Niyo: Wings alumni drink in one final sip of The Joe

John Niyo
The Detroit News


Former Red Wing captain Steve Yzerman is introduced at the postgame ceremony.

Detroit — They didn’t come to mourn, really. They came for the memories.

And for the men who made them — “And there were a lot of them,” Nicklas Lidstrom noted — Sunday’s farewell to Joe Louis Arena was less about the building and more about what was assembled inside it.

The championship teams, the playoff streak that lasted a quarter century, and the aura that made the Joe everything it wasn’t, or couldn’t be, on its own: A touchstone, if you will. And this weekend they all came back — scores of Red Wings alumni, not to mention the 20,000-plus fans who could score a ticket — for one last feel-good moment.

“Anytime you’re a winning organization, for the players that were involved, it’s a good feeling,” said Mike Vernon, the goaltender who helped the Red Wings end a 42-year title drought with that 1997 Stanley Cup triumph. “You show up and you have a lot of good stories to tell. The memories are always positive. Even the negative stories are kind of fun. There’s a lot of laughter.”

And so there was Sunday, drowning out all the melancholy as the Wings closed out The Joe in style, with a raucous 4-1 win over the New Jersey Devils in the finale and with one final trip down memory lane in this condemned building.

Wojo: Red Wings party like it’s 1997 at The Joe

Sure, there were some damp eyes and a dreary reality, what with the Red Wings missing the playoffs for the first time since 1990 and especially with the passing of both owner Mike Ilitch and Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe, in the past year.

“I think at some point you get choked up,” said Darren McCarty, one of a handful of Red Wings who were part of all four Cup wins from 1997 to 2008. “I mean, how can you not?”

McCarty likened it to putting down the family Golden Retriever — “You don’t want to see it suffer,” he said of The Joe — but he also cracked wise as he talked about the building’s dog-eared longevity. After 38 years, and despite all those battle scars and creaky joints, with scoreboards that didn’t work and smells no one could quite explain, it certainly wasn’t going to go quietly on this night.

“It’s like Cheli,” McCarty said, taking a playful jab at Chris Chelios, who played the last decade of his remarkable 26-year career here in Detroit. “Never wanted to give up.”

The fans didn’t, either, milking this one for every last drop of nostalgia, much like the franchise, which turned this entire season into a “Farewell to the Joe.”

They’d descended on the arena Sunday by the thousands well before noon for a 5 p.m. puck drop.

“They got as many people out there as humanly possible, without falling into the river,” said McCarty, who joined the current Red Wings and a huge alumni group — more than 60 players in all, several flying in from Europe — for a red-carpet pregame ceremony.

“I got goosebumps seeing that,” defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “That was very special, and something I think we’ll forever bring with us.”

Homecoming party

But it’s also what brought them all back. Lidstrom, the captain who retired in 2012, flew in from Sweden, and after he’d thrown out the first pitch at the Tigers game at nearby Comerica Park, there he was signing autographs and posing for photos on his way into the arena.

“What a great feeling again,” he said. “This was my home for 20 years and I really enjoyed playing in here. The fans were passionate and the electricity in the building, especially in the playoffs — you almost had that feeling again when you were walking up the red carpet.”

Once inside, though, that’s where the excitement always was in this building, and this weekend doubleheader was no different, as the crowds soaked up every last minute of hockey and hurled every last octopus they could find, it seemed.

They were still in their seats hours after the final horn sounded Sunday, sticking around for the postgame celebration that began with another parade of stars, included a cavalcade of laughs — Tomas Holmstrom had everyone in stitches, as usual — and ended with fireworks and confetti and sticks raised to the rafters in salute.

The building erupted when Vladimir Konstantinov was introduced, pushed out of the Zamboni entrance by teammate Doug Brown. And the cheers kept coming. For Chris Chelios and Chris Osgood. (“Oz-zie! Oz-zie!”) For Scotty Bowman and Stevie Y, each of whom spoke to the crowd. (“Come home, Stev-ie!” the fans chanted.) But there were dozens more, from Anders Erickson to Rick Zombo, and the truth is, there wasn’t enough room in the beloved Olympia Room for them all.

But that hardly mattered, as the alumni were roaring long before the doors opened and well after they closed Sunday night.

“It doesn’t seem to miss a beat, even when we’ve been out of the game for so long,” Vernon said “Guys are just glad to get together and tell stories.”

Stories of glories

Stories, they’ve got more than a few. Vernon was busy giving grief to John Ogrodnick for scoring two goals on him the night he made his NHL debut for Calgary in 1982, getting shelled in a 7-3 loss here at The Joe. And for players like McCarty and his Grind Line mates, Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby, among others, “I guess it’s like going back to your alma mater after so many years. We spent 15 years here as frat brothers together. And this was pretty much our campus.”

Sunday’s reunion only confirmed that, as McCarty once again regaled the fans with memories of the March 26 game with the Colorado Avalanche — from the brawl to his overtime goal — even walking over to the spot where he pummeled Claude Lemieux as the fans hooted and hollered.

“That was the game,” he said. “It wasn’t the fight. It wasn’t just the goal. It was the whole thing. Because everybody was involved. Whether you were a player, coach, fan, worked here, whatever, that was ‘Go’ time. After that, it was different. Walking in here, you didn’t wonder if you were good enough. There was no second-guessing yourself. ‘We are (good enough),’ and no one was going to take it from us anymore.”

There were plenty more, of course, and that Cup-clinching goal against Philadelphia was a close second for McCarty.

“I’ve got a loaded deck of favorite memories,” he said. “But one of ’em is smokin’ that cigar on the golf cart coming from the dressing room to meet you guys after we won in ’97. I just remember the smell — I mean, you can’t forget the smell down here — but I remember the smell of hockey, springtime, humidity, sweat, champagne, whatever.”

Whatever it was, he added, “You will notice that it is gone.”

Vernon laughed as he recalled a victory cigar of his own from that glorious June night in ’97. It’s one no one can ever forget, because he’s holding it on the ice in the team photo taken with the Cup. And how did he end up with a cigar that quickly?

“A fan threw it to me,” Vernon said Sunday, laughing. “I don’t know who that fan was. But it was kind of a nice gesture. It was a good cigar, I recall.”

Vernon was asked what he’d like to take with him as a souvenir from the Joe, and he pondered it for a while. He liked the comfy stool in front of his locker, he said. But mostly what he’d like to keep was something he can’t really take.

“The names on the wall,” he said, referencing the cinder-block outside the Red Wings’ dressing room where the Cup-winning rosters are painted on as a tribute. “Just the group of guys that did it, I guess.”

Those walls will be gone soon enough, they all know. But the group that called those walls home?

“Gone, but not forgotten,” McCarty said. “And that’s the way it’ll always be here.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo