Sunday, May 16, 2010

What the Joe Means to Me...

A couple of months ago, I had to write an essay about a location that I considered "sacred" for a geography class. In this context, sacred doesn't necessarily mean religious (although in many cases it can). It refers to a place that has great value and meaning attached to it by an individual or group. Naturally, I chose to write about the Joe. It might be a little wordy and boring, but it was written for a class and I didn't feel like cutting or editing it just to post it here. It's not particularly interesting, but I felt like a slacker after going a whole week without posting anything. I also needed an excuse to point out the new banner that Sara made for me. I've been wanting a new banner for a while, and even have one drawn out in my head, but I haven't had time to make it yet. I think I'll stick with this one for a while.

I have many places in my life that I consider to be sacred. These places include my home, places on campus, National Parks that instilled me with a sense of peace, places that bring back fond memories, and even amusement parks. However, the place that I have always revered more than anywhere else is Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. The home of my beloved Detroit Red Wings, it has always had an aura of magic surrounding it in my mind. Dating back to my childhood, “The Joe,” as Red Wings fans call it, has been a place that I have dreamed about and idolized.

Joe Louis Arena was completed in 1979 and is owned by the City of Detroit. It is most likely in its final years as home to the Red Wings, and its fate is a controversial topic among local residents. The Arena is currently one of the oldest buildings still serving as homes to NHL teams. It has long been outdated, and it is clear to visitors that it lacks the amenities of more modern sports arenas. The food services often cannot handle the amount of customers that flock to them during intermissions, and it is a common occurrence for ticket-holders to miss the beginnings of the second or third periods because the bathroom lines that spring up during intermission are too long. Those who are able to afford luxury suites find themselves situated in the rafters with views that make the action on the ice seem like it is a mile away. The Arena is located on Detroit’s riverfront, but was positioned in such a manner that it is extremely difficult to access by vehicle. Visiting the box office is often a navigational adventure. It is wedged in between the Detroit River, Cobo Hall Convention Center (home of our Auto Show), and a freeway. As such, there are no local eateries or bars to cater to pre- and post-game crowds. Finally, the Arena’s iconic entrances feature long, steep flights of narrow stairs that are difficult to climb for even the most sure-footed fans. Combined with the ice and snow that frequently accompany hockey season in Michigan, those stairs are quite a safety hazard.

With all of these flaws and shortcomings, people often wonder why I have such a strong attachment to The Joe. There are few things that I have loved more than the Red Wings in my life, and The Joe has always been a symbol of the team in my mind. When I was growing up, my family could not afford to attend many hockey games. Because they were so few and far between, each visit to The Joe seemed like an adventure. I would look forward to going for weeks in advance. My excitement would build as we drove down to the Riverfront. By the time we reached the top of the spiral ramp to park on the roof of Cobo Hall, I would be ecstatic. The steep stairs at the entrances to the Arena were not a problem for me as I would run to the top and eagerly wait for my family to catch up to me.

Walking through the doors into The Joe feels like stepping into a wonderland. The concourse is always packed with thousands of people wearing red and white jerseys. Cases of memorabilia and photos from the team’s history line the walls and pillars in the concourse. The most magical moment, though, was stepping through the curtains into the heart of the arena. To this day, the first glimpse of the ice surface leaves me in awe. It always seemed so small and far away when I watched games on television, but seeing it in person made it seem larger than life. Gazing up at the rafters is equally impressive; they are draped with dozens of red and white banners commemorating Division, Conference, and Stanley Cup Championships, and retired numbers like Steve Yzerman’s 19 and Gordie Howe’s 9 over the years. No trip to The Joe would be complete without a visit to ice level to watch the team warm up. Watching the game played from that vantage point really gives the viewer a good perspective on the speed of the game. I love to stand against the glass directly behind the goal while the team circles and fires pucks at the net. Seeing the pucks whiz by and smack the glass right in front of my face makes it impossible not to appreciate the skill and strength of the players and goalies.

