Oh man, what a day.
First, Sergio Garcia finally wins the Masters, at his 73rd attempt at winning a major. Then comes news that John Clarke, one of the greatest comedians ever produced by New Zealand/Australia and a local of my hood, passed away while hiking in the Grampians on the weekend. And all this while I was watching the last ever Detroit Red Wings game at the Joe Louis Arena.
This last one was going to be enough to unravel me on its own, even without Clarke’s unexpected passing, or feeling happy for the Spanish golfer who burst onto the scene years ago as a wunderkind who was going to dominate the sport but sadly emerged at the exact same moment Tiger Woods appeared through another door and actually did dominate the sport.
‘The Joe’ was the Red Wings’ home for the last 38 years. It was an old barn of a building; one of the least attractive in a shiny new millennium NHL world, but of course the fans adored it and, until recently, other teams dreaded the lair of the all-conquering Wings. The Joe made its debut just as the infamous Dead Wings period of the club’s history was coming to an end. Within three years of its opening, Detroit pizza magnate Mike Ilitch would buy the team, start spending money, the recruiters would get a lot right and suddenly the team went on a roll that included four Stanley Cups and a record 25 straight years in the playoffs. Until this year, when the team finally fell off a cliff and missed the post-season.
Which is why today happened: the final game at the Joe, in early April instead of a month or so later during playoffs. But you know what? It was kind of perfect. Knowing it was the final game meant the Wings could do it properly, without the uncertainty of playoff success, home and away. The date could be penciled in and man, did they do it right.
For starters, by sheer luck, it was captain Hank Zetterberg’s 1000th game and the pre-game ceremony for that had me misty eyed. He’s always been a favourite of mine since I first tuned into the team and he was an absolute star. Then Riley ‘Tinky Winky’ Sheahan, a guy who had inexplicably not scored a goal all season, at last found the net for the Red Wings’ opening goal. Of course, Zetterberg scored because he’s Zetterberg, and then Tatar goaled and finally Sheahan again (to score his own tiny piece of hockey immortality: last goal ever at the Joe). Meanwhile, the Devils played the straight-men to this Detroit lovefest, a crammed-to-the-rafters Joe in a sea of red. Meanwhile, the TV coverage was keeping an octopi count, to note how many poor deceased octopi were hurled onto the ice (it’s a Red Wing thing), and the last tally I noticed was 27.
At the very end, at the finale of a long ceremony where Red Wing greats spoke about the old building and the fans and how much they love this hockey team, the organisers showed they knew exactly how to play the heart strings of the fans one more time. The unofficial Red Wings victory anthem, Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, filled the Joe as the fade out. Born and raised in SOUTH DETROIT.
And to the exits for the final time.
Of course the franchise will move on and the fans will be more comfortable, the ice will probably be better, life will be generally more pleasant in the shiny new Ilitch family stadium, Little Caesar’s Arena, when it opens in September. When the Wings left the creaky but historic Olympia stadium for the brand new Joe in 1979, I’m sure there was just as much sadness and nostalgia.
But today, it was good bye Joe and tears in all directions.
I’ve written before about how being a sports fan is about the journey, not the silverware, because the vast majority of fans are disappointed every year in terms of premierships, cups, whatever the prize.
In my entire hockey journey, the joy for me has been in being a Red Wing fan, among all the Red Wing fans, from Hockeytown to Australia and everywhere in between. I am so so so so so so so happy today that my boys and I visited the Joe in 2011 to watch some games there. It didn’t occur to me at the time that I would never be there again. The Wings managed to lose all four games we saw, and so we didn’t get to belt out Don’t Stop Believin’ in the flesh, but it didn’t matter. We sat there, in good seats, in a sea of red jerseys with white winged wheels. We saw our heroes – Lidstrom, Zetterberg, Datsyuk, even Helm and Jimmy Howard. We saw Gus Nyquist’s first game as a Wing and Mackquist bought his jersey – without doubt the first one of those to make its way to Australia. A Wings representative showed us around the back corridors of the stadium, showered us in free merchandise and let us watch warm-up from behind the goal. It was a total and complete lifetime-memory blast.
But it wasn’t the Joe that actually stayed in my head as much as the humanity of Detroit. The people of Motorcity embraced us so warmly, unable to believe three Australians had travelled all that way just to sit in the Joe and watch the team.
I have no doubt if and when we make it to the new arena, with slightly roomier seats with better lighting, fancier corporate boxes and a bigger, sharper jumbotron TV screen, we’ll be embraced just as much.
That’s what it all comes down to in the end. It doesn’t matter where the hockey is played, no matter how much you love the arena and the history seeping out of the walls of the joint – and believe me, I really did with the Joe. But ultimately it’s the people. It’s the fans.
That’s why I wept when the Bulldogs won last year’s AFL flag. Not for the players, happy though I was for them, and sad though I was for Bob Murphy who was injured. My heart went straight out for the fans who have waited so long, who have stuck through thick and a lot of thin, who finally tasted the ultimate success. My unofficial footy coach at the Bang, Jimmy, flew back from Greece for the finals when he realised something was happening. The phone video of Jimmy and his family celebrating in the stands when they realised they had made the grand final was an all time highlight reel on its own. When they won the whole thing, he painted his house red, white and blue. The joy was so pure.
This year, my team, the Tigers, are 3-0 after three rounds, sitting in unfamiliar atmosphere at second on the ladder. Saturday’s game started in 27 degree sunshine and ended in a wild thunderstorm-battered, rain-drenched tempest. The fans stayed without blinking. We belted out the song in the wind and the rain. The players high-fived the fans on the boundary and we all started to wonder if we can dare to believe this side can do something significant this year.
We’re so lucky that we play at the MCG, the home of football, after a wrench away from the Punt Road Oval many years ago. Some older fans will have been have been there through that entire journey, through the flags of the sixties and the seventies and 1980, and then the dark wasteland years that have followed.
Whether Richmond plays at the G or in Oodnadatta, it doesn’t really matter. It’s those fans, my dedicated Tiger brothers and sisters, who count.
But having said all that, thank you, Joe Louis Arena, for the memories and for being the foundation for all the Wings adventures I have experienced so far. Thank you for honouring ‘The Brown Bomber’, one of the most legendary boxers ever, and for hosting my sons and I when we briefly, happily, took our place among the Wings faithful.
And one more time, rest in peace, John Clarke. Farnarkeling’s finest ever spokesman. You will be missed.