Born and raised in south Detroit
Heather Petrie vying for top Red Wings fan
Wrong side of the border
COVID-19 means cheering on the team from behind a screen
Kicking a bad habit and getting hooked on hockey
The first game, the start of the streak and volunteering
Petrie's winning spirit
Down to the final five top Red Wings fans
2020 Red Wings Team MVP
Jeff Kotimko's impressive collection
Forging friendships by sharing passion for the hobby
From the Tigers to the Red Wings
"The Captain" that started it all
A look at the mini-museum of "man cave"
Kotimko's collection a feast for the hockey fan's eyes
Volunteering time in Traverse City
Ten years of lending a hand at training camp
A big mail day
The Team MVP prize from Upper Deck
Passing the torch
The next Red Wings Team MVP
The Detroit Red Wings season ended Saturday in a loss, but there's a chance for one fan to achieve a big win.
It's been a little while since the Red Wings hoisted the top prize in hockey, but fans have had quite a few accomplishments of their own.
It's not his name on the Stanley Cup, but one fan got a pretty cool prize through trading card company Upper Deck's "My MVP Contest" last year.
The goal of the contest is to crown the top hockey fan in North America. Fans from 18 teams competed in the first-ever Upper Deck competition. The first round was to determine the nominee who most exemplified team spirit. The final round was to determine the winner of the overall crown. Winners were determined by popular vote through likes on Twitter.
For 2021, eight National Hockey League teams are participating in the competition. The top five candidates for each team were picked from hundreds of entries.
The contest is down to those final five top fans for each of the eight teams. Voting is again done on Twitter and the "Team MVP" will be selected from the most votes by May 10 at 2 p.m. EST.
Winner for Team MVP takes home a $500 prize pack and overall Ultimate MVP winner snags a $3,000 assortment of prizes including their trading card as part of Upper Deck's 2021-22 The Cup card set (and bragging rights.)
WTOL 11 caught up with last year's Detroit Red Wings winner and one of this year's hopefuls to see what it takes to be the ultimate Wings (and hockey) fan. Both share the same diehard passion, but in different ways. One has the ultimate fan cave you've got to see to believe and inherited his love of the Red Wings - and decades of being a season ticket holder - from his parents.
The other is in the final five for this year's top Red Wings fan honor, whose story shares similar roots that began as a kid. She's undoubtedly seen more losses than wins from her team as the Red Wings weather a tough rebuild. She amassed a streak of unbroken consecutive in-person games dating back to a time that marked her own personal win by kicking a bad habit and replacing it with a healthier one: Detroit Red Wings hockey.
Let's introduce you to the guy who leaves some big skates to fill as the reigning Team MVP.
2020's winner was Jeff Kotimko of Gaylord, Michigan. As "Team Most Valuable Person," Kotimko was honored with his very own Upper Deck trading card. A perfect collectible for a hardcore collector.
The back of Kotimko's card reads, "Jeff's parents purchased Red Wings season tickets in 1984 that he still has to this day, and he watched Steve Yzerman's entire career from those same two seats, which are now at his house after the arena closed. Jeff even plans his vacations, wedding and honeymoon around the team."
We mentioned he's a collector. That barely scratches the surface of what defined Kotimko as last year's Red Wings Team MVP.
We'll catch up with Kotimko later for more. It's time to highlight that member of this year's final five in the running for top Detroit Red Wings fan.
Born and raised in south Detroit: Heather Petrie vying for top Red Wings fan
34-year-old Heather Petrie was born and raised in "south Detroit," otherwise known as Windsor. The nickname's a nod to the otherwise nonexistent place referenced in the Red Wings victory song "Don't Stop Believin'" by Journey.
To make room for the 2021 "Team MVP" crown, she'll have to swap out her trademark "Wing-Nut" hat.
"The Wing-Nut costume is usually for special occasions, first game and last game of the season, plus Halloween," Petrie explained.
And of course, she's got her signs.
While it's not uncommon to see signs in the hands of proud kiddos at their first Red Wings game, Petrie's count is just a little higher. Before the pandemic ended the Wings' season in 2020, she'd notched over 200 consecutive games since December 23, 2014.
"Before COVID, I could go to every game and cheer on my team, make signs, get smiles, dress up and be at my home away from home! Now, I’m stuck on the opposite side of the border from the team I love and so many friends that are like family that I used to see 45+ nights per season," Petrie said.
Instead of being behind the net at her "Happy Place," in Little Caesars Arena, she's behind a TV screen catching broadcasts. A Chevy vehicle, usually an SUV or sports car, sits where she used to stand during warm-ups. It's ad revenue during an NHL season that's required teams to do whatever they can get to recoup the monetary losses from COVID-19 restricting fan attendance.
Wrong side of the border: COVID-19 means cheering on the team from behind a screen
Due to the closed border between U.S. and Canada, Petrie's last game was in March 2020.
