DETROIT – Some of the NHL’s best young talent is on display during this year’s Stanley Cup final.
The arenas, well, they’re another story. While players and coaches say Mellon and Joe Louis arenas are star venues in their own right, “young” is not a word used to describe two of the oldest rinks in the NHL.
Pittsburgh’s home ice is so outdated it almost drove the team out of town. And the future of the Joe, as it is affectionately known, is the subject of periodic debate in Hockeytown.
But ask current and former players and you’ll get a fairly uniform opinion.
They love the old rinks.
“There’s a lot of character in each building,” said Penguins defenceman Hal Gill. “Sometimes you have a little more old-time hockey feeling when you play in buildings like that.”
Joe Louis’ setup is pretty simple: 20,000 seats crammed into two levels with fans so close they feel like they’re on the ice.
Opposing players notice the elevated noise level, and the Red Wings love it.
“I thought we were in Canada yesterday. Before the game was great. It was fantastic,” Detroit coach Mike Babcock said of Game 1. “It was the loudest the building has been since I’ve been here by far. … It was fantastic, and I think it’s really important.”
The NHL is awash in sparkling new revenue-generating arenas with cozy locker-rooms, plush luxury boxes and dazzling video scoreboards.
Visitors to Detroit’s 29-year-old building get very little of that kind of modernity. What they do find, however, is a loyal, energetic fan base with a high hockey IQ and a wealth of popular – if unusual – traditions.
Every fan who has caught a playoff game along the Detroit River knows about octopi flying toward the ice, rousing national anthem renditions by local songstress Karen Newman and goofy aisle dances by superfan “Mo Cheese” and his Stanley Cup hat.
More than anything, though, the Wings have qualified for post-season play each of the past 17 seasons, and Joe Louis Arena has been witness to more than a few dramatic moments.
“It’s not too often you come to a historic place like this. I think everyone enjoys being here, and we grew up watching some of the teams that have won here,” said Sidney Crosby, who was nine when the Wings won their first Cup at Joe Louis. “There’s not too many older buildings left. And to be here and at the Mellon it’s pretty unusual.”
The Red Wings have taken full advantage of their home-ice advantage so far in the final, jumping out to a 2-0 advantage following Monday’s 3-0 win. The series shifts to Mellon Arena for Game 3 on Wednesday.
“It’s been a few years since we played there, but from watching on TV the people are jacked up,” said Red Wings forward Darren McCarty. “Pittsburgh is a great sports town. It’s not like an Anaheim. It’s a hockey hotbed.”
Yet the team’s future in the city was in serious doubt just a season ago.
The franchise was about to be sold to Canadian businessman Jim Balsillie at the end of 2006, but the deal fell apart. Instead, primary owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle chose to maintain ownership and were able to negotiate a deal with state and local officials to build a US$290 million arena.
The new building will be located across the street from the current location. It won’t open for a few years, but contractually obligates the Penguins to stay until 2040, ending any chance the team might relocate.
The future looks bright for the Penguins, who in 2010 should have a gleaming new hockey palace housing an impressive array of skilled players entering their prime.
But for now, the final is headed back to the Igloo for the first time since Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis and company skated away with two titles 16 and 17 years ago.
The Penguins, who haven’t lost a home playoff game this season, expect a distinct advantage playing in an arena that has been their home since 1967, when it was known as the Civic Arena.
“The arena is a big factor. We’re playing at home in front of our fans, cheering us and supporting us,” said Pittsburgh defencemen Sergei Gonchar. “It’s great stepping on the ice. You get that extra boost of energy coming from them.”
Hockey Hall of Famer Paul Coffey played defence for both teams last decade and fondly recalls his days speeding down the Civic Arena and Joe Louis Arena ice.
“There’s nothing worse than an entertainer – be it a singer or a hockey player – performing in an arena that has no feel for it,” he said. “These two reek of it.”