April 11, 2017
As The Joe is set to become a pile of dust,
wives of former Wings mark time with ashes
By KEITH GAVE
DETROIT – Bob Probert was back where he belonged, back to where he spent so much time – to the delight of a generation of Detroit Red Wings fans – thanks to his widow.
In the moments following Sunday night’s emotional closing ceremony as the curtains fell on Joe Louis Arena, Dani Probert stood in the box and reached into her purse. Shielded by Bruise Brother Joe Kocur and Chris Chelios, who wore Probert’s No. 24 when he came to Detroit, she grabbed a small handful of ashes and sprinkled them around the sin bin.
Bob Probert, one of the most beloved athletes in Detroit’s sporting history who died of heart failure in 2010 at age 45, was finally home.
Brad McCrimmon came home, too. His wife, Maureen, saw to that. A defenseman for the Wings from 1990-93 and one of the most admired teammates in any dressing room he shared, McCrimmon also served as an assistant to coach Jeff Blashill. In two stints in Detroit, Brad and Maureen found a home. When he left to become head coach of Lokomotif Yaroslavl of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League in 2011, she stayed behind in Michigan to raise their children.
He never coached a regular-season game with Lokomotiv. Brad McCrimmon perished with his team when its plan crashed in route to their first game of the season. He was 52.
I admired both men, and I had an opportunity to tell their wives when dozens of Red Wings alumni from the 1950s – like 91-year-old former captain and Stanley Cup champion Ted Lindsay – to today’s players gathered to send The Joe out in style.
Maureen gave me a look and said, “They’re here with us.” When I responded with a quizzical glance, she opened her purse to show me a small urn filled with ashes.”
“I don’t think anybody will mind if I sprinkle some ashes around the ice,” Maureen said. “Brad loved this place.”
That’s what Sunday’s season-finale, a 4-1 victory over New Jersey, was all about.
Three hours before the game, fans lined up many thousand strong along a wide red carpet on the Detroit River side of the old barn as players of several generations were dropped off to walk along, shake hands, sign autographs and soak up the love.
Among the first was captain Henrik Zetterberg, who received a welcome reminiscent of a conquering hero – ironic considering this was the first Red Wings team in 26 years to fail to make the Stanley Cup playoff tournament. No one seemed to mind.
Then, a good 30 minutes before the game, every seat in the 272nd straight sellout crowd at The Joe was filled anticipating pregame ceremonies that honored Zetterberg for playing his 1,000th NHL game, all with the Red Wings, of course. For an encore, Zeke was scored a goal and assisted on another and was named the game’s first star.
During the game, 35 octopi – the iconic symbol of Stanley Cup hockey in Detroit since 1952 – were tossed onto the ice.
And for a real encore, the entire team and another 60 or so alumni or their family representatives were introduced for an epic, final teary salute to the arena.
Former captain Steve Yzerman, who drew the kind of response from the crowd typically reserved for the late Gordie Howe, addressed the crowd, calling Joe Louis Arena, “a unique building, beautiful in its simplicity. It has its own charm, its own character.”
Yzerman, the general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, was interrupted by repeated chants of “Come home, Stevie!” Fans want him back with the Wings as the successor to GM Ken Holland, and the smart money says he will. . . at least eventually.
Scotty Bowman, who coached the Wings to three Stanley Cup titles in nine years from 1993-2002, spoke eloquently and mentioned everyone from the Russian Five to the Grind Line to Jim Devellano, who hired him, to the three different goalies he employed to win those Cups, Mike Vernon, Chris Osgood and Dominik Hasek, to a team physician of 47 years, Dr. John Finley, to Hall of Fame players he traded away, like Dino Ciccarelli, to workers around the building from the building manager to a maintenance – by name.
But like Yzerman and every other speaker in the ceremony, Bowman saved his highest praise for the clubs passionate, devoted fans. “You made this franchise what it is today,” he said.
By every account, this was a day everyone practiced what their mothers taught them when they were young: “If you can’t say something nice. . .”
So nobody took any shots at a place that, let’s face it, was pretty much a dump before it ever opened. Let us count the ways:
* For a building taking up prime real estate on a riverfront overlooking Canada across the way – the country that gave us hockey – The Joe had no windows to show it off. What were the architect and developers thinking?
* It was designed to showcase sports, primarily professional hockey because it was built to replace Olympia Arena, but it had no press box.
* There weren’t nearly enough restrooms, especially for women.
* Four years after it opened, when Marian and Mike Ilitch bought the team, it still wasn’t finished. Light bulbs hung on wire strands from the ceiling. There were not facilities to sell souvenirs and few to sell food or even dispense beer. The club set up card tables around the cramped, 30-foot-wide concourses to sell stuff.
* The home team’s dressing room was barren of charm or comfort befitting a major-league organization. The visitor’s dressing room was a joke.
And although the Ilitches poured tens of millions over the years into upgrading the facility, it improved marginally as a professional sports venue.
In an interview for “The Russian Five” documentary film to be released later this year, we spoke to actor Jeff Daniels about the Joe. A Michigan native who makes his home in Chelsea, Daniels was a season-ticket-holder through the glory years that began in the late 1980s until the late 1990s, and still enjoys seeing several Wings games a season.
He spoke for many of us who called The Joe our workplace, and like many of us he didn’t mince words.
“Joe Louis Arena? Look, I went there in January and you could smell the beer three from 1998,” he said. “It’s just a (expletive) pit. They haven’t done anything. The seats are all frayed. . . I mean. . . Blow it up. Just blow it up.”
We’ll take the memories, thank you. Some great ones. A lot of them.
So time marches forward with or without us, and they’ll soon be bulldozing that building, love it or hate it. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust.
And thanks to some thoughtful and entertaining Red Wings wives, the ashes are already there.