It's Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup finals in Joe Louis Arena. Karen Newman is pushing out another standard rendition of the anthem, Al Sobatka is waving the ceremonial pre-game octopi, over 20,000 fans grow thunderous. More than enough adrenaline before puck drop versus the Pittsburgh Penguins, then you look up and see "The Greatest" cheering you on.
Seemingly lost in the seven year fog of the Wings heartbreaking Game 7 Stanley Cup loss to Pittsburgh was Muhammad Ali's surprise appearance, donned in a Red Wings jersey as a special motivational guest of Ilitches.
Ali wasn't enough to inspire the Red Wings to their second straight Cup, as two Brad Stuart turnovers led to two Max Talbot goals and Nick Lidstrom's last-second tying attempt was snatched away by Marc-Andre Fluery, clinching a 2-1 upset for the Penguins.
Had they finished the job I like to imagine Ali's presence would've been oddly woven into the web of Red Wings' lure. With the upset, he became an obscure sidenote,
Little has been left behind of Ali at the game. Despite my best
Googling digging, I've been able to find few words and no videos or pictures. A recent blurb written by Pittsburgh-area sportswriter Chris Bradford gives the best description of the moment in the Beaver County Times,
But for many of us who were at The Joe that night, one of the most indelible images was that of a frail Ali, sporting Detroit's iconic red winged-wheel jersey, waving from a luxury suite. Unbeknownst to most at the time, the three-time heavyweight champion was a special guest of the Red Wings, whisked quietly into the arena before the puck had dropped. When Ali was shown on the arena's Jumbotron over center ice during a first-period TV timeout, the crowd of 20,066 -- Detroit fans, Pittsburgh fans and, yes, even media -- stood united to give The Greatest a prolonged standing ovation. "Ali! Ali! Ali!" the crowd erupted as if it were Kinshasa or Manila decades earlier.
From 1986 to 2006, Ali kept residence in the small Southwest Michigan town of Berrien Springs, some 200 miles away from Detroit. By all accounts, Ali was engaged among the small town of 1,800 often participating in fundraisers for the local high school.
Ali spent many formative years in Detroit, developing his posture as a civil rights activist and member of the Nation of Islam. Blac Magazine's Aaron Foley recently highlighted an excerpt from Ali's biography by Anthony O. Edmonds noting he first met Malcom X and Elijiah Muhammad in Detroit in 1962, which according to Edmonds set, "Cassius Clay clearly on his way to becoming Muhammad Ali."
Local ties aside, Ali also had a pre-existing affiliation with the game. Puck Daddy's Greg Wyshynski dug up the odd tale of when former Edmonton Oilers enforcer, Dave "Cement Head" Semenko, and Ali held a charity boxing match. He had recently retired while the Oilers were just entering their dynasty, The connection? Mark Messier's uncle Larry Messier worked public relations for Ali.
That night and possibly just that night, Ali, champion of the underdog, was wearing the Red and White of the favorite. This time it was the Penguins who "shook up the world".