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BACK WHERE HE BELONGS

Michigan native Corey Elkins is happy to have returned to his home state, playing for the Red Wings organization that he loved as a boy.

Story and photo by Mark Newman
              
Corey Elkins grew up surrounded by Detroit Red Wings memorabilia. Born and raised on the east side of Michigan, he loved everything with the Winged Wheel logo. As a boy, he attended more games than he could count.
              
He remembers once attending a hockey school headlined by Steve Yzerman and Shawn Burr, and so it was a thrill to dream about one day pulling on a jersey with the red and white colors. Instead, he would settle for scarlet and gray.
              
Yes, the West Bloomfield native played for Ohio State University, donning the Buckeye colors from 2005 to 2009 before embarking on a pro career that has taken him across the country and halfway around the world.
              
Elkins might have considered going to the University of Michigan, but the Wolverines were waiting on a decision by the highly touted Phil Kessel (who ultimately chose the University of Minnesota). So he took one of his three official visits to Columbus and decided almost immediately that he had found the place where he would play his college hockey.
              
“I really liked the campus. In fact, I liked everything about the school,” he recalled. “I wanted to go someplace where I thought I would have a chance to play and do enough to become a pro. The deciding factor was that it was relatively close to home.”
              
He had spent the previous two years playing in St. Louis and Sioux City, Iowa. He had started his junior hockey career in Michigan, playing for the Compuware Ambassadors of the North American Hockey League, but when that team disbanded, a subsequent dispersal draft sent him packing for the USHL.
              
“It was a good learning experience to get away from home,” he said. “I really enjoyed living in Missouri, and Iowa was awesome, too. To this day, some of my best buddies played on those teams. It was a blast.”
              
At OSU, Elkins didn’t have the best of luck initially. He tore his ACL during his freshman year, and other injuries, including a broken elbow, hurt his progress. What made things even worse is that he’s a bit of a late bloomer. “I’ve always been a later-maturing player, not only physically but also mentally in terms of being confident and adjusting my game to a new level,” he said.
              
Known for his defensive play as a two-way center, Elkins played limited minutes at OSU until his senior season, when he played in all situations. “I was able to play a lot,” he said. “At the end of the day, it all comes down to playing. It’s a matter of opportunity and just getting a chance.”
              
In 42 games with the Buckeyes in 2008-09, Elkins had a team-leading 41 points (18 goals, 23 assists). He shared the team lead with a plus-24. His offensive production as a senior was more than his previous three seasons combined.
              
A four-time Ohio State Scholar-Athlete and a three-time Academic All-Big Ten choice, Elkins joined the Los Angeles Kings organization after completing his bachelor’s degree in history a full semester early. He signed a one-year contract after finishing his senior season and joined the Manchester Monarchs for the start of the 2009-10 AHL campaign.
              
Elkins played well enough in Manchester that he earned a call-up to the Kings in December 2009. He made his NHL debut against the Edmonton Oilers in Alberta, then two days later scored his first (and only) NHL goal in Calgary.
              
Of course, lighting the lamp in the NHL is something he’ll never forget. “I had put the puck down low to Oscar Möller at the goal line and then I went back towards the net, where he hit me in the slot and I shot it low blocker-side on Miikka Kiprusoff,” he said. “I got back on the bench and it was like, ‘Oh man, I just scored my first NHL goal.’ It was pretty cool, for sure.”
              
He played one more game, appearing in a contest in Phoenix the day after Christmas.
              
“I had a bad game, so I remember that game like it was yesterday,” he said. “It was the worst feeling in the world. You can’t shake it. On the flight back, you get called up to the front of the plane and you know what’s coming.
              
“Sometimes I feel like if things had gone a little differently, who knows what different path I might have taken?”
              
Instead, Elkins finished the 2009-10 season in Manchester, recording 21 goals and 22 assists in 73 games. He helped the Monarchs reach the Eastern Conference Finals of the Calder Cup Playoffs and was looking forward to even better things the following year.
              
As fate would have it, he spent his entire second pro season in Manchester. He tallied 18 goals and 26 assists in 76 games but never saw any NHL action. “The following summer LA signed a bunch of free agents, so it seemed like maybe I didn’t fit into their plans,” he said.
              
At the age of 26, he decided to seek his fortunes elsewhere. He headed to the Czech Republic, where he played for the hockey club in Pardubice. “To be honest, it was a good opportunity financially and I was happy to have a new experience.”
              
