Remembering Detroit

Us at the Joe Louis Arena.

Yesterday’s ‘Enrolmentgate’ (which led to a very entertaining 400 comments between the hockey rookies on Facebook) has been followed by the publication of a piece I wrote for the Detroit News (Now off line: SEE BELOW), explaining that my boys and I were personally responsible for the Red Wings’ now franchise-best ever home winning streak.

Believe it or not, the team has not lost a single game at the Joe Louis Arena since we left Detroit – and oh man, that was so long ago.

The response to the piece, reprinted at the end of this post, has been fantastic – and it hasn’t even been printed yet; this is just the online version. An out-pouring of enthusiasm and sympathy and humour from Detroit people and Wings fans, celebrating our trip and laughing at the story.

It took me right back to the warmth of the locals when we were in Detroit itself, in late October and early November last year. Starting with the taxi driver who picked us up from what is now Detroit’s main station (basically the equivalent of any old suburban station – because Detroit’s once-magnificent Grand Central Station is rotting away (the first picture of this still astonishing photo essay by two French photograhers), like so many other landmark buildings in that city. The driver laughed a wheezing laugh at these Australian hockey fans all wide-eyed as we drove past Comerica Park, home of the Detroit Tigers, and the Hockeytown Cafe, which is more or less the equivalent of a Hard Rock cafe exclusively for Wings fans. He started pointing out the landmarks, dropped us at the best door of the MotorCity Casino for all our copious amounts of luggage (Will and I had loaded up on hockey gear in Chicago, so we were groaning under the weight of everything) and arranged to pick us up at a crazy-early time in a few days, to get us safely to the airport – which is miles away, and which he did.

This was the kind of friendly, helpful, genuine engagement that shone through the entire stay. Sure, other cities were just as friendly; just as welcoming, but Detroit has an honesty and a no bullshit air that really adds something I loved.

Other taxi drivers yarned about the Wings’ lack of good fortune and scoring ability right then, and grilled us for our story. One drove us way out to 16 Mile (yes, 8 Mile x 2) to check out another hockey store, and waited, having an early lunch, so he could drive us back, rather than leave us marooned way way way out there.

Always, there was the common theme: “Why are you in Detroit?”

Everybody told us the city wasn’t as dangerous as it’s made out to be; just don’t stand on a downtown corner counting your money, or flashing expensive technology. So, be a smart tourist, like you would be in any other city, in other words. And mostly they were right. There were a few moments where we were approached by vagrants or found ourselves on worryingly deserted downtown side streets, but nothing more nervous than I’ve encountered in other cities, including Melbourne.

Comerica Park tigers lurk

I loved Comerica Park, as a Richmond Tigers fan – my Tigers should SO copy the massive tigers that hulk over the grandstands, scoreboard and entrance of that stadium. Your heart beats fast just looking at them.

And Will and I wandered past the Fox Theatre and into the Hockeytown Cafe. Again, there was no need for us to be remarkable, or given any special treatment, as we sat and ate the world’s biggest plate of nachos, but people were watching. Tourists in town. And saw the way we were gazing in wonder at old sepia photos of Stanley Cup-winning Wings teams; players with names like Honey Walker, Ebbie Goodfellow, Art Giloux, Wilf Starr, Gunzo Humeniuk (the name behind Gunzo hockey stores in Chicago), Lefty Wilson and Enio Sclisizzi.

Our waitress, smiling, said to follow her and took us upstairs to a private room decorated in the really great Wings stuff, where functions are held after Stanley Cup wins and the like. She left us there to enjoy it and we did. Photos of Wings teams with the Cup, players with no teeth, grinning like idiots with the silverware, and a magnificent photo of hats and streamers and objects raining onto the ice of the Joe Louis Arena, post victory. The carpet was inset with the famous winged wheel. We grinned like idiots as well, albeit with more teeth.

The Hockeytown Cafe’s awesome photo.

And so it went. Phil Pierce, an executive with the actual Red Wings organisation, took time out of his crazy-busy schedule on a game day to show us around the Joe, give us souvenirs, to let us watch the warm-ups from the Zamboni race, to explain that the practice nets for the warm-ups are the actual goals from Stanley Cup victories. I gently touched the goals that were on the ice when the Wings won in 2008, the year I fell for the team in a big way.

I haven’t even got to the reaction of those around us in the stands, who were so inclusive and generous. So much enthusiasm and support for these random Australian hockey fans, a long way from home.

Why am I writing this now, instead of last November when I got home? Probably just because the Detroit News piece has brought it all back, and it’s 100 degrees F outside my office most days this week, and close to freezing in Detroit (in fact, snow is falling, according to an email I received today from Jonathon, a guy we bonded with at our final game at the Joe, who keeps in touch).

