Sunday, April 9, 2017

Goodbye, Joe Louis Arena

The final hockey game of any kind has been played at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

The building’s primary tenant, the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings, ended their run at the venerable facility on Sunday with a 4-1 victory over the New Jersey Devils that closed out both the season, and an era. 

The Red Wings moved into The Joe in Dec. 1979 and left almost 38 years later with four Stanley Cup championships to their credit (1997, 1998, 2002, 2008), two of them earned on JLA ice (1997, 2002). Though Detroit’s 25-year playoff run ended this season, Hockeytown fans celebrated on Sunday like it was 1998, with the stands awash in a sea of red jerseys, and the obligatory traditional octopus cascading from the crowd and clumping on the ice after each and every goal by the home side.

Besides the NHL, The Joe was also a long-standing venue for college hockey, ranging from the 1990 NCAA Championship, to the Central Collegiate Hockey Association and later Big Ten tournaments, to the long-running Great Lakes Invitational. In my two years (1994-1996) with Michigan State Hockey, I made it to the Joe over a dozen times for CCHA and GLI games, CCHA press conferences, and the now-defunct College Hockey Showcase. I even got to take a turn or two on the ice, hockey stick included.

The most modern facility in North America? Not at all—but there was something comforting about going up those long gray exterior stairs, walking the dark concourses replete with photos and other mementoes of Red Wings history, and gazing out upon two levels of seemingly endless red-and-white seats. There was also having a team credential to see the wood-paneled splendor and the major-league workings that existed behind the scenes. There wasn’t a bad seat in the 20,000-plus house, not even from a high-above-the-ice press box that was added as an afterthought.

I saw my only Red Wings game there as a fan in early 2000, a win over Tampa Bay, and that was the last time I ever made it to the building. I’ve seen Detroit play live in New Jersey several times in the last 17 years after I stopped living in Michigan, but never again at The Joe. This year’s closing is perhaps made even more poignant by the dual passing of hockey icon Gordie Howe and longtime Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch, who both left us before the doors were closed for the final time, as did longtime MSU head coach Ron Mason last year.

I thought the quasi-hexagonal gray-and-red venue on the riverfront would stand the test of time and live forever, like Fenway Park and Lambeau Field—but like the Olympia and Tiger Stadium before it in the Motor City, time has unfortunately run out on The Joe. The memories, many as there are, however, will remain.

So long and farewell, Joe Louis Arena. And thanks.

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