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The Joe gets fitting sendoff

Plenty of Red Wings legends, octopuses on hand for final game at arena

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / NHL.com Columnist

DETROIT -- The fans counted down as if this were Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. 

"THREE!"

"TWO!"

"ONE!"

The horn sounded, and the fans roared. The Detroit Red Wings gathered on the ice to celebrate a 4-1 victory against the New Jersey Devils on Sunday.

This was not Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, of course. It was Game 82 of the first season the Red Wings missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 1990.

But it was also Game No. 1,807 at Joe Louis Arena in the regular season and playoffs, and the final game at the Joe, the home to four championship teams and countless legends over its 37-plus years.

And so it was time to celebrate the memories and soak up the scene one more time before the Red Wings move into Little Caesars Arena next season.

The Red Wings skated to center ice and raised their sticks to salute the fans, and the fans raised the ministicks the team had given away as souvenirs in return, underscoring the connection the team and the city made in this place.

It was a playoff atmosphere, a party atmosphere.

"I've never had goose bumps this many times during a game in my career," said Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg, and this was his 1,000th NHL game.

If there was any consolation for the Red Wings missing the playoffs, it was this: Everyone knew this would be the last game at the Joe. The Red Wings could plan festivities and invite alumni to come back. The fans could come ready to say their goodbyes and raid the local fish markets.

Thirty-five octopuses hit the ice. Thirty-five. The Detroit tradition started in 1952, the eight legs of an octopus representing the eight playoff victories it took to win the Stanley Cup then. Well, on this night, it was almost as if each octopus represented a year at the Joe. Red Wings forward Justin Abdelkader said there were so many that the players could smell them toward the end of the game.

"In a tough season, like it's been for us, I think this was a nice way to go out," Abdelkader said. "This building deserves it."

Video: NJD@DET: Zetterberg buries wrister in 1,000th game

* * * * *

It was not a cold, gray Detroit day; it was sunny and 71. Thousands of fans arrived long before the 5 p.m. ET faceoff.

On one side of the Joe, fans lined up at the feet of the iconic entrance so they could take photos of themselves on the 36 steps. Everyone wore Red Wings gear, but George Wood, his son Michael Wood and family friend Greg Goloborodko wore Hartford Whalers sweaters as if they were Gordie Howe, Mark Howe and Marty Howe playing at the Joe together in 1980.

"It's a piece of history that we'll miss," George Wood said.

On the other side, fans lined up along the Detroit River on Steve Yzerman Drive, filled the entire entrance as if the 36 steps were grandstands, and flanked a long red carpet from the street to an inflatable arch with the words "FAREWELL SEASON AT THE JOE."

As freighters floated past, a monorail hummed overhead and a DJ played upbeat music, fans watched as Red Wings past and present pulled up in vehicles and then marched through the parting of the red sea to the promised land.

There were jerseys, T-shirts commemorating Stanley Cup championships and homemade signs.

"There's no place like HOME!" one sign said, the o's replaced by Winged Wheel logos.

"It's everybody in it together," said former Red Wings forward Darren McCarty, the star of two of the Joe's most memorable moments: pummeling Claude Lemieux and scoring the overtime winner against the Colorado Avalanche on March 26, 1997; and scoring the Cup-clinching goal against the Philadelphia Flyers on June 7, 1997.

"I think that's what you see outside right now, people just getting one last moment to share, maybe a glimpse or an autograph from one of the guys that they've watched or just to be there with their kids or their parents or just to grab that last moment."

Zetterberg arrived early and entered the lower level, the most spartan part of the spartan building, all cement and cinderblock. He ran into Leslie Baker, who has worked at the Joe for 31 years and feeds the press and players, and gave her a great big hug.

Remember, the Red Wings didn't just play at the Joe. They practiced there, worked out there, rehabbed there. Many of the players spent a lot of their lives in the building, along with many of the workers.

Zetterberg asked Baker for some postgame refreshment.

"Keep 'em cold," he said with a smile.

Players kept coming down the red carpet, and fans kept cheering and chanting. The Devils bus rolled past to boos. Red Wings forward Drew Miller stepped out of a vehicle and took photos of fans taking photos of him.

McCarty shared his thoughts in a press room filled to capacity. He recalled smoking a cigar on a golf cart on his way from the locker room to the same press room to speak to some of the same reporters after winning the Cup in 1997.

"I remember the smell," he said. "I mean, you can't forget the smell down here."

He laughed and talked about the mix of springtime humidity, champagne, smoke and sweat.

"The smell is one of the things you miss the most in here -- or don't miss the most," he said.

Someone asked about the Joe being called a dump.

"It was our dump," he said. "We take pride when other people talk about that, because it's sort of the way they talk about your city, you know? So we just let them come in and hopefully beat [them]. It's just because they're jealous. That's why people down talk Detroit, because they're jealous."

