My first adventure at Joe Louis Arena wasn't a hockey game. No, it was a monster truck pull.
My best friend, Matt McCarthy, invited me to go with him, his dad, and his older brother. We were more excited about the stadium than the truck pull in that we didn't really know what one was. This was 1980. I don't remember much about the truck pulling. It was loud, loud, loud but not very exciting. So, we went adventuring and even got up into the rafters above. Cool, but not wise when the event features the massive expulsion of combustible engine exhaust. We coughed for hours.
As I was only 14 at the time, I thought new was better. JLA was like a TV set from the future compared to the tired, unmaintained hulk of Olympia Stadium, the former home of the Red Wings. Not that I didn't like Olympia. Most of the times we went, the team was doing so poorly that we were free to go around the seats, get up close, go to the upper bowl . . . no one minded. When The Dad was a kid, he even was able to get to the lockers and meet the players. It was very informal, but with horrible site lines, awful restrooms, and in a neighborhood known as the high tide mark of the '67 riots.
Walking into "The Joe" Saturday I couldn't get over how old the place seemed. We came in by the new statue of Gordie Howe and at first I thought the lights must not be working. Then I remembered that the interior walls were all black. On purpose. The corridors were tight, the urinals are troughs, and there is no natural light- the complete opposite of what I've become used to at the HP Pavilion (with it's lovely colorscape of beige, light brown, and taupe).
*Note all the banners Mr. Ryan.
All of this seemed quaint until we went to our seats.
After watching one of the games, Mr. Ryan quipped about the poor manners of Red Wing fans who were walking the aisles during play. I'd noticed it too, and it didn't make sense to me- I remember how strict the Olympia and Ushers were, but then again my last time at a game was 1989. Maybe something had changed? We got into the bowl and started up to our 20th row, seats and I stopped dead. Where the hell were the hand rails? Despite my resemblance to a weeble, I do fall down, and this is a pretty intense grade for no rails. Also, the aisles are much narrower than the new stadiums. That's how they fit 20,000 plus fans. The ushers still are strict about play/no play, but getting up and down is a slow, precarious thing and lots of people get caught once the play starts back up. All of this came back in flash of memory when about 15 people sat down in the aisles because play started before they got back to there seats.
But what a great experience. Grandmothers yelling "make 'em pay for the blue line." The Dad and I shouting out the same things at the same time, amusing The Sister to no end, and the store of knowledge from guys like The Brother in-law who've followed this team there whole lives. I loved it.
And so did the other 17,000 fans there. The 3,000 empty seats didn't dampen the spirit or the noise. The Dad looked around and noted that if he hadn't seen the empty seats, he wouldn't have believed it- this is what the Michigan economy has come to. Our seats were $90 each; the Sister's pair $75 to sit in the very last row, in front of the journalists. Almost all of the empty seats were in the lower bowl, so they must have gone for over $120. When the the first press coverage of available tix came out, the common wisdom was that there was too much competition with the Pistons in the playoffs and the Tigers coming off a World Series appearance. Cynics, me included, made comments about being spoiled by 17 years of playoffs and the last couple of years having early departures. But still, with all three teams on TV the same day last weekend, the Wings outdrew the others. The fans are still there, they just aren't gonna blow the money.
And this is where hockey is a bit doomed. The Stanley Cup finals draw barely 2.2 million viewers nationally. Yes, that's 2.2 million hardcore fans, but it's not basketball and those fans are balking at the cost of a game. Even a decade ago I could get two tix for under $20 each with no problem. This spring The Parents paid more than that to see a Tigers/Yankees spring training game.
This is sad. You almost never see kids at Sharks games. It's too expensive. For one great year we had a minor league team with tickets around $10 and there were kids all over the place. I miss that. It was nice, then, to see so many kids at Joe Louis on Saturday. Wonder if any of them got up into the rafters?
Go in Peace