So Long, Joe

Going into the final game at The Joe, I must have thought for hours about how I would spend my last few minutes there.

I thought about walking through the stadium, taking everything in one last time.

I thought about sitting at my stall, remembering all the great moments.

And then, at some point, I thought back to the beginning of my love for the Wings.

I remember my first time at The Joe when I was in sixth grade. We didn’t go to many games back then, not only because we lived on the other side of the state, but also, of course, because Detroit was the best team in hockey — it was tough to get a ticket.

I remember getting out of the car outside the arena, seeing the exterior and thinking, This is it? This is where the all that magic happens?

But then we stepped inside.

Jared Wickerham/The Players' Tribune

And there it was. In all it’s glory. We didn’t have HD TVs back then, so everything was much more vivid and alive than I had imagined. The red seats were more red and the noise was louder than anything I had heard before — it echoed from end to end. I snuck down to the glass with my dad to try to get a puck, but it was hard to get close … there were thousands of people there just for warmup.

We sat in the upper bowl. It was thrilling — the whole experience. I had always dreamed of playing for Detroit, but after that game, I knew I wanted to make it a reality.

I wanted to be a Red Wing.

Jared Wickerham/The Players' Tribune

We went to The Joe a handful of times, sitting in different seats every time, watching players like Yzerman, Lidstrom, Fedorov and Osgood win game after game after game.

So, before I left, I took a walk. I walked down to center ice and looked around one more time. I looked around at all the banners and the numbers in the rafters. All the memories from The Joe hit me right then. I tried to picture all the players I used to watch, and all the Cups they had won. As I walked out, I took one last look at The Joe. It was hard to say goodbye to a building that housed so many special moments.

I grew up in The Joe. I remember scoring two goals there in a Little Caesars league Bantam A championship game when I was in eighth grade. A few years later, I went to Michigan State, and every year we’d play Michigan at least once at The Joe. I remember the battle of the bands — each school trying to play their fight song louder than the other. We won the CCHA tournament when I was a freshman and, as is tradition, our banner was raised to the rafters. It remained there until the next tournament, and we felt part of the building, even if just for that year.

In 2005, that dream I had as a kid became a reality when I got drafted by Detroit. A few years later — after my junior season at MSU — I got called up for the last two games of the ’07–08 season.

I had played at The Joe probably close to 10 times before my first game as a Detroit player. But as soon as I pulled on that Red Wings jersey … I felt different. Nine years later, every time I put on that jersey that feeling of immense pride comes back.

Jared Wickerham/The Players' Tribune

For the Cup run that followed, I was a “black ace,” which meant that I traveled, trained and practiced with the team so I would be ready to play in case of injury. During the home games, I watched from the locker room. It’s a perspective that very few get to see a game from, especially during the Stanley Cup playoffs. There was a TV in the locker room, but you didn’t even need it. Every shot, save, goal — the roar of the crowd told the story. It’s an old building, and you could feel it shake.

It’s the memories that help you never forget a place, but it’s the people inside who make a place what it is. The fans are amazing. I can’t count how many times I got chills during the final game. I don’t think anyone in the crowd sat down for the final 10 minutes — it was awesome to be a part of.

There are so many great people who worked at The Joe, from the “gray coats” to the great men and women who kept the building running — they made you feel at home. But one in particular has a special place in my heart:

Al Sobotka.

Yes, the octopus-waving Zamboni driver. He’s a great friend, and also, a great cook. Once a month, he treated the players to a special barbecue. You always knew when he was cookin’ because you’d be out on the ice skating through drills, and then you’d smell the grill. You’d look over and you could see the smoke coming through Zamboni tunnel.

He’s also been a wingman for me … sorta.

Last November, I had the idea to propose to my girlfriend, Julie. And where better to do it than at The Joe?

So I went to Al with an idea. Julie had never been skating before and it would be great have her first skate be at The Joe. And I wanted this special moment to happen here, at center ice. Sure enough, he made it work. That day after practice we finalized the details. But it was all the small things Al did that made the day so special. He made sure there was a message on the video board for us. He had the exact right size skates for Julie. He even put out some nice roses and champagne. He even rolled out a red carpet for us.

So, my girlfriend and I had a dinner reservation that night, but on the way to the restaurant I told her I needed to stop by the arena and grab a dozen sticks for an event we were attending later that week. Al and I had a few other people in on it, and everything went smoothly.

Jared Wickerham/The Players' Tribune

It was perfect.

It only seemed fitting to have another memorable moment at The Joe.

I thought of all those memories as I looked out on the ice for a final time. I wished that Mr. I, Mike Ilitch, could have been there, too. During the last game, I caught myself frequently looking up to the Ilitch family’s suite behind the net, and specifically to the spot where Mr. and Mrs. I would sit.

He would have loved Sunday night.

He’s one of the great owners in the history of sports. He treated his players like family, and it meant the world to us. I’m sure that, wherever he was, he would have enjoyed watching the octopi — all 35 of them! — fly over the glass. He loved this city. It was people like him that made it such an honor to wear the Red Wings jersey. And it was people like the Ilitch family who made it so hard to hang it up at The Joe for the last time.

It was like moving out of the home you had been raised in. In fact, that’s exactly what it was.

Jared Wickerham/The Players Trib

From the outside, The Joe might seem like just another Arena. But like the city of Detroit, once you step inside, you see what it truly is.

Thanks, Joe Louis Arena.

We’ll miss you.