As I have mentioned in my previous Nostalgia articles, I was raised in a family with very little extra money. The only time I ever saw professional sports was when my grandfather got free Vipers tickets, or my dad got tickets to the Pistons or Lions (Silverdome is the greatest arena ever not named after a boxer). Needless to say, I didn't get to see any Wings games when I was younger. Tickets were hard to come by and expensive if you could find them. Which I guess is little different from today, though they are easier for me to get now.
I did not attend my first Wings game until I was 14, and in 9th grade. My dad had come home from work quite early; he was starting to advance in his job, and it was not uncommon for him not to be home until 7 or 8 each night. He walked in and asked me, "I have some serious questions to ask you, Josh."
As any kid would, I figured I had done something horribly wrong and was in for the lecture of my life. Then the questions started coming.
"How much do you like hockey?"
"It's my favorite sport."
"What is your favorite team?"
"The Red Wings."
"Why have you never seen them play, then?"
"You've never taken me."
"Would you like to change that tonight?"
I was in shock. I had wanted to see a game for years by that point and had been unable to do so. Seeing the Wings play at the Joe was a dream come true.
"I have two tickets for a suite at tonight's game. I need you to hurry up and get dressed up. Wear something nice, don't wear anything Red Wings."
I did so without question, even though I thought his request was quite odd. It turned out that he had been asked to entertain some vendors from Florida at the game that night. We needed to be presentable. Understandable.
We left for Detroit shortly afterward. I remember getting caught in traffic on I-75 (is it even possible to not get stuck in traffic on I-75 when you need to get somewhere?) and being very fidgety, borderline hyper. I was excited beyond all belief. It felt like 6am on Christmas morning when I would wake up and want to wake up my parents so that we could open up gifts but knowing better.
Despite the traffic, we made it downtown with plenty of time to spare. My dad still wasn't in the best financial position and we had to park about a mile from the Joe and take the People Mover. That was the second time I had ridden on the monorail and even now I am fascinated by those trains.
We traveled through Cobo and on the streets of Detroit for a moment before arriving at my single favorite Red Wings memory: seeing the overly large stairs leading up the entrance of Joe Louis arena. The peeling red handrails, the dirty concrete, the smell of popcorn and cigarette smoke. It was all a delight, burned into my memory, no matter how much I despised it all. That was the moment it really hit me: I was going to see the Wings play a game. Live. It was awe-inspiring standing before those steps and coming to that realization.
We climbed the steps, each less difficult than the last, and got inside the arena. The atmosphere was electric. People were walking around everywhere. It was loud, it reeked of fried food and alcohol, it was awesome. Some vendor managed to talk my dad into buying a Brett Hull 700th goal bobblehead, one of my all time favorite possessions. I spent a good while trying to convince my dad to get me an Yzerman jersey. Unfortunately, he did not bite on that one.
Finally, we made our way to our seats. I always thought the suites must be the best seats in the world. Not quite. We were so high up, I couldn't even read the names on the jerseys or make out faces on the bench. I could see all the cameramen easily. I could only see one row of the banners, the rest were blocked from view. But I was there.
On the ice, the teams came out and began their usual warm-ups as they waited for the anthem. My dad had neglected to say who we were playing. He wanted it to be a surprise that we were playing the Tampa Bay Lightning. I was a goalie in soccer and had grown fond of hockey goalies. My three favorites were Sean Burke, Dominik Hasek, and Nikolai Khabibulin. I was going to see the Bulin Wall play a game. That excited me just as much as the Wings did.
My dad kept asking if I wanted any food or drink from the suite (it was on a table, and delicious), but I kept pushing him away. I was going to sit and enjoy the game like I would never see another one in my life.
Karen Newman sang the anthem and the puck dropped shortly afterward. The TV was on in the suite so I had Ken Daniels voice commentating the game I was watching live, his words always a few seconds off from the actual game.
I don't remember much from the actual game. I can't even tell you if we won or lost. I know that I sat up there and watched my first live Wings game in a state of shock, though. I know that Khabibulin was an inspiration for the next few years of soccer. My style changed to be the soccer equivalent of his. Oddly enough, it did wonders.
That game is forever etched into my memory. The sights, the smells, the feeling of the crowd, the sight of those red banners. It truly was a once in a lifetime experience for me. I remember it everyday as I walk past the Brett Hull bobblehead, eternally staring at me with its awkward smile.
So, tell me, what was the first time you ever saw a Wings game at the Joe?