"I miss it like crazy. Going to every single game, you get to know everyone. I’ve got my volunteer family/friends and I’ve gotten so close with so many people who work there," she said. "When you see them 45+ nights per year, that’s more than I see most of the rest of my family."
Petrie's family is what got her started as a Wings fan. She's an only child and takes care of her 64-year-old disabled mother as well as her 93-year-old grandma. Throughout the pandemic, she's kept both of them safe by doing shopping and errands.
Her parents were fans of the Red Wings and passed on that love, but her grandma wasn't so quick to agree.
"When I was younger, my grandma told me I had to pick a Canadian team because I am Canadian," Petrie said. "I may have a youth-sized Doug Gilmore Toronto Maple Leafs Assistant Captain jersey in my collection, but that’s a secret! Once I was old enough to know better, I followed my heart to Detroit!"
Her first home game was at Joe Louis Arena on December 6, 2010.
Kicking a bad habit and getting hooked on hockey: The first game, the start of the streak and volunteering
She'd seen the Wings in person once before in 1999 at a game in Tampa and "was hooked ever since."
It was at that first game at The Joe when Petrie and her mom started volunteering at games with the Detroit Red Wings For 'Em Club. The Red Wings volunteer club is "for 'em, win or lose." Volunteers sign up at the start of the season for $25 and pass out programs and promo items at the beginning of games, then catch the game after.
Petrie says once or twice a year, the club does 50/50 raffles with the proceeds benefitting Gilda’s Club Metro Detroit, which is a support community for those whose lives have been touched by cancer.
"We volunteered like crazy the first few seasons, but became season tickets holders in 2013-2014," Petrie said. "I was a smoker but quit in August 2013, they said to do something with the money you’re not spending on cigarettes that you really enjoy!"
And that something was cheering on her team.
"My mom ended up paying for our first season, but if I ever smoke again, I owe her the money back."
For Petrie, it's all about that can-do attitude.
"In the past I have struggled with depression and anxiety, as many people have lately with this pandemic. One thing that stuck with me years ago was to 'set attainable goals,'" Petrie explained. "I may not have a big fancy house, lots of money or an expensive car, but I can absolutely be the biggest fan possible!"
Petrie's winning spirit: Down to the final five top Red Wings fans
She's no stranger to winning. In 2019, she won the honor of Windsor's biggest Wings fan through her local radio station, AM800. The prize of being the biggest fan in south Detroit was accompanied by a meet-and-greet with former Red Wings captain and one of the best defensemen to ever play the game, Nicklas Lidstrom.
Petrie's up against other Red Wings fans during this round of the My MVP competition, but she's keeping an eye on the other seven teams and who she may face in the finals. She had high praise for one of the Vegas Golden Knight's final five in particular.
The overall "Ultimate MVP" winner gets some cool swag, including a custom trading card just like Jeff Kotimko's.
"Being one of the five finalists is such an honor!" said Petrie. "I’m enjoying the opportunity to share with others why I’m such a big fan, and I’ve loved hearing their stories too!"
Voting takes place by "likes" on Twitter. She's topping the charts for the Red Wings at the time of this writing, but the third period is the most unpredictable in hockey.
2020 Red Wings Team MVP: Jeff Kotimko's impressive collection
Jeff Kotimko's story involves a feast for the eyes. Being known as a huge collector of all things Red Wings, Kotimko was propelled to the final five for the team's top fan in last year's contest. He claimed the crown.
"Winning Red Wings fan MVP last year was very surreal. I didn’t know what to expect. I put a lot of effort into it. After I won the Red Wings section I reached out to many Michigan sports-related groups for support. Most notably the Wings social media department themselves," Kotimko said. "To see them accept my request and actively support my endeavor to win was very humbling and exciting."
While Kotimko didn't win "Ultimate MVP," his team - and the league - took notice. Kotimko already had been named "Season Ticketholder of the Game" by the Red Wings. But this turned into something more.
"Since last May, I’ve appeared in social media advertisements for Upper Deck and this year's contest. Awfully odd to see yourself in basically commercials," Kotimko said. "One of my fav things this spring was receiving an email from the NHL promoting 'are you the biggest Red Wings fan?' And when I opened the email it was a picture of me."
Connecting collectors: Forging friendships by sharing passion for the hobby
Kotimko is the mind behind a Facebook group of Detroit Red Wings fans and collectors, which boasts an impressive member count of over 3,500.
One of those members just happens to be Heather Petrie.
"The group when I started it I NEVER thought would reach 3,500+ members or be so active on a daily basis," Kotimko says of the collection of collectors. "I’m VERY pleased with how it’s turned out with so many passionate fans and collectors. I, like many of the members, have also forged what we hope to be lifelong friendships from it, too."
That group helped bolster support behind his own campaign. It's a place to share memories and photos, and occasionally snag that "holy grail" piece for a collection.
"My advice to collectors is to nurture the relationships built with other collectors. I have always said 'without good friends to share the hobby with collecting would be awfully lonely by yourself,'" Kotimko said.
