The first event ever held at the Joe Louis Arena was a college basketball game. It was where Ronald Reagan received the Republican nomination for president in 1980 and it was where Prince opened his epic Purple Rain tour in 1984.
But The Joe always has been, and always will be about hockey and the Detroit Red Wings. And when it takes out the ice surface after the Red Wings season finale Sunday evening, an enormous piece of hockey history will go with it. Joe Louis Arena, more than anything, was an enduring symbol of excellence because it housed a franchise that reached for that objective every season and hit it more times than a lot of teams could ever dream. Things will be different, and in many ways better, when the Red Wings hit the ice at the Little Caesars Arena next season, but with the parity in the game, we may have seen the last building to house a dynasty in a long, long time.
Here are one man’s top 10 moments in the history of The Joe. Some are personal, others only seen on television. Some are triumphs, others disappointments. But all of them helped shape the history of one of the most iconic arenas the league has ever seen.
10. MAY 9, 1995
Game 6, OHL final
Detroit Jr. Red Wings 5, Guelph Storm 4
The Red Wings weren’t the only team to go on a long playoff run in the spring of 1995. The Detroit Jr. Red Wings, in their last season at The Joe, won the OHL championship and went on to play in the Memorial Cup. The amazing thing about that team was that it had as many future NHL players in the lineup, two, as future NHL coaches behind the bench. Defenseman Bryan Berard was a one-man wrecking crew for the Jr. Red Wings and formed a defense tandem with Jamie Allison, who went on to play almost 400 NHL games.
The Red Wings were coached by a fresh-faced up-and-comer by the name of Paul Maurice and one of his assistants was Peter DeBoer. But that was the last the Jr. Red Wings would ever see of Detroit or Maurice, who went on to become an assistant coach with the Hartford Whalers the next season. The Jr. Red Wings, meanwhile, were essentially evicted from Joe Louis as part of a legendary feud between Red Wings owner Mike Illitch and Peter Karmanos, who owned the Jr. Red Wings and had recently purchased the Whalers. The Jr. Red Wings were rebranded the Detroit Whalers and played in the suburbs before moving to Plymouth two years later.
9. OCT. 13, 1984
Detroit Red Wings 4, New Jersey Devils 1
A fourth-year student at Carleton University and his buddies try to score tickets to the 1984 World Series and somehow end up with ducats for Games 3, 4 and 5 at Tiger Stadium. Just hours after watching Alan Trammell hit two home runs to lead the Tigers to a 4-2 win in Game 5, we find ourselves at The Joe for the Red Wings 1984-85 home opener. Both teams are bad, but one of them has Ron Duguay, Darryl Sittler, Tiger Williams, Brad Park, Danny Gare and Steve Yzerman and the other has a rookie Kirk Muller.
The official attendance is listed at 16,630, but there’s probably fewer than half that many people there. Midway through the warm-ups, my buddy from Windsor, Simon Tuck, declares that our nosebleed seats are not acceptable and for the first time in my life, I see a real-live NHL game from right near the ice. Duguay has a goal and two assists en route to his best-ever NHL season and Yzerman has three assists. We manage to get a discount case of beer back to Windsor without paying duty, then go back to Detroit the next day to watch the Tigers wrap up the World Series and fans almost burn down the city.
8. FEB. 5, 1980
1980 NHL All-Star Game
Wales Conference 6, Campbell Conference 3
The 32nd NHL All-Star Game was rather inconsequential except for two factors. It marked the last of Gordie Howe’s 23 appearances in the game and the first of Wayne Gretzky’s 18. Just 19 years old at the time, Gretzky looked across the ice to his childhood hero, who was less than two months shy of his 52nd birthday. Howe, who appeared only once more as a player at The Joe, received an extended standing ovation. Howe registered an assist in the game and Gretzky was held pointless, quite a feat considering he has 25 All-Star Game points, the most in NHL history.
7. JUNE 20, 1995
Game 2, Stanley Cup final
New Jersey Devils 4, Detroit Red Wings 2
The favored Red Wings had dropped the first game of the final to the Devils, but came out strongly in Game 2 and looked to be on their way to a victory when Sergei Fedorov scored early in the third period to put the Red Wings ahead 2-1. But that was when Scott Niedermayer picked up the puck behind his own net and carried it all the way to the Red Wings zone, getting a step on Paul Coffey and bearing down on Mike Vernon. His first shot missed the net, but bounced of the legendary lively Joe Louis boards right back to Niedermayer, who scored to tie the game. The Devils scored late in the third period and added an empty netter to take a stranglehold on what ultimately ended as a four-game sweep and the start of a dynasty.
