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Griffins, fans gear up for Great Skate Winterfest

The Great Skate Winterfest will be held at Rosa Parks Circle this weekend.
Griffins players Francis Pare and Brendan Smith with young fans

Griffins players Francis Pare and Brendan Smith with young fans /Grand Rapids Griffins

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/Grand Rapids Griffins

Ice sculpting at Winterfest

Ice sculpting at Winterfest /Grand Rapids Griffins

The Grand Rapids Griffins and area hockey fans of all ages are gearing up to skate together at the city's biggest winter festival.

On Saturday, January 12 and Sunday, January 13, the Griffins will be hosting the 2013 Great Skate Winterfest as Rosa Parks Circle.  The festival is best known for the Great Skate, the 24-hour skating marathon during which Griffins players, coaches and other personnel raise money for the Grand Rapids Griffins Youth Foundation as they skate in one-hour shifts while visiting with fans.

The Great Skate Winterfest, which is the Griffins Youth Foundation's second largest fundraiser, takes place within two overlapping larger events. The fifth annual Winterfest begins noon Saturday and continues through Sunday afternoon, while the 11th annual Great Skate begins at 10 p.m. Saturday and continues until 10 p.m. Sunday.

The Winterfest will feature activities sponsored by various Grand Rapids museums, John Ball Zoo and Grand Rapids Public Library. It will also feature skating demonstrations from area skating organizations, dog sled presentations by Shemhadar Kennels, horse-drawn carriage rides by Classic Carriage, ice sculpting demonstrations by the Ice Gurus and the Marhar Snowboards "Open Jam" and "Rail Jam" competitions.

Readers can access a complete schedule of events.

Randy Cleves, the Griffins' senior director of public relations, is helping to organize the Great Skate Winterfest for the fifth time. Cleves called the festival a favorite part of his job, and he emphasized both how it brings together the Grand Rapids area community and the support it gives the Griffins Youth Foundation.

Cleves also called the Griffins' players efforts to help the Great Skate unique among the American Hockey League.

"I don't know of another AHL team that does a 24-hour skating marathon," he said.

Lynn Rabaut, director of the Griffins Youth Foundation, also praised the players' efforts. 

"The Griffins players have really increased their participation in the fundraiser, which has been phenomenal," said Rabaut, who will manage the festival's volunteer tent.

Rabaut called the Great Skate Winterfest a great event for families, and she said that children's favorite part of it is the chance to skate with the Griffins.

"They can get up close with the Griffins," she said.  "They [the Griffins] are very accommodating. They make themselves very available. The kids just eat it up."

Griffins center and Detroit Red Wings prospect Joakim Andersson made clear that the Great Skate is also enjoyable for the Griffins.

"It's a good experience for both us and the fans," said Andersson, who is scheduled to participate in his third Great Skate. "There are tons of kids there who enjoy having a skate with their favorite player. It's fun for them and fun for us to see those happy kids."

For Griffins assistant coach Jim Paek, the mutual enjoyment of which Andersson speaks hits close to home.  Paek said he, his wife, and his two children, aged seven and nine, love going to the Great Skate Winterfest.

"My family goes twice a year," said Paek, who will be participating in his seventh Great Skate.  "When I get the late shift my family skates with me."

Paek emphasized how much the event has grown.  He said that in earlier years, he and his family could skate with their hockey sticks and play informal games of hockey while skating his late night shift.  Now, Paek said, there are so many people skating at all hours of the Great Skate that he and his family can't use their hockey sticks at all.

Paek also commended the hard work done by the festival's many volunteers.

Fans can sponsor Paek, Anderson, and other members of the Griffins for their skating shifts to raise money for the Griffins Youth Foundation. 

But fans are advised that they will have to sponsor their favorite player generously if they want him to overtake last year's Great Skate fundraising top producer, equipment manager Brad Thompson.

Thompson said that his sponsors last year included many former Griffins who currently play for the Red Wings, including Cory Emmerton, Jonathan Ericsson, Jimmy Howard and Jakub Kindl.

Thompson said that he worked hard in his fundraising efforts with a particular goal in mind.

"So that I could beat Bob Kaser," he said with a smile.

Kaser is the president of the Griffins Youth Foundation who originally conceived of and organized the Great Skate.

He was amused by Thompson's comment and reflected on their fundraising rivalry.

“Brad and I had a lot of fun with a 'spirited' competition that netted nearly $5,000 last year," said Kaser, who also serves as the Griffins' radio broadcaster and vice-president of community relations. We are both blessed to have lots of friends who were generous enough to contribute to our great cause. That competition is now very much evident in our dressing room with the players who are doing a great job reaching out to friends and family to raise some significant dollars.”

Admission to the Great Skate Winterfest is free, although donations are encouraged. Some activities require donations. 

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