Above: The Joe Louis Arena, pre-game, this week.
In 2007, I was at one of the lowest ebbs of my life. I was lurching toward an inescapable conclusion that I couldn’t stay in my marriage. No need to dwell here, but when you deeply love the woman involved and have two boys, that is a very hard place to be.
So, to distract myself, I did what all sports fans do and went to lose myself in some live sport.
I know, I thought, I’ll go watch Richmond play Geelong in a Sunday twilight game at the Docklands stadium! That will be awesome!
If I had thought to look, the Icehouse was probably under construction at the time, just a little over to the west.
I caught the tram from Fitzroy to Docklands with an uncomfortable awareness that the afternoon might not go according to my plan. See, Richmond v Geelong has a certain history in recent times. Yes, my Tigers kicked Geelong in the 1967 Grand Final but that was quite a while ago. Almost perfectly matching the time I spent as a football journalist for major Melbourne papers, and The Seven Network, Richmond had fallen into a hole deeper than the Romanche Trench. It wasn’t so much that successive Geelong sides of the late Eighties, Nineties and new millennium, featuring several Hall of Famers, would beat the hapless Tigers, whose back line would struggle to get a game in the VFA, but more that the Cats would slice and dice with the needless brutality of A Clockwork Orange. Gary Ablett Snr would perform party tricks that made the entire press box* burst into spontaneous laughter and applause (journo humour being what it is, I was ALWAYS sent to cover these games; to suffer it out) and I’d laugh and clap along. What the Hell. It wasn’t as though we had a chance. One day at the MCG, I can recall Ablett flying so high and so ridiculously early (over Brian Leys, maybe, or Mark Summers, or both) that he found himself metres into the air, looking around for the ball. It finally arrived as he was well into his potentially painful descent. The great No. 5 marked it one handed, jammed into his elbow, moments before he hit the turf. He booted 10 or maybe 12 that day …
So anyway, Richmond had improved a bit by 2007 but the Terry Wallace five-year plan was lurching and our young kids would be up against it on this day. But I needed a change of headspace, I needed some light in my life. Surely, my mule-headed lifelong devotion to the often hapless Tigers would show mercy and give me something to smile about.
Richmond lost by what I believe was an all-time record against the Cats. 157 points. I didn’t need to look that margin up for this blog. It’s scarred into my withered soul.
The loss was so huge that by mid third quarter, I was smiling. Even chuckling. Ah, Tigers, you never fail to let me down. It’s not only that you continue to kill us fans, you run the truck over us four or five times to make sure of it, when we are most hurt. The funniest part was that the sheer black humour of The Universe that day strangely did the trick. The massacre was so horrific, it was awesome. I walked all the way home, lighter, thinking: OK, you’ve got more planned for me, huh, Universe? Bring it.
And it did. And it has.
What has all this got to do with hockey?
Well, a key component of my current massive American trip has involved watching the Detroit Red Wings live. To actually witness some games at the Joe Louis Arena. And Will (aka Kittens), Mack and I have now seen three of four.
The Red Wings are the most consistently successful team of the past two decades. They haven’t missed the play-offs in 20 seasons, despite salary caps, equalization, etc. They are very much a Geelong, not a Richmond.
The Red Wings home-grow players, churn them out and create great team after great team. In that 20 year span, the Wings have won four Stanley Cups. In poor, half-deserted, out-of-money-and-luck Detroit, they have been a shining light. Because Detroit IS Hockeytown and the Wings MATTER.
So, our first Wings game ever was in Washington DC, against the Capitals at the Verizon Centre. Detroit lost, 7-1. A massacre.
No, matter. Bring on the Joe Louis Arena, hometown Detroit with a Wings crowd revving them on. Against the San Jose Sharks, who knocked the Wings out of the last two play-off series but haven’t been as dominant this season. The Wings lost, 4-2.
Tuesday night, we were there again to see the increasingly worried Wings take on Minnesota Wild. By now the losing streak, home and away, was at four, the worst straight streak since 2008. The Wings hit the ice like skaters possessed. A goal inside of 5 minutes to Nick Lidstrom, with Zetterberg and Datsyuk on assists; our main line sparking. The Wild barely had a shot on goal for the entire first period. The Wings lost, 2-1 in Over Time. We were totally robbed by the refs on the final goal, but still …
The lesson: No matter which side of the world you are on, in any sport, the Sporting Gods will fuck with you, given half a chance. “Hey! It’s that Richmond loser in a Lidstrom jersey!” they must say to one another, sniggering.
Happily, I am in a much better headspace than 2007. I have genuinely shaken my head with nothing more than bemusement at Detroit hitting such a trough at the exact moment we are in town and have paid hundreds of dollars to be in excellent seats at the Joe.
It actually occurred to me after the Wild fiasco that I must be in a good place. I have genuinely loved every game – just being at NHL games, with all the excitement, hoopla and energy. The sheer breathtaking level of skating and shooting and skill of NHL players. Seeing my heroes, “Hank” “Zee” Zetterberg, Dats, Lids, Mule, Helm, Abby, Jimmy Howard in the flesh. Gazing at the retired numbers and all the pennants hanging from the roof of the ageing Joe arena. Being surrounded by genuine Wings fans and being accepted, unquestioningly into the fold.
Between games, we have wandered the eery streets of Detroit and fallen in love with this art deco, decaying city. We have examined every inch of the Hockeytown Cafe – sort of a Red Wings version of the Hard Rock Cafe – and grinned at old time Wing names like Honey Walker, Ebbie Goodfellow, Art Giloux and Wilf Starr (all 35-36 Cup-winning team), Gunzo Humeniuk and Red Kelly (49-50 Cup team, with Gordie Howe) and Lefty Wilson and Enio Scisizzi (51-52 Cup). I’ve loved building my knowledge of Wings lore and general hockey history.
The NHL home and away season is 82 games, so the Wings don’t have to panic yet, although this form slump is worrying. They have barely scored since we arrived in America – five goals in five games, which is ridiculous.
Maybe tonight will be when the drought breaks? At our final game, when we’re sitting on the glass. Row 1, Seat 1. And the Red Wings are giving us a personal tour of the Joe before the game. and it is Bobblehead Thursday, so we get to add three Henrik Zetterberg bobbleheads to our already groaning baggage.
Or maybe the Wings will lose again, to the struggling Calgary Flames and I’ll head home to Australia on Saturday, possibly never to see the team play live ever again, having not seen a win, having not sung “Don’t Stop Believin'” to celebrate victory because we’re enough goals clear with a minute to go.
I don’t really care either way. I have a lifetime of Tiger training on absorbing match day disappointment to fall back on.
I’m just happy to be here. Getting momentarily annoyed by opposition goals, dud ref calls or whooping at Wings brilliance. Letting my passion soar.
Watch for the three of us, behind the glass in Section 120, screaming our lungs out, whichever way tonight goes.
LATER THAT NIGHT UPDATE: Wings played like crap and got beaten 4-1, the last goal being an empty netter after they’d pulled Jimmy Howard. Laugh it up, Sporting Gods. Like I said, I can take it. On a brighter note, we stood on the ice at the Joe Louis Arena, during our tour. The ice maintenance guy wasn’t thrilled but we did it. Stood on that famous ice. Now we’re leaving the country, Detroit can get back to winning …
* As I was typing this, auto-correct on my iPad changed Press Box to Pessimism Box, which is so perfect I never could have come up with it.
Below: happier days at the Joe. The celebrations after a Cup victory.