When the lights go down in The Joe
Walking in to Joe Louis Arena for the last time through the curtain at the Gordie Howe entrance, there was the same blinding light I remembered as an eight year old. Despite several visits to The Joe since then, this time held an incomparable emotional level.
There is that iconic memory — the sea of red and white jerseys, shirts and hats with numbers and names of heros on the back. #5 Lidstrom, #14 Shanahan, #30 Osgood, #8 Larionov, #91 Federov, #19 Yzerman. The crowd roared as the players warmed up. The red leather seats. The old-style scoreboard. The glowing jumbotron with the wing-ed wheel shining out like a lighthouse in the dark night. The numbers of legends hung from the rafters. The big number 9 permanently burned into my memory at that moment.
This is where history was made. I looked down onto the ice and remembered seeing videos of Darren McCarty dropping to his knees to clobber Claude Lemieux. Mike Vernon squaring off against Patrick Roy. Steve Yzerman streaking across the blue line and sniping the puck top right— just below the bar…
The date was Nov. 21, 2005 and for Red Wings fans that is a special date. It happened around the eight-minute-mark in the first period — the score was 1-0 for the Nashville Predators. Out of nowhere bottles and pieces of equipment were thrown onto the ice from the bench. Mike Babcock grabbed a handful of sticks and threw them out on the ice to stop play. A bench may have even been thrown. It was when Jiri Fischer had a heart attack. Kris Draper flew over the bench and skated as fast as he could down the ice, slamming on the Zamboni doors. They were finally opened and sparks flew from his skates as he ran across the concrete to get the AED defibrillator and rushed back to the bench. Time passed and people were on their feet and dumbfounded. An ambulance eventually backed up to where the Zamboni made its entrance on the ice. The paramedics unloaded a stretcher and were guided over to the bench where they strapped Fischer to the stretcher and rushed him back out to the ambulance and off to hospital. No one really knew what happened. Making my way to the Red Wings bench after the announcement had been made that the game would be postponed, I saw Mike Babcock talking to some of the security guards. When I told him that it was my first game he gave me an official Detroit Red Wings game puck.
After that game, Jiri Fischer retired due to health problems and ended his career. Being there for a piece of history made the building that much more important to me, all encapsulated by the lights, the cheering, the passion and the love for the team and the city. One day I will look across the water and that building will not exist anymore. That place of child worship will just be a piece of history like Tiger Stadium or the Olympia.
It was so important to me to have one last chance to see the Red Wings at the Joe. Whether they won or lost didn’t matter. It was a moment to relive my childhood and remember that unbelievable feeling of awe and fascination from that first game.
After the game, I ran around the entire arena looking for a puck — nothing special, just sentimental. After talking to four different men who worked at the benches as well as the penalty box, I went over to the Zamboni area where Kris Draper had sprinted out to grab the AED and told one of the workers my story. He said he did not think there were any pucks left and turned away. A little bummed out, I watched as the man opened a black metal cabinet and on the very bottom shelf sat two pucks. He picked one up, turned and walked towards me. He said it seemed to be my lucky day and handed me the puck. That feeling of accomplishment and childlike joy washed over me. My first and last game at Joe Louis Arena.
As Red Wings fans we will miss the Joe. We will always remember those memory-making nights in Hockeytown.