Detroit — Justin Abdelkader is going to be away from his family, many miles away in Latvia, for about three weeks.
But it’s worth it knowing he’s putting on the Team USA sweater again.
Abdelkader, the former Muskegon/Michigan State/Red Wings veteran forward, is the captain for Team USA at the men’s world championships.
“It’s always an honor to put the USA jersey on,” Abdelkader told The Detroit News on Friday in a phone interview from Latvia. “It’s exciting for me, and obviously I had a little bit of a different year, and I’m hungry for more.”
A very different year.
Abdelkader, if you remember, was bought out of the final three years of his Wings contract (seven years, $29.75 million, $4.25 million cap hit).
When no NHL team signed him before the delayed, shortened season, he signed with EV Zug in Switzerland.
Abdelkader, 34, had four goals and four assists in nine games, then had six goals and three assists in 13 playoff games, leading the team to the Swiss League championship.
“We had a real good team,” Abdelkader said. “With the big ice, you have to get used to that, and the spacing and how much room you have.
“It’s a little more of a skill league and a lot of skilled players, but players like me can go over there and play my role, and it’s a lot of fun. I wasn’t ready to be done. I wanted to continue to play.”
Getting bought out by the Wings was a shock. Abdelkader was drafted by Detroit in the second-round in 2005. He played 11 seasons and 739 games here.
Abdelkader had just three points in 49 games during the Wings’ miserable 2019-20 season. But he was hoping and working toward an opportunity to rebound.
“Surprised, definitely disappointed,” said Abdelkader of his feelings being bought out. “I would have loved to end my career with the team I started with. But it doesn’t always happen that way. Hockey is a business and unfortunately, it was a tough year (2019-20). It’s been been rough on a lot of us over the last handful of years.
“But I still have that desire and was hungry to continue to play.”
Abdelkader, his wife and two young boys moved to Switzerland in February.
“We quarantined a couple of days, we got nice and tight together in a hotel room, and it was a great family experience,” Abdelkader said. “I couldn’t have done it without my wife.”
When hockey started, Abdelkader quickly found his passion for the game was still there.
“It definitely invigorated me,” Abdelkader said. “I went over there and had a solid year, a good playoffs. As a team, it was a lot of fun to win again. Ultimately you play to win, and I really enjoyed that.”
Abdelkader is hoping this tournament will show scouts he’s able to help an NHL team in September. He would love to resume his NHL career.
“It was almost a year off from hockey, and it felt like a long time,” he said. “But it made me that much more hungry and realize how much you love the game and appreciate playing hockey each and every day.
“That time off, I knew for sure I wasn’t done and I wanted to continue to play.”
This Team USA roster is young and doesn’t have much international experience (Abdelkader is representing the U.S. for a fifth time). Players such as Abdelkader and alternate captains Matt Roy (Canton/Michigan Tech/Los Angeles Kings), Colin Blackwell (New York Rangers) and long-time NHL forward Brian Boyle will supply a needed veteran presence.
Coach Jack Capuano said naming Abdelkader captain was an easy decision.
“I’ve been around him for a while and he’ll do a great job,” said Capuano, who coached the New York Islanders for seven seasons and has been a long-time NHL assistant. “I’ve seen him play quite a bit of hockey in the NHL and I’ve been around him at the World Cup (Capuano was an assistant coach) and he does things the right way.
“He leads by example in practice, he does things the right way and guys respect him for the way he handles himself on and off the ice. The young guys can learn a great deal from him.
“With our group, he will be a guy that not only the coaching staff leans on, but a lot of our young players do as well.”
IIHF Men’s World Championships
► When: May 21-June 6
► Where: Riga, Latvia
► Local players: D Matt Roy (Canton/Michigan Tech/L.A.. Kings), F Justin Abdelkader (Muskegon/Michigan State/ex-Red Wing), F Matty Beniers (Michigan), F Jason Robertson (Northville/Dallas Stars)
► Schedule: Saturday vs. Finland (9:15 a.m. EST, NHL Network), Saturday vs. Canada (1:15 p.m. EST, NHL Network)