Hockey was my religion growing up so that made Joe Louis Arena my temple.
Most of my childhood and young adulthood can be tracked by the Red Wing memory that happened concomitantly. I was 9 years old when the Red Wings lost to the New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup Finals after winning the President’s Trophy during the regular season. After a couple years of playoff heartbreak it felt like everything had finally come together and that the Stanley Cup was an inevitable forgone conclusion.
After another crushing playoff defeat the following year I finally watched my favorite team lift the Stanley Cup for the first time. And then again the year after. And again in 2002. And again in 2008.
The rivalry with the Avalanche after Claude Lemieux delivered the ultimate of dirty hits against Kris Draper. The brawls and intense games that followed for years afterward. Stevie Y’s game 7 snipe against the Blues (I remember being at my teammate’s house and playing street hockey in his driveway during that overtime because we were too nervous to watch). The memories are truly too numerous to recall. But they mark my growth out of childhood, into being a teenager, and even into college and beyond.
My memories aren’t just of watching the Red Wings play in this old barn, but even getting the opportunity to spend some of my most formative years as a youth hockey player developing my skills on the same ice my heroes played. Playing for the Little Caesar’s hockey organization meant Joe Louis Arena became a home rink of sorts. We practiced and played games there all the time. Running through the concourse with my best friends, running the stairs before practice (which were always ever so slightly sticky), practicing in that enormously empty building but always filling it with fictional fans in my mind. Walking through the halls and locker rooms where my idols played. There was no other place in the world where I could so tangibly feel history.
It wasn’t just watching my favorite team on TV or getting to play at the Joe regularly as a young kid but the rare trip with my family to watch the Wings in person that sticks so prominently in my mind. We didn’t regularly go watch the Wings in person (it’s an expensive and time consuming endeavor when you live in the suburbs and have a family of 7) but there was nothing quite like the excitement of going to see an NHL hockey game at JLA. I’ve always said that there’s no such thing as a bad seat in that arena. Even if you were way in the upper bowl (as we almost always were) you never felt far away from the action. Getting to the Joe was always a bit of an ordeal. We had to pile into the car and then drive into Detroit (my entire experience of Detroit growing up was solely based on going to the occasional Red Wing game). Parking at Cobo and then making the long walk into the rink itself. Then walking up the absurdly steep and numerous front steps (I wonder how many people slipped and fell down those steps over the years) before finally being funneled into the arena itself. Stepping through the curtains that separated the concourse from the arena itself always felt like stepping into something from a new world.
I’m pretty sure one of my earliest memories was going to a Red Wings game when Wayne Gretzky played for the Kings. My dad bought me at least two ice cream bars and I fell asleep in the third period. I got better at staying awake at hockey games as I got older.
Anyway — this is rambling. I had no real plan to write anything about today about the fact that the only building I’ve ever seen the Red Wings play a home game in is closing its doors. But as I sit here waiting for the puck to drop for the last time at JLA I coudln’t help but try to capture some of the thoughts swirling around in my head.
Even though I’m 30 years old this feels like the end of the Red Wings of my childhood and the beginning of something new. My favorite player retired a few years ago, most of the current players are younger than me, and the Wings are missing the playoffs for the first time since I’ve been old enough to have memories about the game of hockey. I sit here and feel nostalgic for my childhood. I’m legitimately sad to see the Red Wings play their last game in this building and while I’ll always be a huge Red Wing fan, regardless of where they play, it feels strange to know that the building I’ve most closely associated with my favorite sport and my favorite team will soon be no more.
Luckily, my family and I made sure to make one final pilgrimage to the arena this year. I’m going to cherish that memory and I can’t wait to tell my kids about the old arena some day. It’s crazy to me that Joe Louis Arena is going to be for them like the way the Olympia was for me — just a relic of hockey history past.