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Brendan Shanahan says goodbye to the Joe

Gets one last skate at arena where he played nine seasons with Red Wings

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

DETROIT -- Brendan Shanahan did not plan to skate at Joe Louis Arena on Saturday. But the president of the Toronto Maple Leafs heard some of his staff had the ice in the afternoon before the game against the Detroit Red Wings, and this was his last chance.

So he borrowed a pair of skates from Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, grabbed somebody's gloves and went through the rack until he found a couple of right-handed sticks that looked about right. He ended up breaking one of them.

"So I'm not telling you whose sticks they were," Shanahan said with a smile.

Shanny played shinny. He scored a couple of goals, one a bar-down beauty. Though he wore a blue Maple Leafs practice sweater instead of a Red Wings game sweater, though he is 48 years old now with a shock of gray hair, though he said he was "upset to desecrate" the memory of him as a player with his performance, he got to go back in time, at least for an hour.

He represented the feeling so many of us have about this place, whether we grew up going to games here, worked here, coached here or played here. We all knew this was the last season at the Joe. But the end has crept up on us, and suddenly it's almost here.

Now that the Red Wings have been eliminated from the race for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, we know for sure. After this, there are three games left: against the Ottawa Senators on Monday, the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday and the New Jersey Devils on April 9.

It's time to soak up every last second before the Red Wings move into Little Caesars Arena next season.

"The thoughts and the emotions were sort of different," Shanahan said. "The thoughts were, 'Boy, my legs hurt, and my lungs hurt.' And the emotions were, it's the end of a great run. Hockey players refer to arenas sometimes as barns affectionately, and this, to me, is a great old barn."

The Red Wings moved from the original great old barn, Olympia Stadium, to Joe Louis Arena in December 1979. So many great players passed through and the Red Wings won so much in the decades afterward, the spartan gray box beside the Detroit River developed, as Shanahan put it, "a real personality to itself."

Shanahan played a key role in making it an arena to which people refer affectionately. The Red Wings still had not won the Stanley Cup since 1955 when he arrived from the Hartford Whalers via trade on Oct. 9, 1996.

The Joe is where Shanahan tackled goaltender Patrick Roy amid a melee, before the Red Wings came back and won an epic game on a Darren McCarty overtime goal. He knows the date by heart, like so many in Detroit do.

"When you played for the Red Wings, it was really about the games against the Colorado Avalanche," Shanahan said. "And, of course, everybody remembers the game that we sort of felt really brought us together as a team on March 26, '97."

The Joe is where Shanahan hoisted the Stanley Cup for the first time 2 1/2 months later.

"You're always wondering when you're playing, especially once you start getting on in your career, whether or not it's indeed going to happen," Shanahan said. "So to get that close and then to be able to successfully finish it off here at home was a great memory.

"And on that team in '96-97, other than Mike Vernon, who won a Cup in Calgary [in 1989], and Joe Kocur, who won a Cup in New York [in 1994], we were all first-timers. We all had that sort of excitement but insecurity as well that we wanted to get the job done."

The Joe is where Shanahan won the Cup for the third time with the Red Wings in 2002. It is where Shanahan would score and the speakers would blare an Irish jig, one of the greatest goal celebration songs ever played. It is where his name is on the walls with the other champions.

The Joe is where people still greet Shanahan as family, even though he left as a free agent in 2006 and leads an Atlantic Division rival these days.

"One of the advantages also was that the people who worked here worked here a long time," Shanahan said. "Coming into the arena you saw a lot of familiar faces."

The Joe is where beauty …

Well, the Joe had a nice personality. It had character.

"It was not a beautiful trip to the dressing room on a red carpet in a private room," Shanahan said. "It was underneath the stands, ducking under girders, going through beer-stained floors. To me, that was some of the personality, the grittiness of the rink. Lively boards. There wasn't that row of suites [down low], so you just felt like the fans all had a good view and were right on top of it. I think any time one of the old arenas shuts down it's a little bit sad for the players."

Enjoy it while you still can.

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