Video: Red Wings win final game at Joe Louis Arena

* * * * *

The last three players off the ice for warmups grew up in Michigan, dreamed about playing at the Joe someday, played at the Joe in college and then became Red Wings: Miller (Michigan State), Dylan Larkin (Michigan) and Abdelkader (Michigan State).

Abdelkader skated to the bench, leaned against the boards and took a long look around before disappearing into the tunnel.

"I'm usually the last one off the ice for warmups," Abdelkader said. "So just trying to take it all in, enjoy the atmosphere. It was just a fun atmosphere."

The Red Wings honored Zetterberg in a pregame ceremony for playing his 1,000th NHL game. Red Wings great Ted Lindsay presented him with a Tiffany crystal, Red Wings president Chris Ilitch presented him with a Rolex and Zetterberg's teammates presented him with a golf trip.

The video board played tributes from Daniel Alfredsson, Erik Karlsson, Nicklas Backstrom, Henrik Lundqvist, Niklas Kronwall, Pavel Datsyuk and Steve Yzerman. It seemed Yzerman, "the Captain," who led the Red Wings to three championships as a player, would not be able to attend because of his duties as general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

But out came a group to drop the first puck that included Al Sobotka, the building manager since the Joe opened, and …

Yzerman.

The Joe roared.

"STEV-IE! STEV-IE!"

An octopus hit the ice just before "the Red Wings' own" Karen Newman sang the national anthem, and Sobotka twirled it over his head. Six more octopuses hit the ice during the anthem. Then another after the anthem.

"LET'S GO, RED WINGS!" the fans chanted.

Two more octopuses hit the ice after forward Riley Sheahan, who hadn't scored in 79 games this season, went top shelf and put the Red Wings ahead 1-0 at 7:09 of the first period. Another octopus hit the ice after play resumed (a no-no).

Forward Tomas Tatar made it 2-0 at 11:19 of the first. Another octopus. Zetterberg made it 3-0 at 10:18 of the second. More octopuses.

McCarty and fellow Red Wings alumni Dino Ciccarelli, Tomas Holmstrom, Joe Kocur and Larry Murphy made a surprise appearance to shovel the ice during a TV timeout. A huge octopus went splat. Ciccarelli picked it up and handed it to Sobotka, who might need to ice his arm Monday.

Devils defenseman John Moore scored 1:15 into the third. But on the power play with 2:33 to go, Sheahan -- yes, Sheahan -- got what will go down as the last goal in Joe Louis Arena history, slapping a cross-crease pass from Frans Nielsen into an open net. Octopuses rained like slimy confetti.

The fans sang along to The Beatles' "Hey Jude." Another octopus hit the ice just before faceoff, allowing the DJ to put on Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline."

"Good times never seemed so good," Diamond sang as play resumed.

"So good! So good! So good!" the fans responded.

So good, indeed.

"We talk all the time about how fortunate we are to work for the Detroit Red Wings organization and play in this building, and tonight proved that," coach Jeff Blashill said. "The atmosphere was unlike anything I've ever experienced from the pregame ceremonies until the end of the game."

Video: NJD@DET: 31 Octopi thrown in final game at the Joe

* * * * *

No one wanted it to end, though.

The fans stayed in their seats for more than 45 minutes after the game as the arena crew set up for a closing ceremony, arranging red carpets on the ice to spell "JOE," seats for the alumni and current players, and a stage for speeches. Each NHL trophy the Red Wings had won in the Joe Louis Arena was there, except the Stanley Cup.

One by one, alumni and family of alumni were introduced. The wives of Bob Probert and Brad McCrimmon walked out carrying their late husbands' ashes. Vladimir Konstantinov, injured in a limo accident after the 1997 championship, was wheeled out by former teammate Doug Brown to a huge ovation. Scotty Bowman, who coached the Red Wings to three championships, got a huge ovation too. The captains came last to roars: Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom and Zetterberg.
As Red Wings TV announcer returns Ken Daniels tried to begin the program, the fans broke out into an impromptu, thunderous chant.

"LET'S GO, RED WINGS!"

Owner Mike Ilitch, who bought the Red Wings in 1982, turned them into the class of the NHL and died Feb. 10, received a standing ovation. Newman sang. Abdelkader, McCarty, Tomas Holmstrom and Mike Vernon did a Q&A. Sergei Fedorov, Mike Babcock, Brendan Shanahan and Wayne Gretzky gave video tributes. Yzerman and Bowman gave speeches.

"All of you that showed up here and remained here after the game and showed your love for the organization, your passion for the game, you are every bit as much important to this organization as these players are," Yzerman said.

A video montage ended with a clip of Joe Louis himself tipping his cap, and Daniels asked the fans to raise their ministicks in a final salute as the alumni and players raised sticks at center ice. Fireworks went off, and the fans sang along to a Joe Louis Arena staple: "Don't Stop Believin'."

"Born and raised in south DETROIT!"

The Journey was over.

Video: NJD@DET: Gary Bettman on the end of Joe Louis Arena

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