March 17, 2017
Our Cups runneth over with memories
of The Joe, but which one stands out?
By KEITH GAVE
OK, we all have our favorite memories of Joe Louis Arena, that stodgy old barn on the banks of the Detroit River. But what is the single-most iconic moment in the 37-year history of that building?
That debate came up with my old boss at the Detroit Free Press, retired sports editor Gene Myers, who put together the new book, “The Joe, Memories from the Heart of Hockeytown,” which just hit newsstands.
I had the honor of contributing several pieces, but Gene and I had a great discussion about the top of his list of the 25 best hockey moments. There were some dandies, eh? (To borrow a phrase from another great Freep columnist, George Puscas.)
But I’m guessing we can come to a quick consensus on the top two.
One happened on June 7, 1997, when the Red Wings finished off a sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers to win their first Stanley Cup title in 42 years.
The other, March 26, 1997, just 71 nights earlier – a game otherwise known as “Fight Night in Hockeytown,” that donnybrook between the Wings and the Colorado Avalanche, when Darren McCarty forever endeared himself to Detroit fans by pummeling Avs’ dirtbag Claude Lemieux to settle a long-overdue score from the previous spring.
Lemieux had worn a target on his back since the previous spring, when he hit defenseless Kris Draper from behind in Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals. Draper missed half of the following season healing from several facial injuries.
That March 26 game featured dozens of fights, including a memorable one at center-ice between goalies Patrick Roy and Mike Vernon. Roy wound up bloodied, too.
The Wings won most of the bouts, but most important – Detroit players have said so often since – is that they found a way to come back from 3-1 and 5-3 deficits to win the game in overtime. And who scored the game-winner? McCarty again.
So I ask again, which of the two is the most iconic hockey event in the history of The Joe? I think you can make a pretty good case – and I did in my conversations with Gene Myers – that Fight Night was the bigger moment of the two. Why? Because if that doesn’t happen, if they do not prove to themselves they can beat the Colorado Avalanche (who had bullied and taunted the Wings in winning the previous three games that season), then the Stanley Cup parade doesn’t happen.
The Wings knew their road to the Stanley Cup went through Denver. Winning that Fight Night game, 6-5, gave the Wings enough confidence to think they could defeat the Avs in a seven-game series – and they did, in six games. Facing those “big, bad” Philadelphia Flyers was a cake walk after that, but that 2-1 in in Game 4 at The Joe on June 7 was awfully special.
And let’s not forget who scored what proved to be the winning goal in that game, too. Yep, Darren McCarty.
All memories that make this week’s home-and-home series with the Avalanche kind of sad. That Lemieux-Draper incident followed by the brawl game ignited what became the best rivalry in all of sports for the next 5-6 years. Everybody circled those Detroit-Colorado hockey games on their calendars. National television in both the United States and Canada couldn’t get enough of it.
Twenty years later? Not so much. Colorado has pretty much locked down the 30th spot in a 30-team National Hockey League, giving the Avs the best statistical shot at winning the lottery for the No. 1 pick in the league’s entry draft in June. Still, they were good enough to be Detroit rather handily in Denver on Wednesday.
The next night, the 29th-ranked team, Arizona, took the Wings into overtime before Detroit won in a shootout to jump all the way up to 26th in the overall standings. Clearly, the Avs-Wings are not your father’s rivalry.
A point worth noting, when Detroit and Colorado were duking it out two decades ago for league supremacy, there were two other awfully good teams – Dallas in the Western Conference and New Jersey in the Eastern Conference. (Consider the Cup winners starting in 1995, when New Jersey swept Detroit: Colorado in 1997; Detroit in 1997 and 1998; Dallas in 1999; New Jersey over Dallas in 2000; Colorado again in 2001; and Detroit again in 2002.)
Those four teams are now among the bottom five in the overall NHL standings. So the Wings are not alone. What is happening in Detroit with a once wildly successful franchise is happening in three other cities as well.
It’s the cycle of life in the NHL.
Great to see Michigan fending off a hangover after winning the Big Ten Tournament championship to win its NCAA Tournament opener over Oklahoma State. Since a sobering moment when their plane aborted a take-off in heavy winds, ran out of runway, crashed through a fence and came to rest in a ditch, the Wolverines have been playing as well as any team in the country, and better than most. It should surprise no one if they roll to the Final Four.
This has an eerily similar feeling to the 1989 season, when Bo Schembechler fired Bill Frieder and then uttered the words, "A Michigan man will coach Michigan!" The result: The Wolverines under interim coach Steve Fisher rolled to a national championship.
I’m not suggesting that’s going to happen this spring.
I’m also not about to suggest it won’t happen. There’s something about this team, this moment.