I was full of the whole trip back then, of all our destinations and adventures – and man, Will, Mack and I had adventures. But now, months later, Detroit has stayed with me and I feel the pull of that city and its people as strongly as ever.

I’m very glad I wrote that feature and that the Detroit News ran it. It’s been nice to wave hello and to celebrate this incredible Wings run with the people of Motown. Long may that city shine and even rise again.



Wednesday, January 18

(Tuesday, Detroit time)

Just call me Mr Streak …

By Nick Place

Melbourne, Australia

Red Wings fans marvelling at the astonishing, historic home winning streak currently being enjoyed by their team are probably wondering who to thank. Jimmy? Lids? Pav? Babcock?

Well, no. Actually, you have to thank me.

You’re welcome. But I should probably explain.

As the Wings set the home streak record today against the Sabres, I was unable to ignore the fact that every one of those wins has come since my two sons and I left Detroit.

Seriously. Since the day that we left Detroit.

But it’s worse than that. You see, I live in Melbourne, Australia. Almost exactly half a world away; about as close to Antarctica as Detroit is to the Arctic. Right now, we’re enduring 100 degree-plus days in the height of summer, as Detroit shivers through winter. In other words, I am a long way from Motor City.

Which is great for Detroit because when my sons and I travelled to Hockeytown to achieve a life-list ambition of watching our beloved Red Wings in action, the team went straight to Hell.

Don’t believe me? Get this. Our first ever Wings game was on Saturday, October 22, in Washington against the Caps. We’d been in America for a month, on a trip of a lifetime that was carefully orchestrated to ensure we hit Washington at the same time as that game.

Reading this in America’s hockey homeland, you probably can’t imagine what it’s like being a Wings fan half a world away. For the small but passionate hockey community here in Australia, seeing an actual NHL game live is a distant dream, so picture our excitement as we made our way into the Verizon Centre, surprised by how many other Wings fans were also in the capital. I’d paid a fortune for decent seats, wanting to make our Wings debut memorable. The Wings were 6-0 coming into the game and the Capitals were 7-0. We were there to salute Nick Lidstrom’s milestone 1500th regular season game. Everything was perfect.

Until the Capitals beat us, 7-1.

Hey ho. We travelled to Detroit for an even bigger life-highlight: our first visit to the Joe Louis Arena, as the Sharks skated onto the ice on October 28. I met Gordie Howe, which had me floating, and we drank in being among the Wings family of fans, at the historic Joe, having walked the decaying but magnificent beauty of Detroit downtown.

And lost, 4-2.

Then read about the Wings failing to even score in losing 1-0 to the Wild away, and then we were back at the Joe for that OT daylight robbery against the Wild on October 29.

We had one more game to see before we had to fly back around the globe to the real world. The Flames at the Joe. By now the media was obsessed by the Red Wings’ complete inability to score more than one goal per game. Zee, Pav, everybody in attack was not so much off the boil as frozen. Jimmy was being heroic but didn’t have enough goals stacking at the other end to ward off the losses.

I was resplendent in my new Lidstrom jersey, Will was now in Bert’s #44 and Macklin, my 16-year-old, had celebrated Nyquist’s Wings debut by having his jersey made up – surely the only Nyquist-flavoured winged wheel going around in the Southern Hemisphere.

The Red Wings organization generously acknowledged our trek by giving us a tour of the Joe, watching the warm-ups from the zamboni race, and we sat right on the glass for the Calgary game.

And lost 4-1; the worst Wings performance of our trip.

The good news for all of you is that we finally had to leave. We flew to LA for a connecting flight, just as the Ducks passed us in the air, and got belted at the Joe, 5-0, the day after we’d left town.

Which, of course, was the start of The Streak, including an avalanche of goals, outscoring opponents 68-21 at the Joe, including today’s game, since being pathologically unable to hit the back of the net the entire time we were in residence. Commentators now get all nostalgic about the October days when the Wings couldn’t score. I laugh bitterly.

But you know what? The good news is that despite the remorseless scoreboards, my boys and I had the time of our lives in Detroit and at the Joe. The welcome of the Wings fans, who universally embraced three Australian wannabe hockey players from Down Under (yes, we play – that’s another story) plus the warmth of the Wings staff, and the wider people of Detroit was unforgettable. Hockeytown rocks.

All the losses? They just mean I still have to see a Wings win at the Joe, which means I’m going to have to find my way to Midwest winter at least one more time.

I promise it won’t be during the 2012 play-offs. I want us to win the Cup as well.

Nick Place is an Australian author, former sports writer, mid-40s hockey rookie and passionate Wings fan. (