Yesterday, I was driving home from work and saw what may have been the most shocking thing I have seen in quite a while: one of my new neighbors (I recently moved) was mowing his lawn wearing a Detroit Vipers jersey. Not only was I shocked enough that I slammed on the brakes, I actually got out of my car and shook the elderly man's hand for wearing such a righteous piece of hockey history.
Not many people even know who the Vipers were, but those that do have strong memories of that team and miss them dearly.
Before I get into nostalgia, let's begin with a quick history lesson. The Detroit Vipers was an IHL team that played from 1994-2001 at the Palace. They never had any sort of affiliation with the Wings; at the time, our minor league affiliate was the Adirondack Red Wings. The Vipers were owned by Bill Davidson, owner of Palace Sports and Entertainment (including the Pistons, Palace, and DTE/Pine Knob), after he purchased the Salt Lake Golden Eagles in 1994.
Despite having absolutely no affiliation with the Wings, the Vipers had a very strong relationship with Little Caesar's. You would often find Vipers logos, schedules, and vouchers in the restaurants right next to the collectible pucks, shirts, and bobbleheads for the Wings. The best part about this relationship was the free tickets. You couldn't really sell tickets to a minor league hockey team in the same city as the Wings (who were contenders for the first time in decades), so Davidson partnered with Ilitch to provide people with free tickets just to get them to the Palace.
This is where the nostalgia begins. My grandfather is, and has been, an avid Pizza! Pizza! fan for years. He says he likes the taste, I say he likes supporting the Wings and Tigers. Either way, he would come over to my house once every month or two and hand me vouchers for free tickets that he got from Little Caesar's and announce he was taking me to "see a true man's game."
Being from a family with little money, I didn't see the Wings until I was 14-ish, so the Vipers were the greatest thing in the world to me. Every time my grandfather came to my house with those ticket sized vouchers, it was like Christmas day. There was no single thing better than going to the Palace, sitting in the bottom bowl, and watching hockey.
Even the logo was absolutely awesome
Over time, I saw a great deal of Vipers hockey. There was a point when I positioned myself as a Vipers fan before a Red Wings fan. In all those games, I saw some great players skating on their way to the NHL or to retirement, names that I didn't know the significance of at the time but now... now, it just makes me smile remembering how great a player like Sergei Samsonov was out there.
I saw Samsonov in probably five or six games in his single season with the Vipers, a season in which he won the Longman Memorial Trophy as rookie of the year. I remember about 30 rows behind the visitor's bench one game. At the time, Samsonov was heralded as the next Federov, the next great Russian. I didn't know that at the time, and my grandpa pointed to him sitting on the bench and told me to "watch that guy." I remember asking him why and he replying, "Because that is an all time great in the making. And you're helping get him through the most difficult time in his career." About midway through that game, Samsonov scored. My grandpa picked me up and put me on his shoulders and started a "SER-GEI! SER-GEI!" chant that lasted for maybe 30 seconds.
That year, the Vipers won the Turner Cup. To this day, that may be the greatest night of my life. We were upper deck that time, first time I had ever heard the phrase "nose bleeds" used to describe seats before. The arena was packed, the atmosphere electric. Everyone knew the Vipers would leave the ice that night holding the holy grail of minor league hockey and they did. That was a school night and I didn't get home until after midnight. I spent a good half hour sitting in the front seat of my grandpa's Corsica honking the horn with the rest of the parking lot in celebration.
The next season, I experienced something that few my age have experienced: I saw Gordie Howe play. Yes, that year, Gordie Howe played for a single shift. He skated for one shift at 69 or 70 years old, just so he could be the only athlete to ever play a pro game in six different decades. He got a standing ovation at random times during that game. Occasionally, he would sign a puck or shirt or hat and lob it over the glass behind the bench. My grandpa, who again had gotten the tickets for free, told me that one of his earliest sports memories was of Gordie Howe, Mr. Hockey, playing at Olympia and that one of mine would be seeing him play at the Palace.
Over the years, I saw a lot of players play for the Vipers. From Samsonov to Brent Fedyk (first hockey card I ever got) to Kirk Maltby's younger brother, Shawn, to Petr Sykora and Peter Bondra. Those games were always full of awesome play and atmosphere, something I have never experienced at other minor league games. Unfortunately, it all came to an end in 2001 when the IHL and Vipers ceased operations. I guess giving away tickets for free isn't a great business practice.
This is the first in, hopefully, a series of posts called Nostalgia where I, and perhaps you, can relive those great Detroit hockey moments. Let me know in the comments if you would like to see more.