Thursday, February 08, 2007

Hockeytown

In Detroit, hockey fans can carry on a conversation using only one word. I found out firsthand on Wednesday night, when the following conversation took place between a shuttle driver and a fan waiting outside Joe Louis Arena:
Fan: Hockeytown?

Driver: Hockeytown, Hockeytown!

Fan: Hockeytown. (To other fans waiting in line behind him) Hockeytown!

The other fans, in response: Hockeytown!

I'll act as translator: Hockeytown is the name of the Detroit sports-themed restaurant across the street from Comerica Park where many arena-goers park and congregate, then take the shuttle to Joe Louis. The fan was asking the driver where the shuttle was headed.

They probably don't have these kinds of conversations in other cities. Not even Toronto or Montreal. Because, in Detroit, as my friend Justin and I found out, Hockeytown isn't just the name of a restaurant or a catchy, self-made moniker. It's an experience, and a fast-fading one at that.

Detroit isn't Baseballtown, even though the Tigers have a history dating to 1901. It isn't Basketballtown, even though the Pistons have handed Detroiters three titles in the past 20 years. It isn't Wolverinetown, even though the sight of a man wearing a Michigan jacket on the Joe Louis scoreboard brought loud cheers from the crowd and -- curiously, to my outsider eyes -- the image of a man in a Michigan State hat brought more than a smattering of boos.

Detroit is Hockeytown. The Red Wings are life. Everything else is a diversion. How do I know? Because when a Detroit fan go to a Lions or Tigers game, they might be just as at home pounding a Dortmunder at the bar or perusing the team shop as they would be in the stands. That's not to say they aren't serious baseball and football fans, but Detroiters, like most fan bases, aren't going to turn their noses up at creature comforts.

When a Detroit fan goes to a Red Wings game, they go to watch hockey. The brats and brews are just sustenance to keep you going so you can watch more hockey. The Red Wings gear, sold at portable stands throughout the concourse, is just a means of keeping warm so you can watch more hockey.

That's another thing. At least 50 percent of the fans at Wednesday's game wore a Red Wings jersey. Sure, there were other fans wearing jackets, sweatshirts and the like, but the clothing of preference was a game sweater bearing the team's winged-wheel logo. Names and numbers, home or road was less important. What was more important was that you were part of the sea of red and white.

Like I said, it's all about the hockey.

Joe Louis Arena is the oldest of the Detroit area's four in-use professional sports facilities, built in 1979. But to look at it, you could easily think it was built in 1949. The arena has no frills, no team shop, no food courts, nothing that resembles a bar. Aside from a few alcoves where they sell of the more-expensive merchandise, just about everything in the concourse during a game is constructed out of portable stands.

The seating bowl is small and is surrounded by one concourse that services both the upper and lower decks. Wikipedia lists the capacity at 20,066 for hockey, but with a low roof and steep incline, it seems almost like a college arena. So much the better during playoff time, when "The Joe," as they call it, has to be deafening.

Joe Louis was built at a time when the Montreal Forum and Boston Garden were still the standard-bearers for NHL arenas. In some respects, it was a facility behind its time, built to the specifications of a fast-passing era. Now, with facilities like Columbus' gem, Nationwide Arena, setting the pace, the pressure is on to give the Red Wings a more modern home with a better sound system, stacks of luxury boxes and all the amenities pro sports teams can now use to get into the wallets of their fans.

Sooner or later, The Joe will pass into history. And with it, one of the few remaining portals to a bygone era of hockey will pass as well. In a very real way, Joe Louis Arena and the entire Hockeytown experience is the old-guard NHL of Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr clinging to the side of the cliff. Progress will eventually win out, but for now, fans of the way hockey used to be have one last chance to see what it must have been like to attend a game at Boston Garden or Chicago Stadium back in the days of the Original Six.

If you want to imagine hockey with no helmets and leather pads, with 20,000 people making a bandbox of a building shake, Joe Louis Arena provides the perfect backdrop for a daydream about yesteryear. In a time of exploding scoreboards and 360-degree LED displays curling around deck facades, Hockeytown is different. Even if you don't like the Red Wings, it's an experience worth rooting for.

3 comments:

Andy said...

I am glad that you had a great experience in the D. Although you encountered many die-hard hockey fans, Detroit is a football and baseball town just like Cleveland (hockey has just been more consistent).

It is really the same city sports-wise. Detroit has a sold out stadium for a football team that sucks terribly. The Tigers have been a sleeping giant in baseball much like the Indians before the mid-1990s. The only difference is that the Red Wings have actually put together some great teams and won a few titles. I always wanted Cleveland to get an NHL team growing up, but they never did. The Pistons are way out in the suburbs (and too far away for me to travel) and they are still much like that "third team" feeling you get from the Cavs.

One difference I feel that southeast Michigan and northeast Ohio has on the hockey front is there is more youth hockey programs up here. So those marketing geniuses for the Red Wings may have gotten it right by naming it Hockeytown. Plus, the programs at UM and MSU are top notch hockey programs. You should catch the CCHA championship tournament at the Joe as well. The Buckeyes won it a few years ago.

The Hockeytown Cafe is a great place to catch dinner before the Tigers game (the fries are awesome, and I can't lay off). I will meet you there some time if you are in town.

MP said...

I would argue that the standard-bearer for the new NHL and NBA arena was the United Center in Chicago. Not that the hockey fans come anymore. Few still believe in the Blackhawks after being let down so many years. Yet many follow the Cubs...

Anyway, the Joe is a hockey arena. A REAL hockey arena. You certainly do come there to watch the team, and they rarely let the fans down. Do the Wings deserve a new arena? Of course. Is there much hope of keeping it in the city of Detroit? I'm not sure. Where? Illitch may decide that it would be more marketable to move them to the suburbs, and the strange thing is, he may be right.

Donktastic said...

I'm glad you had a good experience at the Joe. I think the arena sucks and the entertainment value outside of the game is even worse. If you want a total fan experience, I suggest going to a Pistons game at the Palace of Auburn Hills. Not only is the product on the court awesome, the entertainment between whistles is excellent. For what the Redwings charge for tickets, they need to provide fans with a much better experience. They just can't get away with putting a great team on the ice anymore and letting "one lucky winner" ride the zamboni between the 1st and 2nd period. At Pistons games they have a ton going on during commercial breaks like launching prizes and food into the stands and much more. Obviously it's a bit ridiculous to have hockey cheerleaders (or is it LOL), but maybe you have super hot chicks in tight pants scrape the ice from the sides of the net. They need to figure something out. If they're gonna charge $75 for upper bowl 1st round playoff tickets in a state/city that has the worst economy in the union, they need to give us more!