Driving downtown from my hometown of Northville, Michigan, the signs for Detroit appear before you can really see the city skyline. But the closer I got, the more I could feel the emotion bubbling up inside. As I pulled off the highway looping around in front of The Joe to turn onto 19 Steve Yzerman Drive, I started crying. The security guard at the parking lot gave me a funny look as I smiled and showed him my press pass. ‘Get it together Shan,’ I thought.
But I couldn’t.
This is the final year at Joe Louis Arena. It’s dark and smelly, and has very little space for the media. It’s where I fell in love with hockey. Tuesday felt like I was closing a chapter of my life that helped lead me to where I am now.
My family moved to Michigan in the fall of 2000. After living in Oklahoma for two years, my parents were super excited to join a community where professional sports were huge. I remember driving downtown with my family for our first hockey game. I remember sitting about 15 rows behind the goal. It was the Wings against the Avs and after the first fight of the game, I was hooked. I grew up in a family that valued live sports. This was, by far, the best fan experience I’d ever witnessed.
Fast forward 10 years, a few more moves, and I ended up back in Detroit. I was covering the team I first cheered for in that same electric building. I didn’t realize how lucky I was at the time. I was so excited to have a job in sports, that the magnitude of covering the Red Wings and their playoff streak didn’t really set in right away.
I’m not sure I totally got it until Tuesday, when I was there to cover the Islanders against the Wings. You see, the opportunities I had working in Detroit, along with hard work and support from my family, is ultimately what landed me in New York. Without that important step in my career and my life, I’m not sure I would have made it to MSG Networks, the Coliseum and now Brooklyn.
So I guess, in a nutshell, I’m forever grateful to The Joe.
I spoke with Frans Neilsen after skate that morning for his insight on closing out the building. This will be the second time in his career that he will go through this. Frans told me one of the main reasons why he likes The Joe so much is that it reminds him of the Coliseum. How loud it is. How crazy the fans get. I, too, have a deeper understanding for those longtime Islanders fans who only ever knew the Coliseum before the team moved to Brooklyn. It felt like home. Just like The Joe.
Here are a few things I’ll never forget about Joe Louis Arena:
All around the Red Wings dressing room and the hallway leading to their offices and training rooms, there are pictures and tributes to former Wings players. This is the other part of the building that Nielsen and I agree is really special.
Frans said when he walked into the room for the first time, he felt like he was surrounded by great players. Not just the ones who played in Detroit years ago, but the players there now that are looking to hoist the Cup again.
All along the walls, on the lower level of the building, are the names of the players on each Cup team. I think I’ve read through them at least 100 times, waiting for the dressing room to open up after morning skate for interviews.
Standing on the bench is one of the best views looking at the arena. It’s also where we did our pre-game reports when I worked for Fox Sports Detroit. I remember my first playoff game in the building. I stood there on the bench once the players skated off after warmups. I wanted to soak up all the sights and sounds around me.
Most of the people who work at Joe Louis Arena have been there for decades. They stand in the same spot for each game, working the same concession stands and bars. I hope a majority of them will move over to the new arena next Fall. I have a good feeling they will.
There is one thing I will not miss about The Joe. It’s a strange layout and for me to get to our ‘studio’ for the home and visiting team, it involves climbing under the stands to make your way to the hallways behind the benches.
You can’t see any rats in this video. But trust me, I’ve seen almost everything in the belly of the building.
I’m glad I had a chance to say a proper goodbye to one of the oldest active buildings in the NHL. I’m also happy my family was there to support the Isles in their final game at The Joe. But just like the city of Detroit, the arena needed to be revamped.
The new home for the Wings next season will be Little Caesars Arena. It will help bring together all four sports teams in Detroit. The Pistons will finally move downtown and the Tigers’ Comerica Park and Lions’ Ford Field are just a few blocks away. It will be great next Spring when the whole city celebrates April in the ‘D.’
Three teams playing at the same time, the city of Detroit alive and well.
One of my favorite ushers joked that the new arena will already feel like home by the time the Wings play their first game there. Kid Rock is opening up the building with several shows. By game one, it should smell enough like stale beer to welcome hockey fans with open arms.