Farewell, Joe Louis Arena
Sometimes in sports, the singular moment is bigger than any of the context surrounding it.
I have been a part of state and regional championship teams. I have played in a national tournament. I have played on teams that won league titles. I have never experienced a moment like that so clearly as I did on Sunday during the final game at Joe Louis Arena, and I did not even see the game live!
There is no sugar-coating it, the Detroit Red Wings’ 2016-17 season has been a trying one on so many levels. While captain Henrik Zetterberg played in all 82 games, no skater’s struggles better exemplified the Wings’ troubles than winger Riley Sheahan.
Sheahan dressed for 79 games this season for the Wings before Sunday’s matchup with the New Jersey Devils. In 204 career games prior to this season, Sheahan had scored 36 goals — not great, but certainly not a bad pace for a former Notre Dame Fighting Irish star forward. Heading into Sunday, however, he had a whopping zero goals in those 79 games.
That all changed 7 minutes, 9 seconds in.
After a well-placed dump-in by winger Darren Helm, center Franz Neilsen — the Wings’ key free-agent acquisition last offseason — beat the Devils’ defense to the puck and fed it down the right boards to where Sheahan was. Sheahan cut into the right circle and beat Corey Schnieder for the goal.
While the capacity crowd was screaming and cheering the fact that the Wings had at least scored in their final game in the Joe. An octopus, an old playoff tradition, hit the ice as part of the celebration.
For Sheahan, the relief of just plain scoring was evident.
The excitement on young defender Xavier Ouellet’s face as he approached the celebrating Sheahan said it all. The same could be said for Helm, who skated back from heading to the bench to celebrate with the huddle.
Sheahan for the season finished a minus-29, which has the dubious distinction of being the worst on the Wings, who had 16 skaters finish in the negative in plus-minus on the season. Some of the worst offenders included the future star forward Dylan Larkin, Niklas Kronwall’s eventual replacement as the top defender, Danny DeKeyser, and two of the team’s last three free agent signees, Nielsen and Mike Green.
With 79 total points thanks to a record of 33-36-0-13, the Wings finished 25th in the NHL. They struggled to score goals, producing at a rate of 2.41 per game (26th), and they struggled to keep pucks out, giving up 2.98 per game (26th). Their power play was an abysmal 15.1 percent (27th).
Yet, none of that mattered Sunday. Instead, it was all about finishing the best way they knew how and for a brief moment, the 20,666 in attendance was able to forget everything that had gone wrong this season, from the struggles of skaters like Sheahan to the signing and eventual trading of Thomas Vanek, to the confusing way coach Jeff Blashill handled Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha over the past two seasons.
It helped that 4:10 after Sheahan’s goal, Tomas Tatar potted his 25th of the season to put Detroit up 2-0.
After Zetterberg, who was playing in his 1,000th career game, scored in the second period on a backdoor play, the sense in the Joe was that this game was going to belong to the Wings.
John Moore spoiled a shutout bid by goaltender Jimmy Howard, but when Sheahan struck for the second time with 2:33 left, octopi rained from the sky as some 35 or so hit the ice. Even though this practice has been banned by the NHL and commissioner Gary Bettman was in attendance, it was nice to see that the league did not punish the Wings for their fans’ elation.
The final minute of the game was a sight to behold. Everyone in the building stood and clapped and cheered. After a Devils’ icing stopped play with 34.8 seconds left, Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” played over the arena speakers, which seemed very appropriate.
After Schneider hung onto a shot with 17.0 seconds left, forcing another face off, Poison’s “Nothin’ But a Good Time” sprang from the speakers. Again, that felt very appropriate.
I have watched those final 17 seconds several times already on YouTube. I still get goosebumps listening to that crowd roar one final time in celebration of a Detroit victory.
It was not in celebration of another Stanley Cup, or another goal from Steve Yzerman, or a huge save from Dominik Hasek. It was a celebration of 37 years of nearly every special Wings’ moments from Yzerman’s game-winning goal against St. Louis in double overtime in 1996 to Darren McCarty’s overtime-winner in 1997 against Colorado to the Stanley Cup victories in 1997 and 2002 that were won in the building.
Joe Louis Arena, which first opened in 1979, showed its age this season. However, it will go down as one of the toughest places to play for opposing teams and one of the great venues to watch a hockey game ever, in my humble opinion.