One of the reasons that he chose the top Czech league was that his wife’s brother, Alex Foster, was also heading there to play for the team in Prague. Like his brother-in-law, Foster (son of former Red Wings forward Dwight Foster) had appeared in only three NHL games, having spent the majority of his pro career with the Toronto Marlies.
              
“The hockey in the Czech league was different,” Elkins said. “They play like a left wing lock-style where the left winger ends up being the low man in the defensive zone. We had a really good team that season and ended up winning the championship, so it was a really cool year.”
              
Elkins tried returning to North America for the 2012-13 season, but things didn’t work out as he had hoped. After signing a free agent contract with Anaheim, he found himself playing sparingly for the AHL’s Norfolk Admirals, eventually being sent to the ECHL’s Fort Wayne Komets.
              
“The year started OK, then it spiraled out of control,” he said. “When they sent me down to Fort Wayne, it seemed like getting back to the AHL was ‘maybe, maybe not,’ so I made the decision to find a new situation. For the good of my career, I felt it was important to get games and keep progressing in terms of my play.”
              
The general manager of HIFK Helsinki in the Finnish Elite League had inquired about his services while Elkins was playing in Pardubice, so Elkins decided to pack his bags once again, this time for Scandinavia.
              
One season there suddenly turned into five.
              
Not every North American player adjusts to playing overseas, but Elkins found that the experience suited him and his family well. Elkins and his wife, Genevieve, have three daughters under the age of 5 – Leighton, Rowan and Finley – with a baby boy on the way.
              
“It depends on your mindset going into it,” he said. “You can’t expect things there to be like they are here. On many levels, they do things better and on many levels, they could make changes that would increase their professionalism.”
              
Elkins came to love Helsinki.
              
“For sure, it’s one of my favorite cities that I’ve ever been,” he said. “The food and the culture are amazing, and the people are very nice. It’s very family-friendly. No matter where you go, there’s always something for the kids.”
              
Like he did in the Czech Republic, Elkins had to adjust to a different style of hockey. “Finland’s ice is not quite OIympic size, which makes a pretty big difference,” he said. “It’s only about five feet wider than U.S. ice, so it’s just big enough that it changes the game.”
              
Being well-traveled has not necessarily made Elkins a better player, but he believes the experience has helped make him a more well-rounded person.
              
“I’m glad that I’ve had those experiences because it’s given me a different perspective on life,” he said. “A lot of people in America are living in a bubble, and I’ve been able to see other ways to exist that are good. I’m glad that my family has had that experience.”
              
Even so, he was itching to get back to playing hockey closer to his home, so he kept tabs on the Griffins’ roster with the hopes of returning to Michigan. “I was keeping an eye to see if there might be an opportunity for a veteran here,” he said. “It was definitely something I was thinking about.”
              
After discussions with Ryan Martin, the Red Wings’ assistant general manager who oversees the Griffins, Elkins was inked to a deal last May. He was thrilled beyond belief at the opportunity to play in the organization that had meant so much to him as a boy growing up.
              
The Griffins were happy to land a veteran like Elkins, although head coach Todd Nelson admits that the 6-foot-2, 220-pound center was a bit of an unknown quantity.
              
“Because he’s been in Europe the last few years, we didn’t know what we were going to get,” Nelson said. “We’ve learned that he’s a dependable, two-way center who is really strong on the puck. There’s a reason that his nickname is Moose.”
              
Elkins earned the moniker while playing overseas. Ville Peltonen, who is a Finnish legend with four Olympic medals (silver in 2006, bronze in 1994, 1998 and 2010), dubbed him “Moose” because Elkins is a bigger guy who plays a heavier style.
              
His physical style is one of the reasons that Nelson has warmed to his newest veteran. “He works the corners really well and he’s done a good job on the penalty kill, too,” Nelson said. “He’s a veteran player who brings leadership to our locker room, so he’s fit in nicely.”
              
Elkins, who turns 33 in February, is still in peak condition due to his devotion to training. “I’m not the most skilled guy offensively, so I’ve tried to make sure I’ve been strong, fast and I can skate,” he said. “Those have been my focal points for my training during the off-season.”
              
It’s not a big surprise when Elkins says he would be a Navy SEAL if he could trade places for a day with another occupation.
              
“I’m impressed by their dedication to the elite training required, plus the fact that they’re a tight-knit team,” he said. “If hockey had been out of the picture for me, I think it’s something I might have gravitated to. Do I think I could have cut it? At one point in time, I’d like to think so, but I also realize that it’s a completely different world.”
              
For the present, he’s just pleased to be in Michigan, where he was able to celebrate the holidays with his extended family in the Detroit area. “It’s nice to be back home,” he said.