It was cold.
An Ode to “The Joe”
That’s the first thing I remember about going to my first Detroit Red Wings game on December 30th, 2008, among other things. Snow gathered along the roadways as my father, cousin, uncle and I went down I-75 to downtown Detroit. I had not been a Red Wings, nor hockey lover on December 30th, 2007. However, like the Detroit Tigers did with their magical run to a World Series appearance in 2006 that inspired my love for baseball, the Wings did the same for hockey with their Stanley Cup Championship in 2008. I was hooked from that fateful June night and moved to show it on a certain December night.
The Winter Classic was mere days away. A new tradition at the time, it was held for the second time and was the only outdoor game of the year, but the Wings had one more game to play at home as part of a home-and-home with the Chicago Blackhawks to cap a memorable year for the team, in quite a forgettable year in Detroit (The financial crisis was not kind to the city).
I flipped open the curtain for my group to Section 118 and immediately was taken aback at how this place could make you forget about customary issues that affected everyday life.
The Joe Louis smell (anyone who has been there knows what I’m talking about) filled my nostrils for the first time, and King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight” caressed my 11-year old eardrums as the first song I ever heard in the old building. Sure enough, I’ve never heard it played again in my numerous trips back since. Whenever I hear the tune, I immediately think back to that moment in time, looking at the cubed scoreboard, numerous banners with a fresh new 2007-08 commemoration hung with pride, clean ice with the iconic “Hockeytown” logo, and the heartbeats as we went down the steep stairs for warmups.
Section 118, Row 3. Lower right corner.
Johan Franzen. Marian Hossa. Henrik Zetterberg. Pavel Datsyuk. Valtteri Filppula. Brian Rafalski. Kris Draper. Kirk Maltby. Tomas Holmstrom. Yes, even Tomas Kopecky. Unfortunately Nicklas Lidstrom was hurt at the time, but getting to see Chris Chelios in his final days in a Red Wings uniform was a fair trade. All these red-clothed giants with skates and sticks were skating circles around the net and letting pucks fly. Some were on target, some rocked the glass.
I flinched, but who wouldn’t.
Another iconic voice would come through the speakers to announce promotions and introduce Detroit’s own Karen Newman to echo the national anthem. Budd Lynch, the longtime public address announcer for the team, passed in 2012. His “last minute of play in this period” phrase has been saved and continues to play to this day when 60 seconds remain in each period. It was the kind of voice that made you feel like you were about to witness history. I did that night.
Kopecky scored one of his 12 goals he would score as a Red Wing in 183 games over four seasons. Filppula grabbed the puck out of the air, and had it in his glove for a full second, one of the few images that hasn’t escaped my brain from that night.
It was loud.
The goal horn was the icing on the cake to the old building. No sirens or special effects, just a classic noise that didn’t feel loud at all in the moment.
The Wings would light the lamp four times that night in a 4-0 shutout of the Blackhawks that belonged to someone named Ty Conklin, who made 36 saves. One of his 25 wins as a back-up that season.
As I mentioned before, Red Wings hockey was fairly new to me at that time, but walking out of that arena that night back into the frigid Detroit night, it felt like it was a passion that had been asleep in me that just needed to be awakened by a visit to the old barn.
For a moment, time was slow.
Play was stopped with roughly five minutes left in Game 4 of the 2011 Western Conference Semifinals. The Red Wings, once ahead 3-0 in the game and then down 3-0 in the best-of-seven, early in the third period let the San Jose Sharks tie the contest. The team was a goal away from elimination on home ice, something that had happened just twice before since 1999 in what was year 20 of the playoff streak. A montage played on the scoreboard and 20,000 hands were in the air, waving pom-poms forward and backward as players looked around in awe of the noise.
Face-off tie-up. Justin Abdelkader does his best to keep the play alive. Patrick Eaves holds the disk in at the line. Rafalski takes a long shot from the point that Antti Niemi stops. No one knows where the puck is except Eaves. He collects the puck and slings a pass to Darren Helm open in the left circle.
It was the loudest.
The Red Wings were still alive. I remember jumping out of my seat and high-fiving people that I didn’t even know. Everyone knew the magnitude of the moment, and that’s what made Detroit so special during those winning times.
It was uncharacteristcally quiet.
Tyler Toffoli sped around Danny Dekeyser moments before fooling Jimmy Howard with a backhand move. The score was 3-1 with 6:10 left, and looking around, the 37-year old Joe Louis was emptier than usual.
This particular contest fell almost eight years to the day of the first time I stepped into the building, and for some reason, it feels fitting looking back since that will be the last time I’ll be there for a Wings game. The first visit came at the tail end of the golden era of serious Cup contenders in 2008-09. The last came at the end of being a relevant team in the NHL come springtime with the 25-year playoff streak meeting its defeat in 2016-17, the final season at the arena.
It is a beautiful morning. The final weekend of the regular season starts today.
Time consumes us all eventually. The franchise and the building where it made all the memories that live on in every Red Wing supporter’s heart are no exception. If the quarter-century run of success had to end, the year to do it came with proper timing.
It will, as customary with captains, go down with the ship.
Some time on Sunday night, a final horn will ring out for old time’s sake, capping off a 37-year stay that has inspired generations of Wings supporters that rallied around an energy to get daily struggles off their minds for three hours per night with something that was prideful to be a part of.
In the summer, Joe Louis will finally suffer something that it has not suffered in its 37 years standing tall as the home for the team as wrecking balls tear through the heart of what will be a missed symbol of Detroit’s riverfront.
However, like Adonis replaced Apollo Creed, Little Caesar’s Arena, named after the late Mike Ilitch’s pride and joy born in Garden City, will accept the gloves and tap in, going for quite a few more rounds as the team begins a new era on the road to recapturing glory in a new home. The early rounds look like they will be a struggle with lumps to be taken, but it will be worth it when the team returns to prominence. The team had to do the same thing when they moved to the Joe from Olympia Stadium, smack dab in the middle of the “Dead Things” era.
That is the near future. This weekend is the present, with two more days to appreciate a place that has inspired and left so many memories for a countless number of people united together by a beautiful game, including myself.
Thank you, Joe Louis.
P.S. It’s ok that you didn’t have cupholders, the on-ice product (mostly) made up for it.