Detroit Red Wings’ Joe Veleno carpools with Steve Yzerman, puts on show for rebuild

Detroit Free Press

Joe Veleno has a story to remember, about the time he carpooled to work with his boss.

When the call came that the Detroit Red Wings needed him in Canada, Veleno drove from Grand Rapids to Little Caesars Arena, got the COVID-19 test needed to cross the border, and then accepted a ride to Toronto from general manager Steve Yzerman.

“I was a little bit shy,” Veleno said. “I didn’t really know what to talk about. I’m glad he made up most of the conversation. Once I got to spend a little time with him in the car, I just got a little bit more comfortable. He’s a really good person, really easy to confront and talk to. It made the drive fairly easy.”

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The two talked hockey and listened to a bit of the Michigan-Michigan State football game. Veleno snoozed for a bit, trying to fit in a pre-game nap before making his season debut Saturday when the Wings played the Maple Leafs. Veleno did everything he could to earn a spot in the lineup again for Tuesday’s game at Montreal, with a goal and an assist in his season debut.

“Joe showed he can be an impact player. Now it’s an everyday league, and so it’s one of those things, the next opportunity he gets, he’s going to have to do a really good job with it,” coach Jeff Blashill said. “The way he played in the third gives a coach confidence to put him out there. It’s a good step.”

The Wings lost, 5-4, ending a three-game point streak, but it was was their third game in four days — they made it close after trailing by two goals three times. They were without their leading scorer, Tyler Bertuzzi, whose unvaccinated status means he cannot travel to Canada under current border regulations, and without Adam Erne, who is day-to-day after blocking a shot Friday.

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In addition to a big performance from Veleno, Filip Zadina also had a goal and an assist, rookie defenseman Moritz Seider extended his assist streak to five consecutive games, and fellow rookie Lucas Raymond picked up his ninth point in nine games. All are former first-round picks, and their success stokes confidence in the rebuild.

“We’ve got a lot of young guys playing important roles on our team, and so they need to play good hockey, because we don’t want to have guys on our team that are young and are playing and we’re losing,” Blashill said. “We want guys that are going to help us win hockey games.”

The Wings (4-3-2) largely have played competitive hockey through the first month of the season. When news broke during training camp that top-line winger Jakub Vrana would be sidelined through January with a shoulder injury, there was concern over how it would affect the Wings’ offense. But Raymond grabbed the opportunity to make the team and has responded by being an impact player. He and Seider have been fun to watch for Veleno, who played against them last season in the Swedish Hockey League.

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“I was watching some games on nights I wasn’t playing in GR and they look like they belong out there,” Veleno said. “They’re great people and have got really good talent. Good for them. I’m really happy for them. They deserve it. They work hard. I’ve got to know a little bit of them over the years, Lucas not so much, just kind of in preseason, but just spending time with him, he’s a real good kid, is really passionate about the game. I’m really happy for him.”

Veleno scored his first NHL goal last season, during a five-appearance stint after he returned from Sweden. He hoped that, combined with a good exhibition showing, would earn him a spot on the roster, but when the Wings opened the season, he was in Grand Rapids. That stung.

“I was definitely disappointed for sure,” Veleno said. “It’s never easy to accept going down to the AHL. I thought I worked extremely hard in the summer and worked on my game and worked on my physique. It was a disappointment, to myself, the fact that I worked so hard and wasn’t able to stick around for the opening night roster.

“When I went down to GR, I had some people around me who helped me throughout that time, made me have a positive mindset. The guys in GR helped me a lot, and and the coaching staff over there, to just come in every day, work hard, have a positive mindset and if you do those things, chances are pretty high of getting called back up.”

He got the call Friday night and Saturday found himself chauffeured through Canada by a four-time Stanley Cup champion.

“I’m fortunate he was able to drive me to the game,” Veleno said. “It definitely means a lot to drive with Steve Yzerman. I guess I have a story I can tell later on in the future.”

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail. 

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