the Red Wings’ ongoing rebuild and the lasting importance of a single red marble.
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED: So, how does one actually make a kid’s book?
JUSTIN ABDELKADER: We met about once a month or so [with the publisher], story-boarded some stuff at first and kept some ideas on paper, then my wife and I hammered out the story together. It was one of those things where it took about a year from start to finish, but gosh, even talking to my wife [Julie], it was a really fun process, going through things, changing pictures, changing details, even parts of the story. We really enjoyed going through that whole process. Gosh, we even laugh, maybe we’ll have to come out with book number two.
SI: Sounds like you were pretty hands-on through the whole thing.
JA: What was funny, for the pictures, a lot of the illustrations that were done, I had my parents dig up a lot of my old photos, whether it was from the first time I skated on Muskrat Lake, my first hockey memory, or scoring my first goal … mostly just what I looked like at the ages throughout the book.
With the illustrator, she wasn’t a big hockey fan or into hockey a bunch. We had to make sure she had the players holding the stick right. It was hard for her to get the concept of how to exactly hold a stick. I was sending back and forth, emailing pictures, Google imaging. She was from Detroit but then she ended up moving right when we started the process. It was tough to meet with her, especially with my schedule as I got started into the season. There were a lot of emails, texts, phone calls, just to make sure the players were illustrated the right way.
SI: Give me a plot summary.
JA: A kid gets his Red Wings jersey at the age of 5. It was the most exciting birthday present he’s gotten. Wearing that every day, skating for the first time outside on a lake, then going through challenges of people doubting him, missing the cut on one of his teams he tried out for, then just working as hard as he possibly could, putting extra hours in at the rink, doing all the little things. Eventually making his high school team, playing at Michigan State, then eventually for the Red Wings and making his dreams come true.
SI: Is the kid named Justin?
SI: How closely does the rest align with reality?
JA: It’s actually spot-on. When I wrote the book, I wanted to make sure I portrayed things that were true, stories that were true. One in particular was in middle school, we went to a career job fair in downtown Muskegon. I’ll never forget. There was this guy who had this huge bowl of marbles. And there was this one red marble in there. He didn’t have a sign. We were confused about what the deal was there.
He had just mentioned, well, these are the chances of you becoming a professional athlete. We all looked at it. We all played sports. Most of us played hockey. We all had dreams and aspirations of playing in the NHL. Then when we saw that, when you hear those numbers, 1 in 1 million or whatever it is, it really gets you down. I remember leaving there thinking about how bummed, upset I was. But it was those things that also pushed you and made you want to be that one red marble.
Funny story. I did a signing and this kid came up to me and said, “Gosh, I know how hard it is to play in the NHL and I’m working as hard as I possibly can and, you know what, I want to be that one red marble like you were.” He had his travel hockey warm up jacket on and track suit and looked like he had just come from a practice. That’s what it’s all about. In the end, inspiring kids. That got me really excited. I was like, gosh, that almost made the book worth it right there.
SI: Did you also get cut from a team when you were younger? Is that what you meant by obstacles faced?
JA: Yeah, I did. As I was getting started, my first couple years, I got cut from the A team. That really inspired me to do everything I possibly can to get better and make that team the following year. I did.
SI: Ten seasons now in Detroit?
SI: How’s that sound?
JA: I’ll tell you what, it went by fast. Sounds like a long time.
SI: So now that you’ve done what the kid in the book wants to do, how do you reflect on that decade so far?
JA: I try to stay in the moment as much as possible now. But when I’m done, it’ll be fun to really sit down and reflect. I think when it’s all said and done, I can look back at hopefully a long career and see how many years I was able to play in the state of Michigan, including juniors and college. I only played one year out of the state of Michigan, which was my senior year in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. But playing the majority of my career in Michigan, for the team I grew up rooting for, being a part of a Stanley Cup team and then the second year losing in Game 7.
Now obviously we’re at a stage where we haven’t made the playoffs in a few years, so just trying to rebuild it, get back to those four years. It’s been very special. I’ve been very fortunate, very lucky, very blessed and still just want to continue to go out and work as hard as I possibly can to continue to play in the NHL.
SI: How is that rebuild going, in your mind?
JA: Well, I think we have a lot of really good young players. I think the future is bright. Not making the playoffs for the last two years, this year we’ve been decimated by injuries on the back end, but we’ve had a lot of growth from within. We’ve been in every game. We just have been, at least lately, on the losing end of a lot of these close games. We’ll continue to work as hard as we possibly can and clean up the small details in our game and find ways to get on a winning side.
SI: Give me a game, a period, a moment that told you the team is on the right track.
JA: We got off to a really tough start, the 1st of October. We won a game in Florida where we had the lead, they had come back, and then we beat them in overtime. That was a character win that showed us, things were going bad but we stuck with it. From there on out, the next 15-20 games, we probably had the best record in the league.
We were playing confident and that’s a huge part of sports, confidence. When you can start winning games, putting games together, you can get on a run. That’s what we did. A lot of times it just starts with that one game, that one shift, that overtime goal that can put you in that position. In that case, for us, that got us rolling.
Hopefully we can dig deep here, get on another run here. We’ve had a lot of close games of late, been on the losing side. Got to continue to work and get back there.
SI: Do you know Eric Fehr or Zach Hyman? Did you realize that writing kids books was a thing for athletes?
JA: I saw that [Derek] Jeter had wrote a book. I saw that a few others had when I looked. I didn’t realize those two guys had, though. I think it’s something that guys enjoy giving a story, whether it’s personal or not. We all enjoy working with younger kids. For me, it was fun to put my story out there and try to inspire kids. We all had so much fun doing it, maybe there’s a second book in our future, we’ll see.
SI: The three of you should convince the league to hold a group reading for young fans at the All-Star Game, score a free trip to San Jose out of it.
JA: Not a bad idea.