Say It Ain't So, Joe

Kris Draper hasn't played a Red Wings game in more than five years, but almost every day, he finds himself back on the ice at Joe Louis Arena, at least in his mind's eye.

"Standing on the blue line for the national anthem. I can see it now," Draper recalled wistfully one afternoon from his windowless office at the Joe, where he is still with the team as a scout.

"I look for my kids. They're in Section 114. At the end of the national anthem, I raise my stick," he said. "I'd tell my kids, 'When I raise my stick, that's me waving to you.'"

Of course, there are the big moments, too. There was the 1997 Stanley Cup win, Detroit's first after 42 long and often miserable years. That was followed by the 2002 Cup, also won on home ice. Along with that, there was the infamous brawl with the Colorado Avalanche, the Wing's hated rival in the '90s.

But the most cherished images from Draper's 17 seasons at "The Joe" are the everyday scenes. 

"Sitting in my stall in the dressing room. All the history there. The pictures of the great players, Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay," he said. "And all the guys I played with-Steve Yzerman, [Nicklas] Lidstrom, [Chris] Chelios-I still remember exactly where they sat."

Now the memories are all that remain of Joe Louis Arena. After 38 years, the building closed its doors for good after the Wings' last regular-season game on April 9, a Friday night matchup with the New Jersey Devils. Soon, the city-owned building will be demolished.

"That final night [was]  a little sad," said Nancy Smith, whose family has had season tickets to Wings games since 1963. She's attended most of the Wings games that have taken place at Joe Louis Arena since it opened in 1978. She's been seated in Section 108, at center ice, last row. 

"It's a special place. Four generations of my family have been coming here," she said. "It's home."

"I'll probably shed a tear or two," said Al Sobotka. He drives the Zamboni, makes the ice and fixes whatever needs to be fixed. "I'm here every day. That's not a complaint. I love being here."

The rink's crazy octopus tradition made Al famous-he's the mustachioed guy who collects the flying mollusks and swings them around above his head. 

"First time was like '94," he said. "I don't know what came over me. I gave it a twirl and people loved it." 

Now, a cameo by Al is a standard highlight of any Wings' playoff game.

For the 2017-18 season, the Wings will move into the Little Caesars Arena near Ford Field and Comerica Park. It will be a palatial complex with a practice rink, gleaming concourses and shrines honoring Mr. Hockey and other Wings greats.

In today's NHL, the Joe is a dinosaur, the second oldest arena after Madison Square Garden. As a building, it's nothing to write home about. 

Outside, it looks like a drab, concrete bunker. Inside, the locker rooms are cramped, its single concourse is jammed with humanity and when it rains, there are odd smells. The steep stairways leading into the building are also treacherous even without the inevitable snow and ice of Michigan winters.

Draper said that in the player's workout room, when it's quiet, you can hear the rats scampering in the ceiling.

At the time of its construction, the Joe cost only $57 million. After it opened, someone noticed they forgot to put in a press box. Seats were removed to create a cramped, narrow section for the Fourth Estate.

But no arena still standing has given hockey fans as much glory and greatness. In the past 20 years, six Stanley Cup finals have been played there-more than any other arena. Twice the home team hoisted the Cup at Joe, while Pittsburgh crashed the party in 2009. The Joe hosted playoff games for 25 years running, the third longest streak in NHL history, a run that came to an end this season.

Yes, the Joe was the home of the "Deadwings" back in the 80s, but it is also where a great, Original Six team was revitalized and became one of the greatest franchises in all of sports. It's called Hockeytown for a reason.  

The old barn has been home to a litany of Hall of Famers-Brett Hull, Chris Chelios, Sergei Federov, Igor Larionov, Brendan Shanahan, Dominik Hasek, Viacheslav Fetisov, Scotty Bowman and Steve Yzerman, perhaps the best modern-era player after Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. 

Joe Louis also showcased the internationalization of the game, with the Russian Five in the 90s and later with the Wings' Swedish contingent. 

"I love playing here," said Detroit defenseman and Macomb Township, Mich., native Danny Dekeyser. "Our fans are really loud. It gives us a big boost. And there's so much history here, so there's a special feel to it."

But Joe Louis Arena isn't just the Red Wings home. It's a rink for all Michigan players, coaches and parents. Unlike most NHL arenas, it hosts championships for all levels. Travel and house teams in the Little Caesars league, AAA, high school, boys and girls. If they make it to the finals, they all play in the Joe.

Dylan Larkin wears the Winged Wheel now, but he was just 7 when his Lakeland Hawks met the Canton Crush in a Mite final. 

"I'll never forget it. I forgot my jersey and was a little freaked out," said Larkin, another local hockey product. "We lost, 2-1, but it was a big deal sitting on the bench were Zetterberg and Datsyuk and Yzerman sat."

College hockey is a big part of the arena's lore, too. Between the old CCHA tournament, the Great Lakes Invitational and the annual Michigan-Michigan State battle at the Joe, the arena has probably hosted more college hockey games than any big-league stadium in the country.

"It's always a big thrill to go down there," said legendary Michigan coach Red Berenson.

For Frank Krieber, a goalie at Michigan Tech from 1977 to 1981, playing at the Joe was one of the highlights of his life. 

"For an 18-year-old, it's incredible," he said. "You're playing in front of 20,000 people. You've got the bands. Any time I'd go to a Wings game, I'd relive it."

Still a beer-league player, Krieber regularly brags to his buddies that he holds a rare distinction. His years at Tech covered the last four of five consecutive GLI titles won by the Huskies. The final three in the five-title streak were played at the brand-new Joe. 

"That means that while I was at Tech, we never-I repeat, never-lost a game at the Joe," he said.

As the final days were winding down, writer John U. Bacon talked about how he's going to miss the place, despite its shortcomings. 

"The aura of Joe Louis is based not on the building itself, but on what happened in it," he said. "It gave us exquisite hockey. That's what made Joe Louis Arena special. The quality of the games, the players who built it, the fans who appreciated it." 

 

Issue: 
2017-04

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