One of my favorite aspects of visiting The Joe is being able to see plays develop on the whole ice surface. Hockey is a sport that does not always translate well to television. The game is played at such a fast pace that camera operators sometimes have a difficult time keeping up with the players or the puck. Watching the game live at the arena eliminates all of those problems. You are also treated to the unique sounds of a hockey game. The smack of the puck hitting the goalies’ pads, the rattle of the boards after a hard check, and the crisp sound of a tape-to-tape pass all have a sense of beauty to a die hard hockey fan like myself. Being able to experience these things in person is one of my favorite aspects of visiting The Joe. I do not believe that one can truly capture the essence of hockey on television, and the only way to really connect with the game is to experience it live.

The Joe also holds numerous fond memories for me. I can close my eyes and remember sitting in the lower bowl the night that Steve Yzerman, my favorite player of all time, scored his six-hundredth career goal. The entire arena stood and clapped for what seemed like ten minutes when his milestone was announced. A few months ago, I had the opportunity to meet Yzerman in one of the suites at the Arena, and I can remember that moment like it was yesterday. In recent years, I have been able to attend more games with both friends and family. I also got the opportunity to tour the Red Wings’ locker room with my little sister during a summer event recently. We went to a game together this season as well, and I enjoyed sharing the sport that I love so much with her at The Joe.

The Arena also has an atmosphere that is unmatched. I love the camaraderie that exists between total strangers during games. I attended a playoff game last season, and I have never heard a building as loud and enthusiastic as The Joe was that night. The game went to overtime, and the Wings eventually won on an odd-man rush. The fans rose to their feet like a wave as the players sped down the ice toward the opposing goal. It was as if the people in the seats could sense what was about to happen. When the puck finally entered the net, the arena was filled with absolute jubilation. We were jumping up and down, high-fiving everyone in sight, posing for pictures with strangers, and screaming at the top of our lungs. It seemed like everything was right in the world in those moments after the game. I had another similar experience the year before, when I went to The Joe to watch a game in the Stanley Cup Finals. It was a road game, but they sold tickets for a charity fundraiser to watch the game on the scoreboard in the arena. At the end of the game, when the Wings had finally won, confetti fell from the rafters as it would have if the team had been there on the ice. The building was less than half full, but the crowd that was there that night more than made up for it. After we left The Joe, my friend and I found ourselves running through downtown Detroit in the rain, wearing our brand new Stanley Cup Champions t-shirts, and high-fiving strangers, with confetti still falling out of our hair. I will never forget that night as long as I live.

I have never been to another place that has inspired such a range of emotions and fond memories. For as long as I can remember, Joe Louis Arena has been a place that I have held sacred. From the time that I was a child, I would dream about getting to go see a Red Wings game in person. Over time, those rare visits with my parents have given way to more frequent trips with my friends. For all of its flaws and shortcomings, I truly love Joe Louis Arena, and I am enjoying getting to experience its atmosphere more regularly during the twilight of its time as home of the Detroit Red Wings.


  1. I just got goosebumps....

  2. gotta say, i'm not a Wings fan, but always looked forward to a trip to the Joe when the Flyers game to town. I've been to the Joe, Nationwide, United Center and Wachovia for Flyers games, and the best place, bar none, is the Joe. It will be missed.

  3. I am 61 years old and my annual birthday request from the time I was in grade school every year until I left for college was for my dad to take me to Red Wings game. So MY fond recollections of this same sort go also to an even more dilapidated arena -- the old Olympia. It reeked of cigar smoke and sweat and even worse things (esp since the restroom facilities were practically medieval by comparison to the Joe) but virtually every person there was a died in the wool fan who ate, breathed and lived hockey and the atmosphere that they created was simply electric. So speaking from experience, I can assure you that even if they raze the old Joe, every time you see that winged Wheel sweater on the ice anywhere, you will find vivid memories of all those moments you wrote so eloquently about flooding your mind and filling your heart.

    I can't find anywhere in Scripture that says there will be hockey there -- but I gotta believe there will be. And I gotta believe it will be played in one of those old barns.

  4. Awesome article. I've never been to a live hockey game, but this article was so well written it communicated feeling/memories... Thanks for sharing.