Oh man, what a day.
First, Sergio Garcia finally wins the Masters, at 73rd attempt to win a major. Then comes the news that John Clarke, one of the greatest comedians ever produced by New Zealand / Australia and a local, passed away while walking in the Grampians over the weekend. And all this while watching the last Detroit Red Wings game ever at the Joe Louis Arena.
This last one would be enough to unravel me on his own, even without Clarke’s unexpected departure, or to feel happy for the Spanish golfer who burst onto the scene years ago as a prodigy who would dominate the sport, but unfortunately emerged at the exact same moment that Tiger Woods appeared through another door and actually dominated the sport.
‘The Joe’ has been the Red Wings’ home for the last 38 years. It was an old barn of a building; one of the least attractive in a shiny new millennium NHL world, but of course the fans adored it and until recently, other teams feared for the lair of the all-conquering Wings. The Joe made his debut just as the infamous Dead Wings era of the club’s history came to an end. Within three years of its opening, Detroit pizza magnate Mike Ilitch would buy the team, start spending money, the recruits would get very successful and suddenly the team played a role that won four Stanley Cups and a record of 25 consecutive years in the playoffs included. . Until this year when the team finally fell off a cliff and missed the postseason.
This is why it happened today: the last game at the Joe’s, in early April instead of a month or so later during playoff games. But do you know what? It was kind of perfect. Knowing that it was the last game meant the Wings could do it properly, without the uncertainty of play-off success, at home and away. The date can be drawn in pencil and man, they did it right.
To begin with, by pure luck, it was Captain Hank Zetterberg’s 1000ste game and the pre-game ceremony for it had my misty eyes. He’s always been a favorite of mine since I first joined the team and he was an absolute star. Then Riley ‘Tinky Winky’ Sheahan, a guy who inexplicably did not score a goal all season, finally found the net for the Red Wings’ opening goal. Of course, Zetterberg scored because he is Zetterberg, and then Tatar meant and finally Sheahan again (to record his own little piece of hockey immortality: last goal ever at the Joe). Meanwhile, the Devils played the straight men to this Detroit love festival, a stuffed-to-the-sparse Joe in a sea of red. Meanwhile, the TV coverage kept an octopus count, to see how many poor deceased octopuses were thrown on the ice (this is a Red Wing thing), and the last count I noticed was 27.
At the very end, at the finale of a long ceremony where Red Wing spoke loudly about the old building and the fans and how much they love this hockey team, the organizers showed they know exactly how to keep the hearts of the fans still one play time. The unofficial Red Wings victory song, Journey’s Do not stop believing, filled the Joe as it faded. Born and bred in SOUTH DETROIT.
And to the exits for the last time.
Of course, the franchise will move on and the fans will be more comfortable, the ice cream will probably be better, life will generally be more enjoyable in the brand new Ilitch family stadium, Little Caesar’s Arena, when it opens in September. When the Wings left the crisp but historic Olympia Stadium for the brand new Joe in 1979, I was sure there was just so much sadness and nostalgia.
But today it was goodbye Joe and tears in all directions.
I’ve written before about how being a sports fan is about the journey, not the silverware, because the vast majority of fans are disappointed every year in terms of premieres, cups, whatever the prize.
Throughout my hockey journey, the joy for me has been in being a Red Wing fan, among all the Red Wing fans, from Hockeytown to Australia and everywhere in between. I’m so so so so so so so glad today that my sons and I visited the Joe in 2011 to watch some games there. It did not occur to me then that I would never be there again. The Wings managed to lose all four games we saw, so we did not get out Do not stop believing in the flesh, but it did not matter. We sat there, in good seats, in a sea of red jerseys with white winged wheels. We saw our heroes – Lidstrom, Zetterberg, Datsyuk, even Helm and Jimmy Howard. We saw Gus Nyquist’s first match as a winger and Mackquist bought his jersey – undoubtedly the first one to make his way to Australia. A Wings representative showed us in the back aisles of the stadium, threw in free goods for us and let us warm up from behind the goal. It was a total and complete lifelong memory explosion.
But it was not the Joe that actually stayed in my head like the humanity of Detroit. The people at Motorcity hugged us so warmly, unable to believe that three Australians had traveled all that way just to sit in the Joe and watch the team.
I have no doubt if and when we reach the new arena, with slightly more spacious seats with better lighting, finer corporate boxes and a larger, sharper jumbotron TV screen, we will be embraced just as much.
This is what it comes down to in the end. It does not matter where the hockey is played, no matter how much you love the arena and the history that seeps into the walls of the wrist – and believe me, I really did with the Joe. But in the end, it’s the people. These are the fans.
That’s why I cried when the Bulldogs won last year’s AFL flag. Not for the players, even though I was happy for them, and sad even though I was for Bob Murphy who was injured. My heart went straight for the fans who waited so long, who stabbed through thick and very thin, who finally tasted the ultimate success. My unofficial foot trainer at the Bang, Jimmy, was flying back from Greece for the final when he realized something was happening. The phone video of Jimmy and his family celebrating at the grandstand festival when they realized they had reached the grand finale was an all-time highlight role on its own. When they won the whole thing, he painted his house red, white and blue. The joy was so pure.
This year, my team, the Tigers, are 3-0 after three rounds and sit second on the ladder in an unfamiliar atmosphere. Saturday’s game began in 27 degrees of sunshine and ended in a wild thunderstorm plagued, rain-soaked storm. The fans remained without blinking. We tied the song in the wind and the rain. The players haunted the fans on the border and we all started to wonder if we could dare to believe this team can do something meaningful this year.
We are so lucky that we are playing at the MCG, the home of football, after a wrench away from the Point Road Oval many years ago. Some older fans would have been there through that whole trip, through the flags of the sixties and seventies and 1980s, and then the dark desert years that followed.
Whether Richmond plays at the G or in Oodnadatta, it does not really matter. It’s those fans, my dedicated Tiger brothers and sisters, that count.
But if you said it all, thank you, Joe Louis Arena, for the memories and that you were the foundation for all the Wings adventures I have experienced so far. Thank you for honoring ‘The Brown Bomber’, one of the most legendary boxers ever, and for hosting my sons and I when we briefly, fortunately, took our place among the Wings believers.
And once again, rest in peace, John Clarke. Farnarkeling’s best spokesman ever. You will be missed.