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TBT: Red Wings alumni relish their last time at Joe Louis Arena

Former captain Steve Yzerman and former coach Scotty Bowman close out the Joe in style

by Dana Wakiji @Dwakiji / DetroitRedWings.com

DETROIT - For the Red Wings alumni who came to celebrate the final weekend at Joe Louis Arena, it was as much about saying hello to friends as it was saying goodbye to a cherished building.

It started with an informal skate Friday night at the Joe, followed by a very special Al Sobotka barbecue.

While Sobotka was grilling his legendary ribs, Tomas Holmstrom, Mikael Samuelsson, Anders Eriksson, Dennis Polonich, Dino Ciccarelli, Eddie Mio and Kirk Maltby skated along with Dave Coulier and his son, Luc. Fedor Fedorov, Sergei's brother, also joined the fun.

"It was great, I really enjoyed it," Holmstrom said. "It was fun, for sure. I don't skate that much. My knees are bad. I pulled my groin. You should have seen my speed. I didn't stretch before I went. I blew out my knee in '94 in Sweden. I've had three surgeries on my left knee, two on my right."

Nick Lidstrom arrived late so he didn't skate but couldn't pass up the barbecue. Mike Vernon and John Ogrodnick also joined in.

On Saturday, a group of alumni went to Comerica Park to watch the Tigers take on the Boston Red Sox.

For Polonich, it brought back some great memories of a very different experience at the ballpark as he played in the alumni game there before the Wings played the Toronto Maple Leafs at Ann Arbor's Michigan Stadium.

"It's pretty fascinating to think we played hockey here," Polonich said. "The best part was being in the Tigers clubhouse, all 50. Gordie Howe was there, Ted Lindsay, Lidstrom, (Steve) Yzerman, (Slava) Fetisov. All the history. I only played with one organization for 12 years. I remember living here. The city worships their athletes. It's a blue collar town, I was a blue collar player, bit of an underdog, that's why people took to me. It's pretty neat to come back."

Polonich played his entire career with the Wings, scoring 59 goals and 82 assists in 390 games from 1974-83.

After the baseball game, the alumni returned to Joe Louis Arena to watch the Wings play the Montreal Canadiens.

On Sunday, the day started for the alumni at Little Caesars Arena, where they got a guided tour of the new building.

After that, Lidstrom returned to Comerica Park where he threw out the first pitch before the game.

Lidstrom posed for photos in the dugout with several people, including star pitcher Justin Verlander.

Known as the "Perfect Human," Lidstrom lived up to the billing by throwing a pitch that Matt Boyd did not have to move to catch.

After a brief respite, the alumni joined the current team on the red carpet for their last entrance to Joe Louis Arena.

Many Wings fans had been waiting since early in the morning to greet their hockey heroes.

Current Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg was the first to arrive. Not only was it the final game at Joe Louis Arena, it was also Zetterberg's 1,000th NHL game.

"That it ended up to be this game, the last game at the Joe, a lot of guys came back. I actually thought it was for me," Zetterberg joked. "It couldn't be a better game because I played a lot of games with a lot of players that were in this weekend so they're a big part of those 1,000 games."

Many players spent a half hour or more on the red carpet, signing autographs and posing for photos with fans. Some of the players took photos or videos with their cell phones.

After the walk, a few alumni shared their memories of Joe Louis Arena with the media.

Samuelsson had an interesting perspective, having played there first as an opponent.

"First of all, it was the fans," Samuelson said. "Great attitude, you could see it out there (on the red carpet. They really love their team, you can feel that. As a young guy then, I was intimidated by the players. I remember I was standing there before the morning skate, (Brendan) Shanahan and Brett Hull took one-timers. I just watched those two guys stay extra on the ice. It was like, hey, a little bit intimidating. Once you got out there that night and played the team, you barely touched the puck. So all those ingredients together made it pretty hard."

Vernon spent the early part of his career with the Calgary Flames before coming to Detroit from 1994-97.

"This building is special because it packs in 20,000 screaming fans," Vernon said. "It's exciting to play in. They're very vocal and they can get you up for the game. It was fun playing here. It got your blood going every time. That was the nice part. Inside the Joe it was still inside that dressing room, special guys I played with, you battled with to go on. My first game at Joe Louis wasn't a great experience. I was with the Calgary Flames and called up. I only lasted two periods, let in four goals. I didn't get off to a good start but I think I finished strong."

Darren McCarty held court for more than 15 minutes as he has more than a few incredible memories of the Joe.

"What's my favorite memory? I've got a loaded deck but one of them is smoking that cigar on the golf cart coming from the dressing room to meet you guys after we won in '97," McCarty said. "I remember the smell. I mean, you can't forget the smell down here. The whole hockey, springtime, humidity, sweat, champagne, whatever and everything else. The smell is one of the things I'm miss the most, or not miss the most. You will notice that it's gone. It will take a few years to bring it to the new place."

