Omi
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How’s your cheekbone?

It’s still a little sore, but it’s getting better. It’s just an unfortunate part of playing this sport and the role I play. I fight at times. It’s not always pretty but it’s something I enjoy. Obviously, I don’t want to be the one taking these punches. I usually want to be giving them out but sometimes it goes both ways. That guy’s not standing there with his hands behind his back saying, “Hit me,” so unfortunately I broke the bone in my cheek. I can still play so that’s the positive. I have to go back to my college days where I have the cage on. I have to get used to that. It’s been 10 years now.

We’re at Mike’s Pizza Bar at the new Little Caesars Arena. Now that you’ve played some games here, what are your favorite parts about the arena and what are you still trying to get used to?

I think there’s a lot to get used to from the players’ aspect and then from the fans’ aspect, too. There’s so much to see walking around the concourse. You really see history everywhere around the arena. I think the atmosphere is going to be one of the best. Everyone is trying to get comfortable with a new arena and a new situation. When the bowl is full it’s going to be the best and baddest bowl in all of sports. The gondola suites literally hang over the ice. You feel like you’re over the ice, which is kind of scary. I’m not a big fan of heights.

Since we’re drinking with 50 of your fans right now, how much does the noise from the crowd affect the energy on the ice? 

Gosh, it’s amazing. That’s what makes playing here in Hockeytown so special.  As a player, it means the most to us.  When we’re on the ice and you guys are cheering loudly it gives us that extra energy boost. A lot of the time it can give us the extra boost and push us over the edge and help us score that next goal and win the game. 

When you were 4 years old you said you wanted to be a Red Wings player. At what age did you realize you had more talent than the rest of your teammates?

Playing for the NHL was always a dream and something that I strived to do. I think all my teammates would say the same thing. I think it became a reality as I got into high school. I started getting looked at from colleges first and then NHL teams. I got drafted going into my senior year of high school. It’s a lot earlier than other sports. 

Where were you when you got the call?

It was a different year. Usually, they invite the top 100-150 prospects to the draft venue but this was coming out of the lockout of 2004-2005, so they had it at a hotel and they only invited the top 20 players. I wasn’t invited. My family, some friends and I went to Buffalo Wild Wings in Muskegon, MI. We were watching and they were showing the first round and every pick, and I wasn’t selected. The second round they showed the first five or so and still nothing. I was kind of getting antsy. I thought, “Maybe we should just leave. It’s been a good day. I’ll get drafted eventually,” and then my phone rang. It was my agent. Everyone’s looking at me and saying, “What happened? Who was it? What team?” My agent said, “I just want to congratulate you, first. You just got drafted.” My family was like, “By who? By who?” I asked, “Who did I get drafted by?” and he said, “The Detroit Red Wings.” My jaw dropped to the floor. To this day my agent still tells this story to so many people. It was over a thousand people shouting at the top of their lungs. Everyone was so excited. I was so excited. We were all jumping for joy. My dad will always say he ended up buying a round for everyone at the bar. He said, “Whoever wants a drink, it’s on me!” It was the last team that I would have thought I’d be drafted by out of the 30 teams. I would have thought 29 other teams would have called first before Detroit. It was really special. Getting that draft jersey in 2005 was pretty exciting.

You won the national championship at MSU before playing for the Red Wings. From the outside, it looks like your career progressed seamlessly. Was there ever a time you felt like giving up?

I had a big decision after my sophomore year going into my junior year [of high school]. I was playing high school football and I was going to be the starting quarterback for the varsity football team. To take that next step as a hockey player I could play for the Michigan Stars, which was based in Detroit. It was the best players from around Michigan. The [hockey] coaches around me said this is the next step I need to take to further my career and the football coach said, “Well you know, it’s not like you’re going to play professionally. Go play [football] with your friends.” You have your friends pulling you one way and you have coaches pulling you another way. It came down to talking with my parents. I had the same coach as a hockey player from fourth grade through grade 11. He was a good person for me to talk to, also. Ultimately, hockey was where my heart was.

Thank goodness you chose that path.

It’s funny because my dad was playing golf with one of his best friends and was asking for advice. He kind of said the same thing, “Let him play with his friends. He won’t ever do this professionally. Let him do what he wants to do. Let him be a kid.” Thank God my dad didn’t listen to his advice, otherwise I wouldn’t be here today. Those are decisions where I think you have to dig deep and think in your heart. I’ve loved hockey and I’ve been playing since I was 4 years old. Football was something I enjoyed and I think I enjoyed it because my friends played and I wanted to play with them. That was a huge decision. That year I ended up winning Mr. Hockey and the following year I got drafted, went to Cedar Rapids, IA for one year and then played at Michigan State. It felt like it happened really fast from that one decision. It really seemed like my career fast-tracked from there.

