"Where's the fight?"
As I sat in Section 216A, that was the first thing I thought. A number of fans near the tunnel to the Red Wings dressing room stood up suddenly. Usually a group of fans standing like that means that there's a fight: if not on the ice, then at the very least in the stands. And the idea of a fight in the lower bowl...the premium seats...that'd be rather unbelievable, especially with the game still in the first period.
My peripheral vision didn't see anyone paired off on the ice. Before I could really focus on the seating bowl, I saw three Red Wings players leap onto the ice, with no Red Wings players anywhere near the seating bench. "What in God's name are they doing?" I briefly thought.
The seats my best friend had gotten that night were almost perfectly aligned with the two benches, with the Red Wings bench on the far side. The referees whistled the play dead, and there was a commotion going on at the far side of the bench. I couldn't see why exactly play had stopped, but the fans who stood up were all looking at the tunnel end of the bench.
Mike Babcock was on the bench, waving and screaming out for help. A few more Wings players leapt onto the ice. I still couldn't figure out what had set this off. The usual buzz in the arena had started to quiet even more.
And then I saw the legs.
For all the success the Red Wings have had over the past 16 years (four Cups, six trips to the finals, six Presidents' Trophies), it's safe to say that there are two what ifs that linger:
- What if Vladimir Konstantinov hadn't been in that limo?
- What if Jiri Fischer didn't have a heart problem?
Two defensemen who were vital cogs in organization when they were both removed from commission. Konstantinov had the highest plus-minus score in the league in 1996, with a +60, the highest since Wayne Gretzky finished +70 in 1987. No player has finished with a higher number since. His pesky play drove offenses crazy.
Fischer was the Wings first round draft pick in 1998, quickly working his way up to the Red Wings by the 2000 season, staying for good in 2002. He had become a fixture for the Wings. After the non-season in 2005, there was a sense that Fischer was about to become a key player, possibly partnered with Nicklas Lidstrom on the first defensive line. Coming into that night, Fischer was pacing for his best season: three goals already, and mixing it up nicely with the opposition.
No one in our section could figure out whose legs were sticking out. People were trying to use elimination and their programs to figure it out. I had pulled out my phone to text message my brother watching the game at home.
By this point, the far end of the bench had turned into controlled chaos. I could see the tops of heads running up and down the tunnel. People were leaning over the player. Whomever was down wasn't moving. That buzz of the crowd had become a funeral-like whisper. The entire Red Wings bench had emptied onto the ice.
The question became what happened to the player. Play was nowhere near the benches, so it wasn't because of a stray puck or stick. Someone must have collapsed for some unknown reason.
A stretcher was wheeled onto the ice from the Zamboni entrance. As I recall, there was a box on it of some kind. The stretcher was skated over to near where the player was. By this time, the Nashville Predators were sent to their dressing room. The decision was made to send the Wings back to their dressing room using the visiting team tunnel.
(For those who aren't familiar with the locker room area, it's pretty easy to do this: both tunnels go to the ground-level concourse. The team would simply go out to the concourse, make a couple right turns, then make a left to go into the locker room.)
So all the fans were left to look at was this flurry of activity and the stretcher and an empty sheet of ice. My phone buzzed.
"Fischer is the player down."
This was not the first time I had been at a sporting event where the building had silenced. In 1997, my brother had invited me to the last Lions game of the season, as the Lions played the New York Jets. That was the game where Reggie Brown lay motionless near my brother's season tickets (seven rows up in the non-tunnel endzone). The vision of the Lions players screaming for a stretcher, running towards the tunnel, was incredible
That day, the fans would occasionally chant "REG-GIE! REG-GIE!" to try to motivate him, but my brother and I sat there as they started frantically performing CPR, and we both realized that this was not just bad, but that we may very well have just watched a man die on the field.
Wikipedia says he was motionless for 17 minutes, but it felt twice as long.
They brought a woman down from the tunnel, and she was assisted across the ice by a Wings player. We figured it was Fischer's wife or girlfriend (it was his fiancee). After what seemed like 30 minutes, they moved Fischer onto the stretcher and down the tunnel.
And 20,000 people sat there wondering what the hell was going to happen next.
The Zambonis came out to resurface the ice, even though there was still about eight minutes left in the period. My best friend went out for a smoke, and I went with her. Standing on the river-side doors, we noticed that those who weren't smoking were on their phones, either calling or texting. My brother was relaying reports from FS Detroit, and as someone learned something, it was passed around the crowd.
We went back in to the soothing sounds of Chuck Mangione (perhaps the first and only time an American sporting event was graced with smooth jazz). The video board simply showed an animated Red Wings logo on a continuous loop. We waited. What else was there to do? The alternate PA guy made an announcement that Fischer was being transported to the hospital (which brought cheers from the crowd).
Finally, after about an hour of waiting, the announcement was made that the game was postponed, to hold your tickets for further news, and thanking us for attending. The fans quietly rose out of their seats and made their way out of Joe Louis Arena.
In the hamster tube back to the Joe Louis Arena garage, the usual boisterous attitude was replaced with a solemn march. The conversations seemed muted. We all headed back to our cars, unsure exactly what we had just seen, but damn sure we weren't going to forget it any time soon.
It turns out, what we had seen was a man go into cardiac arrest. Fischer would never play professional hockey again. The game would be replayed from the beginning, with the one goal scored by the Predators carried over to that game. I had a conflict the night of the rescheduled game, so I had to give the tickets up.
For the Red Wings, they proceeded to win their fourth Stanley Cup two seasons later. The defensive core continues to impress, led by Nicklas Lidstrom. Fischer now works in the front office as the director of player development.
Someone on a sports blog I read recently said "There is nothing like being at a game and thinking 'I might have just watched someone die.'" Having witnessed it twice, I can assure you that statement is absolutely true. We go to these games as an escape, and when that escapism is violated, we keep that scar tissue forever, as a reminder of what happens when the boundaries are crossed. And we look for a fight that isn't there.