For Samuelsson, Joe Louis Arena also represented personal redemption.

"I came here in 2005 after not doing too great in the league, bouncing around to a couple teams. Kenny (Holland) took me in and turned my whole career around," Samuelsson said. "I'm still thankful for that moment. I played in this building, played against the Red Wings for four or five years before I joined the team and it was a hard building to play in. So once I got a call in 2005, I was so happy and I was thinking about it for two seconds and then off I went. I had a great start, me personally. I remember I scored goals in my five first games with the team. I remember Shanahan came up on the flight on the road and he said, 'Hey, you know what, kid? I'm supposed to be the goal scorer here.' So that's great memories. I was here total for six years. What this building meant to me, it turned my whole career around."

Of course, one memory sticks out for Vernon.

"The three years I was here we went to the Stanley Cup finals twice, so that was nice, and winning," Vernon said. "Winning it here in Detroit was special, in front of our own fans. You see outside (on the red carpet) the support that this team gets from the fans, it's an amazing place. I was fortunate to play for an Original Six team, that's a big thing for a hockey player. Winning a Cup here was sweet."

Naturally for McCarty and for the fans, the game on March 26, 1997 is forever etched in everyone's minds.

"It's the greatest game in hockey history, as far as I'm concerned - 11 goals, nine fights, the magnitude," McCarty said. "The fact that you'll never get a sporting event with the hype, a team event, with the hype of what is going to happen as far as cross the line, to the line, what's the line when you're talking about a revenge sort of thing or payback sort of thing. It doesn't happen in any sport anymore. That game just sort of super Mario power, boom! To everybody, invigorated. You not only slay the giant, not only you can beat those guys after they had beaten you the year before after you set the league record 62 wins. It's that belief together. You never did anything apart but the fact that we all got it at the same time, so to speak, all the pieces fell together.

"That was the game. It wasn't the fight, it wasn't just the goals that went in, it's the whole thing. Everybody was involved and everybody that got into it, whether you were a player, coach, fan, worked here, whatever. That was Motown. After that, it was different. It was just different. You walk in here and you didn't think. You didn't wonder if you were good enough. There was no second-guessing yourself. It was we have it and no one's going to take it from us anymore. You didn't have to say anything, it was just the way it was. Then we went out and proved it."

The Wings proved they wanted to send out the Joe on a joyful note, beating the New Jersey Devils, 4-1.

"I went to the one in Montreal in 1996 when they closed the Forum," former Wings coach Scotty Bowman said. "The fans here, I don't know what it is, but they're so much more noisy. It was a good ending to The Joe with the win."

Riley Sheahan scored his first two goals of the season, ending a mystifying season-long drought, including the final goal scored at Joe Louis Arena.

"There's a lot of things I'll remember in my career and it's definitely one of them," Sheahan said. "I guess in the bigger picture, it's unfortunate that they came so late. It is pretty cool and it's something I'll definitely take with me through the rest of my career."

After the game, the Wings returned to the ice for the farewell ceremony, where Yzerman and Bowman spoke after a tribute video to late owner Mike Ilitch and his family.

Yzerman was only available because his Tampa Bay Lightning had been eliminated from playoff contention the previous night.

The fans were overjoyed to see Yzerman and let him know it from the time he was introduced until after he was done speaking.

Yzerman spoke of joining the Wings in 1983, the year after Mike and Marian Ilitch bought the team.

"Your family is the biggest reason why this Red Wings organization is where it is today, why there is 20,000 plus people in this building today, showing the passion for this organization," Yzerman said. "I thank you on behalf of my family, on behalf of the Detroit Red Wing players for your commitment to this organization.

"I've had many wonderful memories here. Ironically I played my first home game at Joe Louis Arena against the New Jersey Devils. It was a game we happened to lose, but from that game to step on the ice, come out of the tunnel and step on the ice in front of a sold-out building, to do that for 22-plus years, to see the passion everyone had for the team, it's just great memories. I'm so fortunate and so glad and relieved that one day we could stand here at center ice in June of '97 and raise the Stanley Cup."

Yzerman told the fans that Joe Louis Arena would not have been the special place that it was without them.

"Your passion and your support and desire for the Red Wings to do well is a big part of the success of this organization," Yzerman said. "So for all the players that have played in this building for the Red Wings, I thank you for your support and, like you all, look forward to getting into Little Caesars Arena and following the Red Wings' success throughout the years. Thanks a lot for coming here tonight and for your love and passion for the team and I look forward to seeing you in Little Caesars Arena next year as well."

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