Technical Difficulties

(You would be looking at more Detroit pictures if a, my wireless internet didn’t crap out on me–which is a regular occurence, by the way–and b, if Hello didn’t crap out on me when the connection finally started up again. Both of these did occur, however, and so for the time being I’ve been forced to go with an abbreviated photo montage; when I get it sorted out, I’ll post the remainder a.s.a.p.)

For years, Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena had been at the top of my “NHL arenas I need to visit before I die” list, yet inexplicably I’d never put any real effort into getting there. So when Bri’s housemate/my friend Mike Jones (no, not that Mike Jones) asked me if I’d be interested in going to one of Detroit’s opening round playoff games against the Edmonton Oilers, I said yes, albeit confident that he wouldn’t be able to get us tickets; two minutes later we had seats in the upper bowl, and as soon as the teams split the opening two games (both of which Edmonton should have won, by the way), the die was officially cast. Mike drafted in two of the guys from his lab to join us, and yesterday morning we piled into an Intrepid and sped (the operative word, that) towards Detroit.

The day started ominously–first with Manchester United losing the Premiership to Chelsea, then with Wayne Rooney breaking his foot (and the lack of information regarding the latter nearly killed me). Eventually, we made it to Detroit. Mike immediately insisted on going to Hockeytown, a.k.a. the Detroit Red Wings’ bar, which seemed like a bad idea. We actually arrived juuust as the Detroit Lions were making their opening selection in the NFL Draft; across the street, meanwhile, the Detroit Tigers were in the process of annihilating the Minnesota Twins (final score: 18-1), and with the Detroit Pistons juggernaut playing in Milwaukee later in the evening it was probably one of the biggest days in the city’s recent sports history. Naturally, Mike decided it’d be a good idea to walk into the middle of it all wearing an Edmonton Oilers jersey. We survived, however, and then walked to Joe Louis Arena. En route, we passed buildings which–shockingly–weren’t completely derelict; in fact, I’d go so far as to say that the Detroit waterfront is at least as nice as Toronto’s.

I don’t believe in having “second-favourite teams”, although I certainly don’t have a problem with the odd fling (I’d had them myself, notably involving Southampton and the Minnesota Twins). You cannot hedge your bets; that’s why I’m legitimately puzzled when sports fans say, without irony, that they have multiple favourite teams. That said, I’ve always had a soft spot for both the Red Wings and the Oilers. The Oilers were the first team I ever rooted for; I started watching hockey during the peak of the Wayne Gretzky era, and so didn’t have much choice but to cheer for them. In fact, the Oilers played in the first-ever NHL game I saw live, against the Minnesota North Stars at the old Met Centre in Bloomington, MN on March 20, 1988. I hadn’t seen them play since, at least not in the flesh. Detroit, by contrast, is a team I can’t help but respect; put Steve Yzerman in the line-up and I’m inclined to root for just about anybody, even if that team has Dominik Hasek in goal. Detroit formed the linchpin for mine and Justin’s infamous road trips of 1999-2001. But despite my recent proximity to Joe Louis Arena, I still hadn’t been there.

Well, to invoke one of the oldest of cliches, it was worth the wait. The climb up those famous stairs–you’ve seen them dozens of times on t.v.–was spine-tingling; the sea of red-and-white jerseys, the panorama of downtown Detroit, the giant purple octopus watching overhead, all pointed to the fact that this was an event. Inside, the arena conveyed more character than any modern building could. The concourse was cramped, but at least it wasn’t boring. The feeling the building exudes is breathtaking.

Our seats were high up–but since the arena is a bowl (a la Lambeau Field), there aren’t really any bad seats. In fact, the standing room tickets (which would have cost $5 more than the tickets we eventually bought) are actually some of the best “seats” in the house: they run along the middle concourse, no more than twenty rows from the ice. Still, we ended up sitting next to a pack of brown Oilers fans who came bearing signs…and shockingly, absolutely no one harassed us. Given my history, I’m a little bit gunshy about being overly exuberent when seeing my favourite team on the road. Mike, bless him, spent much of the game openly taunting the Detroit fans around us–and not a single one of them reacted poorly. In fact, after the game, we ended up having a wonderful conversation with the father and his son sitting next to us. All this confirmed what I already knew: Detroit fans are the best in the NHL. They’re easily the most fun when they visit the Hall of Fame; they’re brash and they dress really interestingly, but they genuinely care. The fact that they let us care about the Oilers without making us fear for our lives was the icing on the cake for me.

As for the game, the Oilers just about deserved their win. Detroit looked “off” the entire game; the team lacked punch, which I would never expect to say about any Red Wings team. Still, when Zetterberg scored with twenty seconds left, it set up a wild finale which wasn’t over until Shawn Horcoff blocked Pavel Datsyk’s slapshot with what looked like his face (it turned out to be his elbow, which is only slightly less painful). Was it anticlimactic seeing the Red Wings lose my first-ever game at Joe Louis? Slightly, yeah–which is saying nothing of Steve Yzerman’s absence due to an “upper body injury”. But it was also one of the most invigorating live sporting experiences I’ve had in a long, long time; it certainly reaffirmed my faith in the NHL, as well as provided me with a guaranteed road trip destination for the foreseeable future.

As for the driving…well, Nam (from Vietnam) likes to drive fast. Really frigging fast. So fast, in fact, that there were times on the ride home when my palms were literally sweating. Prior to yesterday, 180 km/hr was a rumour to me; now, it’s seared into my memory. Detroit to Toronto in under three hours? Surely ye jest.

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