'Hockey is for everyone': Hockeytown Winterfest draws thousands to LCA

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Detroit — Mother Tiffany Blewett and daughter Jayla, 8, of Southfield put their heads together and posed inside an oversized picture frame that bore the theme of their Sunday visit to Little Caesars Arena in large letters: "Hockey is for everybody."

The mother-daughter pair, hailing from Southfield, made the brief trip south to Midtown Detroit for the second annual Hockeytown Winterfest  at the arena that plays host to both the Red Wings and Pistons. The free event is sponsored by Michigan-based Meijer, along with Coca-Cola.

Gavin Davis, 6 of Rochester Hills hangs upside down, trying to grab a box prize at the Human Claw Machine outside of Little Caesars Arena.

While other attendees were skating on the newly-smoothed ice on the hockey arena, and others waited their turn in line, outside, for the chance to be the human crane, and grab a box of goodies, the Blewett family went inside the NHL Black Hockey History Tour bus.

"When I was growing up, I knew a few people who played hockey," Tiffany, 47, said. "To this day they're the only ones I've ever known to play it."

Jayla left with a package containing two small replica hockey sticks and two balls and, her mom hopes, the understanding that anyone can play, regardless of skin color or sex.

"Hockey is not just for guys. Girls play it, they have all kinds of leagues out there. It's all about the exposure," Tiffany said. 

Noah Mesi, 6, points out New Jersey Devils P.K. Subban to his dad Nick Mesi of Westland as they walk through the NHL Black Hockey History Tour bus outside Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on January 19, 2020.

Detroit is the second city of the mobile museum's second year of touring. The 2020 tour started in Washington, D.C., at the Canadian embassy. Later this week it will head to St. Louis for NHL All-Star Game festivities. 

"Not a lot of people know that the Colored Hockey League, which was established in 1895, predates the National Hockey League that was founded in 1917," said Rodney Reynolds, whose research lines the walls of the 53-foot bus. 

Or that 11 years after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947, Willie O'Ree broke the NHL's. 

"He's going to be joining us at a number of locations this year," Reynolds said.

Blake Watson, 10, looks comfortable behind the pads and uniform of a Detroit Red Wings player.

The tour will hit 14 locations, including Seattle, whose expansion team will start competition in 2021-22. 

Last year, when the tour came through just six NHL cities, it drew about 6,000 visitors. 

A Madison Heights company, MRA Mobile Experiential, put the bus together and has been building "experiential vehicles" for 30 years now, said president Tony Amato. 

The black hockey history tour is a collaboration of the NHL, Reynolds' company, American Legacy, and MRA. 

"I think (the NHL) saw the need to expand their outreach, especially when it came to minorities playing hockey," Amato said. "We don't just go to games, we go to neighborhoods.  We have the ability to take the vehicle into neighborhoods, where people can feel not intimidated to walk in and learn the history. We know a little bit about the Negro Leagues in baseball, but no one really knows about the hockey side."

Dekker Kokenyesdi, 5, and Lincoln Kokenyesdi, 6, of Sterling Heights wander through the NHL Black Hockey History Tour bus outside Little Caesars Arena including a display with the current African American players on the Detroit Red Wings: Givani Smith, Trevor Daley and Madison Bowey.

Sunday morning, three Detroit Red Wings players who are black — Trevor Daley, Madison Bowey, and Givani Smith, who has needed police escorts in the past after to being targeted by unruly crowds — toured the bus, said J.P. Reynolds, Rodney's son. 

More:Red Wings' Daley: Minorities making strides in hockey, but more work ahead

"They saw themselves on the wall, and they took the whole tour," J.P. said of a wall of the exhibit on the Red Wings' three black players. "They loved it — especially Givani. He got called up (in October), so he was surprised he was even on the wall."

Smith scored his first NHL goal on Tuesday, in an 8-2 road loss to the New York Islanders. 

Back inside the Little Caesars Arena, April Potoczek of Lincoln Park treated herself to a free caricature on her 45th birthday.

Coming to the arena Sunday was her mom's idea; she is a Red Wings season ticket holder and avid Detroit sports fan. 

"I figured I'd give it a whirl, and get one done," Potoczek said, wearing a black hockey jersey with her nickname, "April Pot," on the back.

April Potoczek and her caricature by artist Lydia Horvath.

Artist Lydia Horvath, 49, of Toledo, will do dozens of caricatures Sunday in the six hours of Winterfest, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.. She starts out asking if the person wants to be a goalie or a regular player. Since many of the little kids (and big ones) who come to her booth have gotten face paint at a different station, she asks if they want the caricature to include the paint or not. 

Horvath and the other artists all work for Goofy Faces, a Rochester Hills company that represents more than 500 caricature artists nationwide. An artist and art teacher, she's started making goofy faces of people to as a profitable way to add to her skill set. 

"It's a really nice sort of side job, because teaching hours and this don't conflict with each other," Horvath said. "You can be a so-called 'starving artist' or you can do something else."

Some gigs are regular customers she's been working for years, such as company parties. There are people she's done many different caricatures of. And that doesn't even include family.

"I think by now they all have six caricatures of themselves," Horvath said. 

More challenging than the art itself are the lines that form when caricatures are being drawn. There were several others to share that burden Sunday. When it's just her, and closing time is approaching, she hands a laminated Last Person In Line sign to the person at the end of the line, and it's their job to tell newcomers the bad news. Some people don't follow the plan, though, leaving Horvath to look up in horror as she realizes the line has gotten longer since the "last person" joined it. 

Why do people like being caricatured?

"People are really curious to see how someone else sees them," Horvath said. 


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