In your farewell letter to the Joe you wrote, “From the outside, the Joe might seem like just another arena, but like the city of Detroit, once you step inside you see what it truly is.” What makes Detroit so special?

Just the heart of the city, the heart of the people that make up Detroit and the people here today at the arena. I haven’t been any other place that comes close to the passion [Detroit has] for its sports teams. There’s something different. I don’t know what it is … You can’t really explain it. You have to step inside and meet the people. Everyone is so down-to-earth, respectable and just so passionate for what they do, their work and their sports teams. It’s the Motor City. There are a lot of deep roots here in Michigan. When Detroit was in a downturn, I think that’s when people really came together. It’s unfortunate what happened with the auto industry. Everyone had to dig in, get to work— and people did. And look at Detroit now. I thank people for coming back to the city and seeing it grow. This arena is a big part of it. No other city has four sports teams in the corner of downtown, and that’s something special … In Detroit— win or lose— fans are always behind you. In a lot of cities that’s not the case. There are a lot of bandwagon fans that will jump off if the team isn’t doing well. Here in Detroit the fans are so loyal, so behind you and that’s something you truly don’t see in any other city, and that makes it special, too.

What’s a perfect weekend in Detroit?

Hit a Red Wings game, Pistons or Tigers and then a Lions game on Sunday. I really enjoy Parc. You sit inside Parc and you look out and you have that big water fountain, you have the buildings and you feel like you’re almost in New York City. You have the ice arena right there and it’s just something that’s really cool.

Favorite song right now?

I like Imagine Dragons. [My wife and I] went to their concert here a couple of months ago. Amazing, really good.

Last book you read?

Lance Armstrong’s book.

When’s the moment you knew your wife, Julie, was the one?

Wow. Actually, we went to the Imagine Dragons concert at Meadow Brook Theatre. That was our first date. You just kind of know. You hit it off with someone and I just felt like we were the same person. It was as if I was talking to myself. She was easy to talk to and hang out with. Obviously, she’s gorgeous. I just couldn’t stop looking at her, but she’s a good person inside and out. Truly lucky.

Go-to karaoke song?

“If I Could Turn Back Time.”

Are you watching anything on Netflix these days?

We watched “Stranger Things.” We’re about to get into the second season and we’re watching “Narcos.”

Best memory with a Red Wings legend?

Probably meeting Gordie Howe for the first time. I was so nervous. I shook his hand and he knew who I was, which was impressive. It was my first year and we were in the playoffs in 2008. He was outside the locker room and I walked out and introduced myself. I’ll never forget he said that he really liked how I play and to keep going to the hard areas with my stick on the ice. I’ll try to continue to do that for him.

Do you have any advice for young athletes who are still chasing their dream?

Work ethic is the biggest thing. You can get discouraged at times but each day is a new day. There were times where it was tough. You have bad games, maybe even a bad year or bad season, but you have to realize that you have to put your work in front of your skill. That’s one thing I learned when I came to Detroit. We had some of the top skilled players around the league, but the thing they did best was work hard. They were out each and every day whether it was in practice or in games and put in 100 percent effort. All you can do is put in your best effort and then the chips all fall in line. I think that’s what it comes down to. Put it all out there. Make sure your diet and your health is in order because that is a big part of sports. When I was younger I was guilty of drinking pop and eating candy and doing all the wrong things. As we learn more and more about how to feed the body and how to feed the athlete it’s more and more important. It’s between that and your work ethic.

If you could have a drink with anyone, who would it be?

Gordie Howe would be one for sure… just to talk to him and pick his brain about stories. I got to meet him a few times. I’ve had the privilege to talk to Ted Lindsay a handful of times. Another one is tennis star Roger Federer. I’ve become more of a tennis fan as years have gone by, and I enjoy the sport. His longevity, his career and how good he’s been is amazing. People still see him as one of the best— if not the best— in his sport. As a professional athlete, you always want to look at other athletes —whether or not they are in your sport— as they get older. What are they doing? Whether it’s a cold pressed juice or it’s their diet or their training. How are they staying as good as they are as they get older? That’s what you admire about athletes like Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. These guys have played a long time.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Photography by Aaron Eckels

Presented by Mike’s Pizza Bar

With heavy influence of Mike Ilitch’s deep roots for Detroit sports, this one-of-a-kind pizza bar is the perfect place to eat, drink, laugh and love sports. Combining simplicity and ionic quality, Mike’s Pizza Bar serves the region’s best craft beers, a diverse wine selection and hand-crafted pizzas for all to enjoy. Open Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.- 10 p.m. and Friday-Saturday 11 a.m. – midnight.

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Omi