By LARRY LAGE, AP Hockey Writer
DETROIT (AP) — The unmistakable whiff of a sewer line hits you near the corner of Steve Yzerman Drive and Jefferson Avenue before you set foot on the steps that climb into Joe Louis Arena, a nearly windowless, drab grey building on the banks of the Detroit River.
Despite the stench and lack of sunlight, the Motor City has enjoyed many fond memories in the home of the Detroit Red Wings, where the franchise has raised four Stanley Cup banners to rafters also crowded by tributes to some of hockey’s all-time greats, like Gordie Howe and Steve Yzerman.
Red-and-white clad fans have been filling seats in the 20,058-seat arena, saying so long in the same season the Red Wings ended their playoff streak at 25. The arena is not scheduled to host another hockey game after Detroit plays Montreal on Saturday night and New Jersey on Sunday night. The Red Wings will begin a new era with the Pistons at nearby Little Caesars Arena next season.
Detroit had one of the best runs in NHL history from the early 1990s until last season, when they tied the third-longest playoff streak in league history. Years ago, though, its hockey team was known as the “Dead Wings,” and cars were given away to get fans to attend games shortly after moving from Olympia Stadium to Joe Louis Arena for the 1979-80 season.
“This team was not very good when The Joe opened,” said NBC announcer Doc Emrick, a Michigan resident who was a season-ticket holder for 20-plus years.
Things sure improved, though. Here’s a look back at some of the memorable moments at Joe Louis Arena.
MR. HOCKEY’S RETURN: Howe played for the Red Wings from the 1946-47 season until retiring for the first time in 1971. He returned on Feb. 5, 1980, in his 50s as a Hartford Whaler and was welcomed back at the NHL All-Star Game with an ovation people are still talking about nearly four decades later.
“That can’t be duplicated,” said Al Sobotka, who has taken care of the ice for the Red Wings for decades. “It was unbelievable. The atmosphere was jumping.”
HOOPS AT THE JOE: The Pistons were pushed out of their home in the suburbs at Pontiac Silverdome due to a scheduling conflict on April 27, 1984, when they closed an opening-round series against the Bernard King-led New York Knicks. Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas scored 16 points in the final 90 seconds of regulation for the Pistons to force overtime before the Knicks went on to win the game and series.
“I will never forget the electric atmosphere of joe Louis arena that night,” Thomas wrote in a text message to The Associated Press on Thursday night. “The fans inspired me to one of my greatest performances ever and I thank them for bringing the best out of me and countless others who experienced the energy of Joe Louis Arena.”
ENDING A DROUGHT: Yzerman, simply known as The Captain by Red Wings fans, hoisted the Stanley Cup after finishing off a sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers on June 7, 1997. That ended an NHL championship drought that dated to 1955.
“That was the best,” said Karen Newman, who has been signing the national anthem for the Red Wings at home games for nearly 30 years. “Grown men were crying. Confetti was falling. I still have confetti in my glass jar from that game. That’s how important that moment was. It was huge.”
The Red Wings repeated in 1998 and are still the last franchise to pull off the feat. They won three Stanley Cups in a six-season stretch and a fourth in an 11-season span, shortly after the salary cap stopped them from spending more than most teams in the league.
Off the ice and away from the crowds, Yzerman enjoyed getting to know some of the all-time greats that wore the winged wheel for the storied franchise.
“What I have always found unique about the Red Wings is I come into this building as a kid, you walk in and one day you see Gordie Howe, you talk to Gordie Howe,” Yzerman recently recalled. “The next day, you walk in and you see Ted Lindsay.”
A slew of stars from the 2002 team have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, including drafted and developed Yzerman and Nick Lidstrom and veteran acquisitions Brendan Shanahan and Brett Hull. They were coached by one of the best in any sport, Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman, who announced his retirement on June 13, 2002, to end a career that included a record nine Stanley Cups.
END OF AN ERA: The Red Wings hosted Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals on June 12, 2009, with a chance to hoist the Cup for the second straight season under coach Mike Babcock. After losing 2-1 to the Penguins in 2009, Detroit hasn’t lasted longer than the second round in the playoffs.
Follow Hockey Writer Larry Lage at http://www.twitter.com/larrylage
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