Red Wings about to bookend the JLA era with playoff-less seasons

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.

“Number nine!”

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.

Image result for 1980 nhl all star game gordie howe

Gordie Howe, Wayne Gretzky and Phil Esposito pose before the 1980 NHL All-Star Game at then-new Joe Louis Arena.

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.

 

Advertisements

Finally, inadequate JLA gets its send-off

Published September 28, 2016

If Joe Louis Arena was ever state-of-the-art, that state lasted about a week.

The parking situation was reprehensible. The stairs leading up to the entrances were punitive and heart attack-inducing. An enterprising individual could have made a mint by selling oxygen tanks near the doors.

The suites should have been equipped with plenty of facial tissue because of the bloody noses they caused due to their distance from the ice surface.

The building was plopped on the banks of the Detroit River and there was nothing to do after the game but trudge to the inefficient parking structure and wait 45 minutes to get out. There wasn’t a bar or  a restaurant within reasonable walking distance.

There wasn’t nuance to speak of once you stepped inside. The concourses were narrow and the floors were sticky.

Yet this was the hockey barn that saw the Red Wings finally break their Stanley Cup drought in 1997—17 years and some change after opening in December, 1979.

It didn’t help the Joe that it was following Olympia Stadium, an Original Six building that had personality, history, escalators and a balcony. Olympia was built in the 1920s and it showed. JLA was built in the 1970s and by opening night, it seemed like its time had passed.

By contrast, the Palace of Auburn Hills, which opened in 1988, is still a benchmark by which today’s sports arenas are measured. From its mezzanine-level suites to its massive and more than adequate parking lot—plus its expansive and attractive concourses—the Palace kicks JLA’s rear end.

But whenever there are championships won, the arena gets a bump for being associated with those teams and those years, fondly.

It didn’t start that way for JLA, however.

The Red Wings were not a good hockey organ-eye-ZAY-shun when they moved into the Joe on December 27, 1979. In fact, they may have been one of the NHL’s worst.

Contrary to what some believe in their revisionist history, Joe Louis Arena isn’t the House that Mike Ilitch built. Ilitch didn’t purchase the team until 1982; the Norris family can be blamed for JLA’s inadequacies.

First, the Red Wings moved into their new arena in mid-season, which in of itself is odd; usually you want to christen a new building at the start of a season. But again—the Red Wings in 1979 were hardly a model franchise.

There was only one playoff appearance since 1966; the decade of the 1970s was filled with coaching changes, awful hockey, horrible drafting and mind-boggling trades.

The Red Wings weren’t given the derisive moniker of the Dead Things for nothing.

But Olympia Stadium was indeed old and the neighborhood wasn’t the greatest. Despite their warts, the Red Wings did need a new arena; it was time.

They could have done so much better than Joe Louis Arena, however.

Image result for joe louis arena

The sight lines were good—I’ll grant you that. But the seats were too far away from the ice. It would have been a terrific nod to the old arena and just plain good sense to mimic Olympia’s balcony, which made sitting upstairs dramatic. I remember looking onto the ice from the balcony at the old Red Barn on Grand River and McGraw and feeling like the players could hear me call them by name with little effort.

Yet the Red Wings captured four Cups while calling JLA home, winning two of those championships in front of their own crowd. So for that, I think Red Wings fans have more reverence for the Joe than it deserves.

But after this season all that will be moot.

This is JLA’s swan song—a season-long farewell to the monstrosity on the River. A year from this October, they’ll drop the puck at Little Caesars (I know, I know) Arena to usher in a new era of live sports attendance in the Motor City.

LCA won’t just be a hockey arena; there’ll be pubs and restaurants and shopping and things to do—a new extension of Woodward’s mid-town hustle and bustle that has been drawing folks to the city by the droves in recent years.

LCA will be like nothing we’ve ever seen in Detroit. It will blow Ford Field and Comerica Park out of the water—and yes, the Palace—when all is said and done.

There’ll be plenty of time to reflect on Joe Louis Arena. The reliving of the building’s most memorable moments will go on from now until the final game is played next spring. There were the two Cups won on its ice, and the playoff heartbreak that occurred on it as well. There were the concerts with its bad acoustics and the GOP Convention in 1980.

They had Gordie Howe’s viewing there in June.

Soon JLA itself will have a viewing.

Will you be shedding any tears?