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On verge of another home ice milestone

by Bill Roose / Detroit Red Wings
Riley Sheahan and Dylan Larkin salute the home fans following a 5-4 shootout win over Buffalo earlier this month at Joe Louis Arena. (Photo by Dave Reginek/Detroit Red Wings)

DETROIT – For nearly 36 years Joe Louis Arena has stood as the iconic backdrop for many historic hockey moments.

Monday could be another extraordinary evening for the Red Wings, who have won 799 regular-season home games at the emblematic building. The Wings will shoot for No. 800 when they host rookie sensation Jack Eichel and the Buffalo Sabres in front of another sold-out crowd.

Since Dec. 1979, when the Red Wings moved from Olympia Stadium on Grand River to Detroit’s riverfront, the hockey club has produced a league-best .641 home winning percentage, compiling an incredible record on home ice at 799-407-119-67 (W-L-T-OTL).

The plan is for the Red Wings to move to the new Detroit Events Center in time for the start of the NHL’s 2017-18 season. But before then they have 64 regular-season games left to be played at JLA.

That also means the 800th win will likely stand as one of the last regular-season milestones in the history of the downtown arena, which saw its first Wings’ victory – a 4-2 decision over the New York Islanders – on Dec. 30, 1979.

Another milestone will occur on Jan. 23 when the Wings play their 1,400th regular-season game at JLA. That evening they will host the Anaheim Ducks.

During the Wings’ four decade span at JLA, the Canadiens’ home win record is second in the league. Montreal has earned 790 home victories (.638) between the Montreal Forum and Bell Centre.

The pending milestone impresses the Wings players, but not to the point that it blinds them from the more important task of stockpiling points in the standings. Heding into Monday’s Atlantic Division game, the Wings have gotten points in 13-straight games (8-0-5), their longest since a 20-game points streak in March/April 2006.

For Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall, nostalgia will have to wait.

“I think it's something that's pretty special for the organization,” he said. “For us in here right now, we're just focusing on another game for us and another two points on the line. So for us, that's all the focus is on. I think that's going to be something that's pretty special to look back at that you've been a part of.”

Revered by the Wings and their loyal fan base, JLA is often criticized for its distressed condition, lack of adequate parking and few upscale amenities. However, opposing players see the formidable arena more sentimentally.

“You appreciate buildings like this,” Arizona captain Shane Doan said. “I think everyone in the NHL thinks that the real NHL was when they were watching as a kid. The longer you play the more you remember watching Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier and Steve Yzerman. Those were the real NHL guys, who played, and those were the real buildings. It will be the same for the guys who go through these new buildings over the next few years.”

The 800 home victories is a tremendous achievement for a franchise that didn’t win enough to qualify for postseason play during the first four years in what was then thought of as a state-of-the-art building.

A change in ownership was necessary to revive a once thriving Original Six franchise that had two playoff appearances in the previous 16 seasons. Enter Mike and Marian Ilitch, avid Detroit sports fans, who purchased the Wings in 1982. The couple hired a hockey man, Jimmy Devellano, to run the hockey operations, and in short order, they turned a floundering franchise into a perennial winner that has seen Stanley Cup celebrations.

By the time Doan entered the league with the Winnipeg Jets in 1995-96, the foundation for the Red Wings’ dynasty had already been poured. Still today, the fast ice and spongy boards at Joe Louis Arena gives the Wings a definite home advantage, something that Nicklas Lidstrom used in constructing his hall-of-fame career.

“You take advantage of the situation that you’re in, and having the ice that’s quick and (pucks) coming off the boards quick you get used to that, where obviously not all of the boards in the league are the same way,” Doan said. “When you can take advantage of something players tend to and (Lidstrom) was one of the best.”

In the twilight of his 14-season career, Buffalo forward Brian Gionta has loved playing at The Joe since he first skated there as a senior at Boston College in the 2000 Great Lakes Invitational.

“You talk about the boards and the corners here that are different than any other building, then you talk about the guys you played against here. (Chris) Chelios, Lidstrom, guys like that,” Gionta said. “It was hard coming in here against those teams. You knew you were in for a tough night. They played the ends boards. Cheli used to do it all the time, miss the net and it would be popping right back out. There’s not much to the corners, they’re narrow. Those were good teams to play against, hard teams, fast teams, (Kris) Draper, (Kirk) Maltby, those guys.”

RED WINGS MILESTONE VICTORIES AT JOE LOUIS ARENA
MILESTONE WINS DATES OPPONENTS SCORES
1 12.30.79 New York Islanders 4-2
100 04.06.86 Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2
200 01.02.91 Minnesota North Stars 6-2
300 10.21.95 Boston Bruins 4-2
400 03.26.99 Tampa Bay Lightning 6-1
500 12.14.02 Columbus Bllue Jackets 6-4
600 03.26.07 Anaheim Ducks 1-0
700 02.07.11 New York Rangers 3-2
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