DETROIT - When I moved to Detroit from Los Angeles in the summer of 1999, there were three things I wanted to experience: Barry Sanders playing at the Silverdome, the Red Wings playing at Joe Louis Arena and the fairly mild winters I was promised.
Two of those things never happened. Barry stiffed me and retired, and my girlfriend flat out lied to me about winter in Michigan. I bought a snowblower and married her anyway, and I ended up covering the Lions, so it all worked out.
But the Red Wings and Joe Louis Arena more than made up for my cold, Barry-less winters. You see, I grew up in Los Angeles as a rabid Kings fan in the 1980s. I videotaped every game I couldn’t watch in person or on live TV.
There was one problem. Almost no one else in L.A. was a hockey fan. If I mentioned Marcel Dionne, people thought I was talking about a 1950s doo-wop singer. Being a hockey fan in L.A. in the ’80s was like being Matt Damon marooned on Mars.
The Kings struggled to draw fans, and Jack Kent Cooke, the team’s original owner, supposedly uttered this famous line about the hundreds of thousands of Canadians in the L.A. area: “Now I know why they left Canada: They hate hockey.”
When I got to Detroit, everything was wonky. Fourth of July fireworks in June? Entire restaurants devoted to serving chili dogs? And what in good gravy is a Michigan left?
That all changed when I saw my first game at Joe Louis Arena.
It felt like I’d finally come home as a hockey fan. These were my people. They loved their team, they loved their stadium, and they ruled the town. Even the national anthem singer and Zamboni driver were famous.
I noticed ice rinks everywhere. It seemed like every high school had a hockey team. I lived in St. Clair Shores, and someone near my home had painted their garage door with a giant winged wheel. I felt like a pilgrim who finally had made the journey to Mecca. Joe Louis became my secular holy land.
But going to Joe Louis was even more than that, more than a visit. Have you ever traveled to another city and fallen in love with it? Felt like you should have been born there, like you instantly belonged but, for practical purposes, you knew you could never really move there? Home, but not home. This is how I’ve always felt about the Joe. Home, but not home.
I’m not trying to imply Joe Louis Arena is perfect. In fact, it’s a far stretch from perfect. And that’s what makes it great. Yes, it’s located in one of the hardest places to access in downtown Detroit. I swear someone dared the architect to build a stadium and hide it from everyone. A Navy SEAL team would have an easier time infiltrating the Joe from the Detroit River than your average fan has of driving to the stadium, parking and climbing those stupid stairs at the East and West entrances.
And how about that smell? If you’ve used a stairwell at the Joe, you probably can recall that acrid smell right now. Some people say it’s the smell of spilled stale beer. I like to think of it as spilled stale beer mixed with Claude Lemieux’s tears.
How about that awesome Jumbotron? I’m kidding. It’s not Jumbo. And it’s not even a tron. It’s the video board that hopes to become the 60-inch flat screen in your home when it grows up. I seriously doubt the screen has enough resolution for a decent game of Pong.
But this, of course, is Joe Louis’ charm. It is unglamorous. It’s functional and straightforward. It’s a big box of gray that someone finally decided to slap a band of red paint on. It’s only real adornment is what it has earned: the countless banners of championships and retired numbers that decorate the interior. They say it’s what’s on the inside that counts, and you could spend hours trying to count all those glorious red-and-white banners that hang from the rafters.
One of my favorite parts of Joe Louis is somewhat subtle and hidden from most people. It’s the cinderblock walls that are painted with the names of every one of the 11 Stanley Cup championship teams. We’re talking about every dang name on each team down to the assistant stick boy. The names wrap around the building’s first floor near the East entrance, where the visiting team enters the building and has to pass by every name on its way to the dressing room.
Can you imagine being Farmy McFarmboy from Moose Jaw who just got called up by the Florida Panthers to make your NHL debut? But first you have to walk into Joe Louis and past names like Sid Abel, Gordie Howe, Terry Sawchuk and Steve Yzerman? Yeah, kid. You’re a big deal.
In a way it’s fitting the Red Wings missed the playoffs this year for the first time in 26 seasons. It’s a reminder of the Joe’s sad, quiet beginnings and how much we should appreciate the hockey renaissance that transpired inside its walls.
Soon, the wrecking ball will come for Joe Louis Arena. It comes for us all. We can be honest without being morbid. But don’t forget what you saw here, in this building. Don’t forget what you felt here. So, thanks, Joe. It’s been a sweet, fun, stinky ride.
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