By: Will Burchfield
If the Red Wings’ sendoff at The Joe was a shaker, their opener at Little Caesars Arena was a social.
A high bar? Sure, but not an unfair comparison. There was plenty of buildup for Thursday night’s game, just about as much as there was for that one back in April. And the place was packed at puck drop. Add in the fact that the Red Wings played well, skating off with a 4-2 victory over the Wild, and all the ingredients were there for a rollicking first act.
Unfortunately, the arena fell flat.
It was a busy place, but it wasn’t especially alive. Fewer people have made much more noise. The hockey game was one attraction of many, like a rodeo at a county fair: The action is great, but so is the food.
It’s rare that an arena’s pulse hits its climax before the first play. Such was the case on Thursday night. A rousing pregame montage on the video board revved up the fans, and they cheered the Wings with ardor during player introductions. Henrik Zetterberg came out last to a reception worth the wait.
The fans roared when Nicklas Lidstrom and Mickey Redmond were brought onto the ice for the ceremonial puck drop. Then Zetterberg met Wild center Mikko Koivu at center ice to complete the occasion, Chris Ilitch standing between them, and chants of ‘Let’s Go Red Wings’ filled the air.
Longtime anthem singer Karen Newman made her usual entrance, through the Zamboni tunnel opposite the Red Wings’ bench, and hit her usual notes. A few flying octopuses even punctuated her performance. For a moment, anyway, it felt like nothing had been lost in the move from The Joe.
Then the game began, and reality set in with a hush. A playoff atmosphere quickly gave way to that of a mid-week contest in November. It was quiet, not in that restless manner that spells hunger for action, but detached, distracted.
Then, slowly but surely, the fans started leaving their seats. They’d seen the rodeo. They could smell the food.
Little Caesars Arena is spectacular for a number of reasons. The building glows beneath its grid of LED lights. The sightlines offer the best views in hockey. The video board is enthralling in its size and the player facilities are first-class. But the arena is most impressive, most distinguished, for all that it offers besides a game.
The concourse is littered with places to eat and drink, from sit-down restaurants to casual bars. It’s a popular city block constructed inside. All these attractions pull fans away from the game, and they can socialize without missing a second of the action thanks to the stunning 600-foot jewel skin that projects the game on the wall of the concourse. This was sold as a benefit.
It threatens to be a drawback.
Once the fans left their seats, a good number of them never came back. They had found a better place to watch. This led to a half-empty arena midway through the second period where the chatter was louder than the cheering. Even Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill took note of the change in atmosphere as the game pressed on.
“You had the ‘Let’s Go Red Wings’ chant early, and it was loud for sure. I think the beginning of the second period lots of people were checking out the concourse so we have to work on that,” Blashill said with a smile. “We have to make sure they’re in there at the start.”
In time, the novelty of the concourse attractions will likely wear off. There won’t be such a rush to check out the scene. It should also be noted that LCA had already hosted a string of Kid Rock concerts and several preseason hockey and basketball games prior to the Red Wings’ opener. Thursday was probably subdued by some first-night fatigue.
Lastly, lest we forget, the Wings weren’t exactly a great team last season. Nor have they inspired much optimism heading into this one. To the casual fan, they’re no longer a draw unto themselves, the way they were for all those years at The Joe. The draw, now, is Little Caesars Arena. The Wings are just the price of admission.
Still, the anticipation was high on Thursday night. This was LCA’s coming-out party, its first chance to shine at what it was meant to do: host a hockey game. And the atmosphere fizzled, like a dud fuse. Even toward the end of the game, with the Red Wings salting away a victory — and isn’t this when The Joe was often at its best? — the place felt distant.
Jimmy Howard made a flashy glove save with about three minutes left to spur the fans into a lively rendition of ‘Don’t Stop Believing,’ one constant feeding another, but that celebratory vibe was otherwise missing.
The players all spoke kindly of the atmosphere afterward, as one would expect, but none of them gushed about it. Howard, for his part, hesitated as if there was something on his mind — “Ahh,” he began — before saying amenably, “It was great. It was fun out there.”
That’s not to denigrate what the building is or what it can become, and it’s true that it takes time for a place to find its voice. But if the hope was that the character of The Joe would be transplanted in Little Caesars Arena, Thursday wasn’t a great start.
That’s the inherent risk in making the game part of the show, rather than the show itself.