DETROIT — It was six hours before the puck would drop for the last Detroit Red Wings game at Joe Louis Arena when two season-ticket holders climbed the stairs toward the Gordie Howe entrance for a few last pictures of the old barn.
One was little distraught. She loved the old-school feel of The Joe. She especially liked the view from her seat. She wasn’t sure if the new rink would have the same sight lines.
That all made her nervous.
“I don’t like change,” she said.
She also loved the sounds.
When a Joe Louis Arena crowd cheered, it was like a slow roar, not a tinny cheer you hear in some of the new arenas. Certainly not one generated by a scoreboard with artificial demands for cheering. A Joe Louis Arena cheer is a true, guttural roar, like a prize fight from the 1930s.
It was heard best in this final game when Red Wings forward Riley Sheahan scored the game’s first goal. The roar was loud, the place went crazy. But then, moments later, when the crowd realized what just happened — beyond the first goal in the final game, it was Sheahan’s first goal of the season. A goal drought that had been entering its 80th game was snapped.
The natural roar only this building creates came back for an encore. Sheahan’s mom cried. It was an amazing moment, and because this is how it works in hockey, Sheahan also scored the final goal at Joe Louis Arena in a 4-1 win over the New Jersey Devils.
“It was kind of all a blur,” Sheahan said afterward.
After that, the party was on. And that’s exactly what this felt like: one big, long party. There was a party in the stands, and there was a party underneath in the hallways that wrap around ice level. Everywhere you looked, former Red Wings were taking it in, celebrating and having a great time, mixing right in with the fans doing the same.
Red Wings alumni Dino Ciccarelli, Joey Kocur, Larry Murphy, Darren McCarty and Tomas Holmstrom surprised the crowd at one point in the second period, skating out to shovel snow off the ice. The crowd went crazy. When they were done, Ciccarelli went right back to the party.
“We’re done, we’re done,” he said, hopping off the ice and heading right for a changing room. “Where are the beers?”
Down the hall, actor Dave Coulier of “Full House” fame, who is from nearby St. Clair Shores, was chatting with former Red Wings when he pointed to a Stanley Cup roster painted on the wall.
“I was at that game,” Coulier said, referencing the 1997 Cup clincher at Joe Louis Arena.
He was sitting in a suite next to Gordie Howe when the Red Wings clinched the Stanley Cup. The celebration was just about to begin below when Howe turned to Coulier.
“David, would you like to go down there?” Coulier remembered Howe saying.
Coulier paused a beat.
“Of course I would,” he said.
These walls are full of those stories. You can point at something on the wall and a memory comes rushing back. That’s what’s lost in losing a building like this — one portion of a building bringing back a flood of memories. Maybe it was that first Stanley Cup at Joe Louis Arena, in 1997, for some fans. Maybe it was the fight night that took place 20 years ago when McCarty got revenge for his close friend Kris Draper’s being severely injured by jumping the Colorado Avalanche’s Claude Lemieux.
But a building is just a building. It’s bricks, or, in this case, lots of cinder blocks. That’s it. It’s nothing without those moments, those memories. And as Red Wings longtime head equipment manager Paul Boyer reminded me, those memories are nothing without the people.
The game was over, and Boyer was doing what he always does after games: hustling to make sure everything was in the right place. He was stopped and asked if he’d grab something from Joe Louis Arena as a souvenir. Nobody spends more time in this building than Paul Boyer.
“I don’t want a thing,” he answered emphatically. “You can write that.”
Why? Well, part of it is because anything taken — a stool, a swath of carpet — he has to replace. And if you’re moving equipment all day long as your job, do you really want to display some of it at home as a reminder of work?
“The mailman does not take a walk on his day off,” Boyer said.
Nope, Boyer is completely content with the memories and nothing else.
“I’d rather have that,” he said. “Memories of my friends.”
This night was a celebration of a building, but, really, it was more about celebrating those memories with those closest.
For Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard, the best part about the day was sharing the last drive in to Joe Louis Arena with his dad. Sheahan and his family got to celebrate a broken streak together. Old teammates reunited by the dozens.
Maureen McCrimmon brought the ashes of her late husband, Brad, a Red Wings defenseman and assistant coach. He would have loved this.
This entire season, players have been asked to name their favorite Joe Louis Arena memory. It took until the last game to realize there was a much better question to be asked: Whom did you share your favorite Joe Louis Arena memory with?
That’s what this place was about. Not necessarily the moments, but, instead, the people. The people you shared it all with. And that, that’s not going away.