Blast from the past
There’s just something amazing about Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.
I was sitting on the old creaky wooden visiting team bench early this morning when Vancouver Canucks GM Mike Gillis walked out. He took a deep breath as his head rose up looking at all the banners in the rafters.
By my count there are 61 banners, 11 honouring Stanley Cup Champion teams. The Joe, as it’s known, is literally oozing in history and, as it turns out, memories are a plenty from playing in his building.
"I played in one of the first ever games here," Gillis said.
"When was that," I asked.
"I don’t know, late ’70s, early 80s sometime."
"I wasn’t even born yet!" I chuckled.
"Thanks, that makes me feel better."
There’s smooth and then there’s Derek Jory smooth. Nothing like insulting the general manager before the morning paper has even been delivered.
If you haven’t been to The Joe, I highly recommend it. It’s a very unique place and was state of the art when it was built; I wouldn’t call it rundown now, it’s steeped in character.
One by one Canucks made their way out onto the bench to have a look around. Kevin Bieksa, wanting to test a new stick, walked onto the ice in shorts, a t-shirt and flippy-floppies with an ear-to-ear grin.
"I scored a couple of big goals here," he boasted. "Final Four against Ryan Miller, that was a big goal. It’s definitely what got me drafted to the Canucks."
When the Canucks took to the ice for morning skate after a gravel truck of a zamboni cleaned it, there was an energy in the air no one could explain. “The guys are flying out there,” assistant GM Lorne Henning said to Gillis. “It’s this place,” he replied, “it’s like the old Chicago Stadium or the Boston Garden.”
New memories will be made tonight for Zack Kassian, who grew up just across the water in Windsor, Ontario.
"Take a good look boys," he said, looking across the war, on the bus ride to the rink. "That’s paradise."
Kassian will have roughly 50 family and friends in the stands cheering him on tonight as he plays his first ever game at The Joe. He’s watched more games than he can remember in the legendary arena and is ecstatic he’ll be supported by his loved ones tonight - everyone except his mom actually.
"She’s in Cabo," he laughed. "She booked the trip during the lockout, I guess she didn’t have any faith we’d be back playing!"
Yes, everyone has a memory of The Joe. Roberto Luongo played his first game with the Canucks here, Ryan Kesler remembers his first time playing in his hometown like it was yesterday, Mason Raymond said Joe Louis Arena has the best boards in the league and Chris Higgins, who played his first NHL game in Toronto, will play his 500th career game tonight.
"Think you can get to 1,000?" I asked as we walked to the bus post-skate.
"Ask me after tonight," he laughed.
This is my third time at Joe Louis Arena and for me, it’s a very emotional place. After my brother Kurt had his jugular severed while playing hockey for the Brock Badgers in a game against the Windsor Lancers at Windsor Arena in late 2008, his life was saved at Hotel-Dieu Grace Hospital in Windsor.
I flew out to see him as soon as I could and it just so happened the Canucks were playing in Detroit while I was with Kurt. He was able to get a pass to come to the game, and, joined by our dad Wayne, they watched the game together. Afterwards they came down to meet some of the guys, including Luongo, who pepped up Kurt like only he could.
I tear a lot up just thinking about how I almost lost my baby brother and The Joe is where I saw him really smile for the first time after the freak accident. I knew then he was on the road to recovery. Kurt is maybe 90-95% healed from the injury, the only thing he seems to have lost is the ability to beat me at tennis.
I love you brother bear.
P.S. - We fly home tonight. You have no idea how much I missed you!