It’s where the fans’ love affair with the Red Wings is genuine, and greatly appreciated by the players. With 806,892 boisterous fans packing The Joe during the regular-season, the energy in the building was a definite advantage for the Wings.
“When the fans are real loud it really helps us out, it’s like having an extra guy out there,” Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg
said. “We really get pumped up and it’s easy for us to play harder.
“I just want to thank you all for your great support you’ve given us all year.”
While it’s the guys on the ice that score the goals and win the games, the players believe that they wouldn’t have enjoyed another successful Central Division-winning season – let alone a 20th consecutive run in the Stanley Cup playoffs – without the immense support from their loyal fans.
To a man, players and coaches recently spoke with great admiration about the fans. When asked about the fan-support, they immediately point to the noise that fills The Joe; and the exorbitant buzz that they bring to the old barn, which has been part of the landscape along the Detroit River since 1979.
Through thick and thin, the fans’ support for the Wings has never wavered. But there was a special resurgence, of sorts, at The Joe this season, particularly in late March and April.
Despite a still sour Michigan economy, the Wings had 27 straight sell-outs at The Joe this season, averaging 768 more fans than in the 2008 Stanley Cup-winning campaign.
With all but one county in southeast Michigan still experiencing greater than 10% unemployment, fans were undeterred by the economy and continued to flock to Red Wings’ games this year.
According to ESPN figures, the Red Wings were third in NHL total attendance (home and away), drawing 18,952 fans in 82 regular-season games. The Wings only trailed the Chicago Blackhawks and Montreal Canadiens.
Someone who has a new found understanding of what it means to play for a team with a tremendous global following is Wings forward Jiri Hudler
. After a one-season hiatus in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, he quickly gained a new appreciation for what he and his teammates have in Hockeytown.
“Well, it’s different. A lot different,” Hudler said. “We’ve got such loud buildings, especially at The Joe. They call it Hockeytown for a reason. So, people are supporting us, and they’re great fans. They’re loud. We get playoff crowds in the regular-season, and it’s even bigger in the playoffs.”
In return, the 2010-11 season and the playoffs gave Wings’ fans many memorable highlights. From Nicklas Lidstrom
collecting his 1,000th career point, to coach Mike Babcock winning his 300th NHL game, there was plenty to cheer about.
Speaking directly to the fans, Babcock said, “Being a Red Wing and being in Detroit and being in Michigan, we get unbelievable support. Thank you, very much.”
The fans’ devotion wasn’t just limited to JLA. It followed the team and players everywhere. There were immense crowds for player appearances at Detroit area Meijer locations to see Patrick Eaves
and Tomas Holmstrom
. And the Wings’ school visits program was a success, and likely to continue on a grander scale in the future because of the unselfish participation of Lidstrom, Danny Cleary
, Pavel Datsyuk
, Brian Rafalski and Justin Abdelkader
“They’re awesome,” said Abdelkader, who was a guest reader to second- and third-graders at Detroit’s Glazer Elementary School this year. “It was a lot of fun to have the opportunity to go out there and read to the kids and it shows the support we have around Detroit and how many Red Wings fans there are.”
Late in the season, something in the atmosphere changed. An overwhelming enthusiasm, usually reserved for the playoffs, filled the building.
In March, the Wings hosted top Eastern Conference teams like the Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Toronto Maple Leafs, an Original Six foe that always stirs emotions of a bygone era when the two teams featured guys like Gordie Howe and Johnny Bower.
“The stretch with Toronto and Washington and Pittsburgh, I think they started seeing it getting closer to playoff time and they got excited too,” said forward Darren Helm
, of the fans. “Obviously, the Phoenix series was really great in the two games we had here, and it was even a bit louder (against San Jose).
“They’ve been behind us a lot this season. To have their energy, it gets loud in here. So I think the guys are always excited to play on home ice and play in front of our fans.”
Besides their intense excitement, the thing that the players like about their fans is that they’re more than casual observers of the game.
““We have great fans and they’re loud and they know the game of hockey,” Eaves said. “It’s always nice to be at home and have people in your corner cheering for you. … They’re plenty loud.”Michael Caples, Dave Burke and Jeff Sanford contributed to this report.