His own story of Red Wings "super-fandom" starts back in 1984, with his parents and their own season tickets. At the time, he was an avid Detroit Tigers fan.
That quickly changed. 1984 was fortuitous timing.
From the Tigers to the Red Wings: "The Captain" that started it all
A year prior, Steve Yzerman was drafted by the Detroit Red Wings.
"In particular I loved watching Yzerman play as it was only his second season in the league," Kotimko explained. "To this day he is still my fav Wings player as most of my collection revolves around items pertaining to him."
Kotimko has a corner on the market for Yzerman collecting, figuratively and literally.
"Oldest piece, a signed 8x10 Yzerman photo my parents had signed in person. I still have it and treasure it," Kotimko said.
Part of his collection includes a number of Yzerman sticks used across his career. Kotimko's one of the top go-to guys when it comes to questions about Yzerman's gear and memorabilia. He's analyzed things like tape jobs and other collectors seek him out when they question the legitimacy of autographs and game-used gear.
For good reason.
It's not "just" Yzerman in his collection. It's pretty much everyone to ever sniff a Red Wings jersey, and then some, including pieces of the old barn itself.
A look at the mini-museum of "man cave": Kotimko's collection a feast for the hockey fan's eyes
There's plenty of jokes around that Red Wings Facebook group about charging admission to check out Kotimko's fan cave.
There's the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, but Kotimko's basement is nothing short of a mini-museum of Red Wings memorabilia.
We got a tour, admission-free, from the comfort of Kotimko's cellphone camera.
When asked about his favorite piece, it surprisingly wasn't something belonging to a guy named Stevie. It was a piece from a place called The Joe.
"Fav piece, my boards. Only eight to nine pieces are known to exist so I’m very proud to have that. Best purchase ever for me," Kotimko said, referring to a section of the boards from Joe Louis Arena.
But Kotimko adds an asterisk to that choice a little later on. During a liquidation auction of items from The Joe, one item up for bidding was the team's stick rack that sat outside the locker room. For a guy with a bunch of sticks from the Yzerman-era, it's a no-brainer he'd go for it.
"The stick rack is easily my second favorite item and on some days even my fav, possibly. It was the only piece made available to the public so far more rare than the boards even," Kotimko explained. "It was unexpectedly larger than I thought so upon arrival to pick it up my daughter and I quickly realized it was gonna be an interesting ride back up north."
It's over 3 hours from Detroit to Gaylord. Around 230 miles, give or take. Kotimko loaded it in his truck and hit the road.
Volunteering time in Traverse City: Ten years of lending a hand at training camp
The Detroit Red Wings hold training camp and a prospect tournament in Traverse City every year. It's been a tradition for over a quarter of a century for the team, interrupted this year by the unusual circumstances of the season and COVID-19.
But for a decade, Kotimko took part as a volunteer before attending faithfully as a fan.
"I worked at training camp in Traverse City for 10 years as a volunteer 1998-2008. It was a highlight of every year being around the team so closely for a week and the prospect tournament as well. Long hours but very fulfilling and fun," Kotimko said.
The public can attend camp and the prospect tournament and Kotimko's a regular. It's a chance to meet up face-to-face with other collectors and fans from far and wide, outside of the traditional games at Little Caesars Arena.
A big mail day: The Team MVP prize from Upper Deck
The back of Jeff Kotimko's card mentions his wedding and honeymoon. There's couples that refer to themselves as "a house divided," but Kotimko met his match in his wife, Jen.
Fortunately, she wasn't a Colorado Avalanche fan. She was already all-in for the Red Wings.
"Jen has always been a Wings fan even before we met. Her support of my hobby and passion for the Wings is beyond words. I’m grateful for her passion to see me succeed in life and in the hobby. She was very proud," Kotimko explains.
After winning the Twitter campaign but falling in the finals to an Edmonton Oilers faithful, Kotimko got a big mail day in the form of his prize as Red Wings Team MVP.
"Last year in May when the items from Upper Deck arrived it was a very exciting day. Unpacking all the swag, trophy and the trading cards was beyond words," Kotimko said. "Jen and I both were awfully pleased with the accomplishment and items. The trophy and card are proudly displayed in the Wings room."
Passing the torch: The next Red Wings Team MVP
Kotimko wasn't eligible to run again this year after claiming last year's prize. Instead, he's thrown his support behind Petrie and the other Wings fans in the running and encouraged his group of collectors to do the same.
The hope is that, while the Wings have finished their season near the bottom of the standings, a Detroit Red Wings fan will top the charts in the Upper Deck contest.
Voting ends for Team MVP on May 10 at 2 p.m. To vote for Heather Petrie or check out the other fans in the running from all eight teams participating, follow this link to the Upper Deck My MVP contest page.
Four other Red Wings fans are competing for the chance to take on the rest of the best.
Winning Team MVPs will be announced May 12 on Twitter and voting starts for the top fan, or "Ultimate MVP," on May 14.