6. MAY 16, 1996
Game 7, Western Conference semifinal
Detroit Red Wings 1, St. Louis Blues 0 (2OT)
This series should not have been close. The Red Wings had finished the season 51 points ahead of the Blues in the standings with 131 points, the second highest total in NHL history. But then again, there were 14 future Hall of Famers playing in that series, seven on each team. After a scoreless first overtime, Wayne Gretzky tried to corral a Vladimir Konstantinov pass in the neutral zone, but it went off the heel of his stick to Steve Yzerman, who carried it just inside the Blues zone and scored with a slapshot over the shoulder of Jon Casey for the most spectacular goal of his career. The win punched the Red Wings ticket to the Western Conference final against the Colorado Avalanche and we all know what happened there.
5. OCT. 23, 1998
Toronto Maple Leafs 5, Detroit Red Wings 3
Another personal one here, but also a performance for the ages by Curtis Joseph. The Maple Leafs, with new coach Pat Quinn behind the bench, had surprised the NHL with 4-1-1 start to the season going into a Friday night game in Detroit against the two-time Stanley Cup champions. Everything pointed to the Leafs getting their comeuppance, but Joseph was spectacular, almost singlehandedly winning the game for the Leafs. It was the first indication that the 1998-99 Leafs team, which made it to the Eastern Conference final that season, might have something special going. And it was an early indication of the kind of game-saving goaltending Joseph would give the team for the next four seasons.
4. JUNE 12, 2009
Game 7, Stanley Cup final
Pittsburgh Penguins 2, Detroit Red Wings 1
Because of this game, Max Talbot will never have to pay for a beer in Pittsburgh as long as he lives. In a rematch of the previous year’s final, the Red Wings and Penguins had won all their games on home ice with the Red Wings confident they could keep the streak going in Game 7. (Former Red Wings coach Barry Smith told me after Game 6 that Game 7 wouldn’t even be close.)
With Sidney Crosby leaving mid-game with a knee injury, the heroics were left up to Talbot, who scored both Pittsburgh goals. The Red Wings had two incredible opportunities to tie the game. With less than three minutes to go, Niklas Kronwall took a shot that deflected off Jordan Staal and hit the crossbar and in the final flurry of the game, Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury robbed Nicklas Lidstrom on a shot from the left circle.
3. JUNE 13, 2002
Game 5, Stanley Cup final
Detroit Red Wings 3, Carolina Hurricanes 1
Once again, the dominant Red Wings were in a Stanley Cup where they totally outmatched their opponent. After losing the first game of the series on home ice in overtime, the Red Wings swept the next three and were looking for their third Stanley Cup in six years. And they got it with a two-goal second period and an insurance goal with 15 seconds left. What made the moment so special was that Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman, knowing he had coached the last game of his illustrious NHL career, put on his skates and skated around the Joe Louis ice with the Stanley Cup over his head.
2. MARCH 26, 1997
Detroit Red Wings 6, Colorado Avalanche 5 (OT)
In a game that will forever be remembered as Fight Night at the Joe, the Red Wings and Avalanche met for the final time in the regular season, less than a year after Claude Lemieux drilled Kris Draper into the boards from behind in Game 6 of the Western Conference final. The teams had played three times previously that season without incident, but payback was coming.
It all started when Darren McCarty went after Lemieux and administered a one-sided beating. Seeing his teammate being pummeled, Avalanche goalie Patrick Roy skated out to center ice to help, only to receive a clothesline from Brendan Shanahan. While Shanahan and Adam Foote fought, Red Wings goalie Mike Vernon and Roy fought. Both Lemieux and Roy were badly bloodied, with their blood still showing on the ice after the Zamboni had cleaned it off. There were five more fights that game, with the Red Wings gaining the decision in the majority of them. The Red Wings say that game galvanized the team and sowed the seeds of their championship season.
1. JUNE 7, 1997
Game 4, Stanley Cup final
Detroit Red Wings 2, Philadelphia Flyers 1
The Red Wings had waited more than 40 years for this moment and they would not be denied. Entering the game with a commanding 3-0 lead in the Cup final, the Red Wings were desperate to end the series quickly and do so on home ice in front of their fans. And they did just that when Darren McCarty scored a goal as beautiful as you’re ever going to see to give the Red Wings a 2-0 game and seal the victory.
McCarty, known more for his hard fists than his soft mitts, gained the Flyers zone and deked defenseman Janne Niinimaa, then drew Ron Hextall out of his crease before tucking the puck past him. Not only did it end years of frustration for a fan base that deserved a championship, it was also the last NHL game ever played by Red Wings rock-hard defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov, whose career was ended when he was involved in a limousine accident during the celebrations days later.