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
Detroit— Tony Sommer and his wife Jackie Sommer said their final goodbyes Sunday to The Joe from 12th row seats after a delayed flight from Florida and a car rental ride from Cleveland.
The couple stood on their feet with enthusiastic fans to watch team legends welcomed back for the closing ceremony Sunday night. The ceremony grew emotional when pictures of the late Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch flashed across video screens in the arena. Cheers grew louder as Marian Ilitch and her son Chris, who has taken the helm for his dad, acknowledged the crowd.
The Sommers, formerly of Metro Detroit, said they wouldn’t let anything prevent them from witnessing “the passion and tradition” of The Joe and its last event.
“We wanted to be here for the last game and we want to be there for the first one at the new stadium,” said Tony Sommer. “It’s kind of like when Tiger Stadium was gone, so much tradition, but it’s time.”
When former Red Wings Captain Steve Yzerman thanked the Ilitch family for “its passion and commitment” to the Wings during his speech Sunday, the crowd roared.
“Ultimately, what I must say, playing in this building ... it’s got its own charm and character,” Yzerman said. “But ultimately, when I look up at the stands and I hear the fans ... to all of you that showed up here and remained here after the game, you are every bit as important to this organization” as the players.
Angela Lehmkuhl was in a wheel chair, her foot broken in two places, but she didn’t let the pain stop her from joining the standing ovations. Once it was for Yzerman and a second for former coach Scotty Bowman.
Lehmkuhl and her husband from Brighton have had season tickets since 1984. She started crying thinking about how “our kids grew up here.”
“What people are seeing on that Jumbotron, we were there,” said Lehmkuhl. “You can’t take that away. These were the memories we were a part of. I am so grateful.”
The tears also came for usher Ken Dawley after the ceremony filled with flashbacks and as season ticket holders started to leave, giving him handshakes and pats on the back as they left.
“It’s not the building, this building has a lot of warts,” Dawley said. “It’s the people. It’s the people that have made it what it is.”
After 38 years, the Wings and their fans said their final farewells to The Joe. Soon, they’ll be watching games at the state of the art Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit.
Like other fans, Brian Sanders has Red Wings in his blood. He’s had season tickets in his family for 40 years and has gone to the games with his best friend, Joe Boyle, for 20 years.
And here they were at the Wings’ last game, where nostalgia mixed with optimism for the team and the city.
“I’m looking forward to the future,” Sanders said. “I’m ready to turn the page. And I think the city’s ready, and this is going to be a big launching point.”
The significance of the day played out to the final period: The Wings bested, 4-1, the New Jersey Devils.
The day started earlywhen fans gathered on the steps outside the arena and along the Detroit riverfront in anticipation of a red carpet ceremony, where players and alumni greeted fans, took pictures and signed autographs.
Karen Newman, longtime singer of the national anthem during the Red Wings’ games and who performed one last song during the closing ceremony, said you could feel the emotion of the day as fans earlier sang the national anthem before the game with her louder than ever.
“I loved it,” Newman said. “It was kind of like our farewell together.”
Other traditions were on display.
Wings’ fans’ cherished acts of throwing octopi added up to at least seven on the ice before the national anthem. After the first puck dropped, scores more octopi hit the ice.
There were many games during 1995 when there were a lot of octopi thrown on the ice in one night, maybe 20, said Al Sobotka, Joe Louis building manager. Maybe a record on the last night. Maybe not.
“We just dispose of them,” Sobotka said.
Dozens of former Red Wings attended the last game with their wives and families on the top-floor suites.
Danica Wooley, wife of retired Red Wings player Jason Woolley, was documenting the day on her Snapchat account.
She remembers bringing her three sons to the games and they couldn’t last through more than a period before she had to take them to the family room to watch cartoons.
Now grown, she said, “it drives them crazy they didn’t stay in the stands to watch the games.”
She’s excited about the new facility and philosophical about the old.
“The Wings are so much more than this building,” Wooley said. “They transcend this space.”
Among the players was Mathieu Dandenault, who played for the team from 1995 to 2004.
“Its really neat being around all the guys,” said Dandenault. “You share a bond with these guys; it’s forever.”
He was pensive about the future.
“It is what is,” he said. “It’s time.”