Detroit – The crowd rose and began to roar about three minutes before closing time, with the party nearing an end. And that’s really what this was, a celebratory nod to a cherished era, to a time when the most-festive gatherings took place in the Joe.
There was another unlikely goal by Riley Sheahan, another standing ovation, another batch of octopi on the ice. And as the final seconds ticked down, the echoes grew, just like old times.
Joe Louis Arena is done after nearly 38 years as a hockey arena, and it served its purpose right to the end, as a place where the events and the people mattered more than the gray walls. The final game itself was immaterial, although the Wings played as if pushed by nostalgia, rolling past the New Jersey Devils, 4-1, Sunday night.
The atmosphere was raucous from the start, even before the start. The lines started forming five hours before the game, fans packing both sides of Steve Yzerman Drive, six-deep, practically to the Detroit River. One last time, on a sunny, breezy spring day, the humble building connected thousands, and amid all the red gear, you could’ve sworn it was a parade.
In a way it was, as current Wings and former Wings walked the red carpet into the arena, signing autographs, stopping for photos. The alums – from Yzerman to Nicklas Lidstrom to Scotty Bowman – were there to pay final respects, but it was more than that. It was the moments, not the mortar, which is why players and fans were smiling more than crying.
“It was a perfect ending to an otherwise not-so-good season,” captain Henrik Zetterberg said. “When you picture the last game at the Joe – except if it would’ve been Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals – this was very nice.”
At the end of the first playoff-less season in 25 years, it was about as joyous as it gets. The crowd stayed and cheered every introduction during the closing ceremony, and laughed as Bowman told humorous stories. On the ice, “J-O-E” was spelled out in red carpet, and all the retired greats raised a stick as they walked out.
It was impossible to measure the ovations, each seemingly louder than the last. When Yzerman dropped the ceremonial puck before the game, the “Ste-vie!” chant began, like it was 1997 all over again. While speaking to the crowd afterward, he was serenaded with “Come Home, Ste-vie!”
Yzerman could only shake his head at the attention. He wasn’t going to be here if his Tampa Bay Lightning were still in playoff contention, but they were eliminated the night before.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the people in the building made it really special,” Yzerman said. “I was very fortunate and very appreciative I was able to play for the Red Wings my entire career. But it’s not about me, or any of the players. It’s not even about Joe Louis Arena. It’s about our city. For all the tremendous memories here, the new building’s gonna be even better, and just take the Red Wings to another level.”
From one longtime captain to the current one, Zetterberg was honored for playing in his 1,000th game, which was fitting, because this was all about marking time and memorializing history. And then, naturally, Zetterberg flipped in a goal for a 3-0 lead, scrapping all the way to the finish.
The record will show the first goal in the last game was scored by Sheahan, his first of the year. As surprising blasts go, it was as unlikely as the final home run at Tiger Stadium, slugged by unheralded Robert Fick. Then just to make sure it was real, Sheahan scored the last goal with 2:33 left, and the party truly was on.
The only somber note came during the final speeches, when the late Mike Ilitch and his family were honored with a touching video tribute. Before that, it was all fun and flinging. Seven octopi splattered on the ice after Karen Newman’s national anthem, and more flew from the stands as the game went on. During breaks, former players Darren McCarty, Joe Kocur, Tomas Holmstrom, Dino Ciccarelli and others skated on with shovels and sunglasses and happily did the ice grooming, waving and laughing.
On the night of the final Red Wings game at Joe Louis Arena, past and present greats arrive to "The Joe" on the red carpet. Daniel Mears / The Detroit News
So what is it about this place, which will be gone soon enough?
“To me, it’s like putting down your 15-year-old golden retriever – you don’t want to see it suffer,” said McCarty, who was in the middle of the Joe’s biggest moments. “It’s more about the relationships, not just between the players, but with the community. Everybody was in it together. Just like the man it was named for, Joe Louis, it defined how we had to be in order to win. We had to learn how to be gritty, how to be tough.”
It was at the Joe that the Wings went from a finesse team in the early ’90s to an attacking, grinding group that played suffocating defense. It was at the Joe where the Wings suffered all sorts of heartache, swept by New Jersey in the ’95 Stanley Cup finals, later tormented by Colorado. It was at the Joe that Hockeytown was born, first as a marketing concept, later validated by four Cup championships.
The pain made the glory even better – just ask the guy who delivered the most pain. When McCarty pounded Colorado’s Claude Lemieux on March 26, 1997, and later scored the winning goal, the spark was lit for the Wings’ Cup run.
“I think I spilled more blood in this place than anybody else,” McCarty said. “I remember different spots on the ice, different goals, different fights. I remember the whole hockey springtime smell – humidity, sweat, champagne.”
It has been a long, heartfelt goodbye, softened by the anticipation of the shimmering new Little Caesars Arena. Former players started streaming into town days ago, to hang out or get in one last skate. So many remain connected, they didn’t have to travel far. Chris Chelios, Kirk Maltby, Kris Draper, Jiri Fischer and Mark Howe work for the team. Mickey Redmond, Chris Osgood and Paul Woods are members of the broadcast crew.
Not many franchises in professional sports can boast a connection stretched over the years, a loyalty that began with the Ilitches. Zetterberg reached 1,000 games by playing all 82 this season, a determined leader to the end.
The Wings didn’t win this year, so it’s an appropriate time to start over. The Joe farewell provided a little cover for their struggles, although like the arena itself, the erosion was somewhat inevitable. Everyone surely will enjoy the new building, but they can do so without forgetting this one, the place where the memories began.