Joe Louis Arena – A First Visit

by Jonathan Hamilton

Joe Louis Arena, home of the Detroit Red Wings, hosted its final NHL game last month. This place ended its run as a notoriously smelly, grimy dump. And for a germaphobe like me, this is almost always a deal-breaker.

I worked a couple of Great Lakes Invitational hockey tournaments in this building, and I can tell you, the smells of the stairwells were indescribably hideous. If you had the lungular fortitude to hold your breath when navigating the back stairwells while wearing a suit and lugging a laptop bag, you were better off for it. It was bad.

Even so, the Joe was rich with hockey history and beloved by hardcore hockey fans.

My first visit to the Joe was a special one. It was not just my first Joe visit, but my first Red Wings – and professional hockey – game. It came, a bit unexpectedly, on New Year’s Eve 2002. I was 19 years old and a college sophomore. Typically, I would have been home in Alaska for Christmas break, but this year I was going to stand in a friend’s wedding in West Virginia and took some extra time to visit another friend in downstate Michigan along the way.

We had the hair-brained last-minute idea of driving down to Detroit and trying to get in the Red Wings New Year’s Eve game. We didn’t have tickets. Being of the careless sort, we figured it wouldn’t be too dangerous to just walk around back alleys at the Joe (in downtown Detroit, mind you) looking for ticket “re-sellers.” One awesome dude saw what we were doing and gave us an extra ticket he had. One down, one to go. Another guy had a ticket to sell, and we overpaid for it (in a dark alley), just happy to be getting in (alive).

I’ll never forget walking into the Joe for the first time. For those who haven’t been, the arena concourse had heavy black curtains that prevented you from seeing the ice until you went into the arena itself. You have to pull them back in order to get into the actual seating and spectator area. I didn’t know any of this beforehand. But when we entered the concourse the mysterious black curtains drew us like a magnet, our curiosity and realization colliding.

I drew back the curtains, and I’ll never forget what I saw.

It seemed like we were twelve feet from the Detroit Red Wings. It was pre-game warmup and the most skilled team of the era was getting loose just a few rows down from where we stood wearing their crisp white home uniforms with the famed winged wheel. It was awesome.

What we hoped would be the case came true – being New Year’s Eve, many season ticket holders didn’t come to the game. We sat high up in our nosebleed seats for the first period, but once we figured out which lower bowl seats weren’t going to be inhabited that night, we moved down behind the penalty boxes and watched the Red Wings beat the St. Louis Blues 5-1 in a game that featured speed, scoring, and fighting.

Keith Tkachuk scored the first live NHL goal I ever saw; the Red Wings scored the next five. The game featured 130 penalty minutes and 12 power plays. Darren McCarty fought Bryce Salvador. Curtis Joseph saved 29 of 30 shots. And the lineups from that night are a who’s who of hockey royalty:

For St. Louis, Pavol Demitra, Dallas Drake, Al MacInnis, Scott Mellanby, Keith Tkachuk, and Doug Weight. Joel Quenneville was behind the bench.

For Detroit, Chris Chelios, Kris Draper, Sergei Fedorov, Tomas Holmstrom, Brett Hull, Igor Larionov, Nicklas Lidstrom, Kirk Maltby, Darren McCarty, Luc Robitaille, Brendan Shanahan, and Henrik Zetterberg (he’s still playing!).

The Joe ended its run as a decrepit old building. But the old usually offers much more than the new, and what it gave me on New Year’s Eve fifteen years ago is what I’ll remember it by.