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Wings welcome milestone fan

by Zack Crawford / Detroit Red Wings
DETROIT – On December 17, 2011, the Red Wings welcomed their 25,000,000th fan to Joe Louis Arena since Mike and Marian Ilitch purchased the franchise in June 1982.

As she entered the Saturday night game against the L.A. Kings, Loretta Leinberger of Ortonville, Michigan was randomly selected as the honorary 25 millionth fan. Along with her husband, Jeff, Loretta was invited back to The Joe for the New Year’s Eve contest against the St Louis Blues.

The two fans received a limo ride to and from the game, dinner in the CC Olympia Club, tickets in the Legends Club, a jersey signed by all of the players and a free stay at Motor City Casino.

Not only did the game against the Kings mark the 25 millionth fan, but the month of December also marked the 32nd year that the Wings have called the Joe “home.”

In 1979, the Red Wings moved to Joe Louis Arena from Olympia Stadium, the 16,700 capacity arena that stood at 5920 Grand River Avenue in northwest Detroit. They played their first game at the new arena on December 27.

Three years later—coincidentally the same year that Loretta was born—Mike and Marian Ilitch purchased the struggling Wings from Bruce Norris, whose family had owned the Wings for 50 years.

After hiring general manager Jimmy Devellano and acquiring Steve Yzerman in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft, the Ilitchs quickly built a dynasty in Detroit.

Since the Ilitches turned the team around, the Wings have won four Stanley Cups (1997, 1998, 2002, 2008), six Presidents' Trophies, six conference titles and 16 division championships.

In that time, over 25 million fans have attended Red Wings games at The Joe, which has a capacity of 20,066—a number that has been reached in each of the past 45 games, giving the Wings a sell-out streak that began on December 10, 2010.

Only the Bell Centre, home of the Montreal Canadiens, has a higher capacity at 21,273.

“I think it’s a testament to the ownership of the Ilitches,” said Craig Turnbull, senior vice president of marketing and communications for Olympia Entertainmen. “The continued support, the positive energy—certainly there’s no better representation of that than a team like the Red Wings. Ultimately what you’ve got is an incredibly passionate fan base, and we try to give back to those fans all the time."

And even if fans aren’t able to make it to a game, Turnbull believes that with the help of the Internet the team is easily accessible to the worldwide fan base.

In the midst of planning their wedding last year, Jeff and Loretta Leinberger were some of those fans who weren’t able to make it to many games last year.

But tonight found them seated in the Legends Club, wearing their favorite Wings jerseys (Loretta – Franzen, Jeff – Holmstrom) and looking forward to bringing in the New Year in the Olympia Club.

“It’s been great,” Loretta, a receptionist at an animal hospital, said of the experience. “It’s been amazing. A big honor.”

And although Loretta hasn’t made any New Year’s resolutions, Craig Turnbull believes that focus at the Joe is already on the post-season at this time of year.

“Everybody looks toward the playoffs this time of the season,” Turnbull said. “We’re getting close to the half-season break, and heading to the all-star. Twenty-one years in a row is what it would be this year if we were to make the playoffs—that just doesn’t happen in sports any more.

“It’s just phenomenal what Ken and Mike and the team have done to maintain this level of excellence. I think you’re going to continue to see players like Nick Lidstrom stay. Guys putting in twenty years for this team—another thing that’s just unheard of in sports. And then the excitement of new guys that are coming out and playing—you see a guy like Cory Emmerton come out and make a difference right away so its an exciting time to be a fan of the sport and of our team.”

This year you can learn some of the history of Joe Louis Arena on a guided tour of the building, offered Wednesdays and Fridays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Booking information for the tours can be found here.
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