Farewell to the Joe – My Memories
January 20th, 2002 – This day in Red Wings History. I’m almost certain the headline of the Flint Journal, my hometown newspaper, the next morning read, “Future NHL correspondent attends first NHL game.” I know it didn’t. Almost every headline in the NHL the next morning was about Steve Yzerman. The night of January 20th, he’d scored his 1000th career assist, just the ninth player in NHL history to do so. It happened in overtime, on a goal review that seemed to last till dawn, with 20,058 fans refusing to leave until they’d heard Bud Lynch announce whether Yzerman would get the assist or not.
If you don’t count sitting an hour in the parking garage trying to get back onto the Lodge and the drive home to Flint, that’s how the night ended. Yet, I remember almost every detail about that night. It was my first NHL game. It was my first time at Joe Louis Arena. It was the first time I learned Darren McCarty was the coolest guy in the NHL.
I’d been to professional hockey games before. The first time I ever remember wearing skates was after a Flint Generals game. Before January 20th, 2002, IHL games were all I’d ever seen live. For Christmas, my dad’s best friend, Harry, had given us three tickets to a Red Wings Game. Ottawa Senators vs Detroit Red Wings. Hardly a rivalry game, but it was an NHL game wasn’t it. We arrived early, I’m pretty sure even before the doors opened. My dad wore an Igor Larionov jersey, my brother had on an Yzerman jersey. I’m 99% sure I was wearing a New York Rangers jersey (don’t judge, I was 13 and it was the black one they wore in the 90s, with Rangers diagonally across the chest outlined in red). We sat in the 4th or 5th row from the glass in the corner, just behind Domink Hasek.
My dad bought me a Red Wings hat (I still have it, it’s in my closet on display) and we went to our seats for warmups. It was awesome. Brett Hull sent a puck off the crossbar that went almost to the rafters. It seems like ages before it came down to the ice. After warmups, Kris Draper and McCarty collected all the pucks into a bucket and went around the ice tossing pucks over the glass. I wanted one bad but didn’t get one. When McCarty attempted to throw one to a 8-9 year old kid in a McCarty jersey, some jerk dove over and grabbed the puck, knocking the kid down the stairs. McCarty had the guy kicked out, after he chewed him out for a minute, and brought the kid over a signed puck. We all thought McCarty was going over the glass after the guy. He didn’t, but that was probably the last time that guy ever went near a kid in a McCarty jersey.
Early in the game Zdeno Chara checked McCarty into the boards in front of us so hard it left a red mark from his jersey that stayed there the remainder of the game. Martin Havlat scored two goals, each one answered by Pavel Datsyuk then Luc Robitaille. Then, 59 seconds into overtime, Mathieu Dandenault jammed in a puck. It was on the other end of the ice. We never saw it because we were leaving to beat the traffic. We stopped at the top of the section…and we watched and waited. Along with the other 20,058. We stood there. Forever. Then came the voice of Lynch, “Mathieu Dandenault with his sixth of the season, assisted by Igor Larionov and, with his 1000th…” I didn’t hear the rest. No one in attendance did. It was the kind of cheer I’ve only since heard at the Joe when Vladimir Konstantinov comes onto the ice. I’m certain someone standing outside in Ottawa heard that cheer. I mean, this was back in the days when they didn’t close the doors to the outside and there was no mesh above the end glass. A deflected slap shot had a chance of ending up in the river.
That night the Joe was crowded, dark and smelled like stale beer and the smokers lounge at a VFW hall. I wouldn’t be back to the Joe until 2007; it still smelled like stale beer and smoke. Thanks to In Play, I’ve been to more games than I can count at Joe Louis Arena. I’ve learned it smells like smoke and stale beer in August, when nothing’s happened there for weeks. There’s no place like the Joe. At the United Center, they have to have their mascot bang a drum in the crowd when too long goes between whistles so the crowd doesn’t fade out. At the Joe, I’ve heard the lower bowl sing Bon Jovi through 30 seconds of play while the upper bowl gets the wave going. I’ve talked to Bud Lynch for 30 minutes about World War II and the original six era of the NHL in the alumni room. The attitude of the Joe is 2nd to none.
I’ll get one last trip to the Joe. I’ll get one more time in that gravel and mud media parking lot. One more time walking the hall past 11 teams worth of Stanley Cup champions names on the wall. One more time I’ll walk past the old Olympia sign to the Red Wings dressing room to interview players. One more time to the stale beer and smoke warehouse on the river. I’ll see some old media friends, I’ll probably make a couple new ones. Because that’s just how the Joe is. The guy next to you is your friend by the end of the night. You’ve talked 30 years of hockey, named the next 12 hall of famers and if everything went right, you sang, “born and raised in south Detroit.”
Check out AJ’s exclusive three part interview with Bud Lynch here.