Published February 19, 2017
The ovation was thunderous.
The throng stood for a solid seven minutes. Thirty-three years of love was pouring forth.
The man they cheered didn’t have his name announced. He went by a number.
“From the Hartford Whalers,” the public address announcer said, “number nine!”
Number nine. It was all that needed to be said.
Gordie Howe skated onto the ice, the last player announced at the 1980 NHL All-Star Game. The game was played at the new Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, which opened for hockey just six weeks earlier. But Howe wasn’t introduced by name. He didn’t need to be.
They stood and yelled and cheered at the JLA on that February night in 1980—an ovation as loud and as long as there would ever be in the barn for the next 37 years, including for Stanley Cup-winning celebrations.
Howe, ever humble and “golly, gee whiz,” acknowledged the thunder, almost sheepishly.
He raised his stick to the crowd and skated out of the line of players for a moment, then returned to his place, thinking that the noise would die down and they could get on with playing the game.
But the noise didn’t stop.
Howe tried it again a few moments later. He returned to his place in line.
But the noise didn’t stop.
Finally, even Howe allowed himself a chuckle at what he no doubt thought was the over-the-top reaction of the hockey fans in the city to which he was attached from 1946-71 as a player.
Young Red Wings defenseman Reed Larson, an All-Star teammate of Howe’s that evening, began giggling at the legend’s reaction to the ovation. There are videos of it all over the Internet.
The new JLA was designed to hold 20,000-plus for hockey, but attendance that night is probably 10 times that by now, if you go by the number of people who say they were there the night Gordie Howe was introduced at the 1980 All-Star Game.
The All-Star love thrown at Howe that night would be the last big night at the Joe for over four years.
The next big night would come in April 1984, when the Red Wings finally played their first playoff game at JLA. The Red Wings lost in overtime. They played a playoff game the next night at the Joe. The Red Wings lost in overtime. Their season was thus ended in four games by the St. Louis Blues.
There were no playoffs for the Red Wings in the spring of 1980, JLA’s first spring as a functioning hockey barn.
There will be no playoffs for the Red Wings in the spring of 2017, in JLA’s final spring as a functioning hockey barn.
It’s amazingly ironic that the Red Wings, despite annual playoff participation from 1991-2016, will cap their run at JLA in bookend fashion.
No playoffs when they christened the arena, and no playoffs when they say goodbye.
Yet it would be highly cynical to say that this year’s Red Wings team is in the same boat as the 1980 version, despite the non-playoff common denominator.
The Red Wings of 1980 had missed the playoffs in all but one year since 1970, and would endure three more years of postseason absence before qualifying in 1984 with a gnarly record of 31-42-7.
This year’s team, while saying goodbye to a 25-year playoff streak and having its warts and its salary cap issues, is not the ragamuffin group that first stepped onto Joe Louis Arena ice on December 27, 1979.
There are several young players on the 2016-17 Red Wings and in the minor league system around whom the franchise can build. That was certainly not the case in 1979-80. Only Dale McCourt and the aforementioned Larson were up-and-coming “star” players of that time. The minor league affiliate, Adirondack, was bereft.
There are building blocks now, but there’s still the question of which path Kenny Holland and his lieutenants in the front office will take as the February 28 trading deadline fast approaches.
These are perilous times for the Red Wings.
In 1980, the Red Wings were in the middle of a freefall as a franchise that began in 1970 and wouldn’t right itself until 1986-87.
Today, there’s no freefall—yet—but there has been a fall from grace, which isn’t necessarily the same thing, if you handle things correctly.
Holland needs to be a seller a week from Tuesday. It’s not a role that he’s played—ever—as Red Wings GM, and he’s been doing this for some 20 years. But it’s a role he needs to embrace, quickly.
It’s time now for the Red Wings to be the team that surrenders NHL players for youth and prospects. It’s time for the Red Wings to give a team ahead of them in the standings a short-term fix while the Detroiters prepare for the long term.
It’s time now.
It’s been time, frankly. I believe that the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom in 2013 should have been the sounding horn, but it wasn’t.
The Red Wings will close the doors on Joe Louis Arena the same way that they opened them—with a team not good enough to make the playoffs.
But this doesn’t have to signal an era of hockey morass in this town. If the required remake is done correctly, it might only take two to three years for the Red Wings to return to relevance.
A small price to pay, especially considering what the franchise put the fans through from 1970-87.