The bus raced down the 401 on the way to “The Joe” and I could hardly contain myself in my seat. My heart raced with excitement and my mind flashed a slide show of memories of times inside the Joe Louis Arena.
The memory of my parents taking me to watch my first NHL hockey game in 1980, the Red Wings’ second season in The Joe. Our seats were seemingly dead center of the arena, half way up, right on the center ice line and my eyes were as big as saucers as my head spun and took in all of its glory. In 1980, the Red Wings were bad but they played the Montreal Canadiens that night and a certain number 10 for the Habs seemed to be flying compared to all other players on the ice. The Habs number 19 was huge and seemed to be the best defenseman out there.
A few years later, in 1984 my brother’s minor hockey team played on the Joe Louis ice immediately prior to a Wings-Leafs game. We were there so early I stood down beside the bench and watched their game as Maple Leaf players started to mill about around the tunnel beside the visitors bench. Rick Vaive was the Leafs captain at the time and he was standing right in front of me along with another young-looking big guy with a giant nest of hair on top of his head. This was before the time of all access to athletes and cell phones and selfies; It took a while, but I got up the nerve to say something;
“Mr. Vaive, can I have your autograph?” I asked and he quickly obliged. I looked at the other guy but I didn’t recognize who he was as he looked back at me. I knew all the players so he must be a rookie I thought to myself.
“Um sir, can I have yours too?” I asked and he smiled as he signed my paper.
“Al Iafrate” is what I could make out of the signature.
An awesome night to remember.
My next memory at The Joe was in the following year when we went to a WWF wrestling event with the Teasdale clan, the Tuck’s and a bunch of others and sat in a luxury box to watch the matches. Third time in the building and got the luxury box experience, not too shabby. Randy “Macho Man” Savage was in the main event and was there with the gorgeous Elizabeth in his corner as he took on my favorite Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. I got my Dragon poster and beamed as hometown favorite George “The Animal” Steele tore apart the turnbuckle. The card was packed with wrestling legends like The Iron Sheik, The Killer B’s, Tito Santana and the Junk Yard Dog.
As the bus pulled across the border, my cousin Chris and I giggled as we went over our pre-game plan. This trip to “The Joe” was extra special because we had a unique group of tourists in the bus with us and a special arrangement for the evening.
The Green Mate Hockey Club of Japan was currently on a friendship tour in southern Ontario and was in the bus with us as we pulled up to the back loading dock of the arena. Green Mate was a Japanese sports apparel company and the owner, Mr. Koike loved ice hockey. Mr. Koike-san had ties to my family in Japan. They had come to Canada for an exhibition hockey tour a few years earlier arranged by my uncle and my dad and had enjoyed it so much, that this was their second trip to Canada. My dad arranged a bunch of exhibition games with junior and senior teams around the area, as well as some fun activities and banquets, all capped off by a trip to Detroit to watch the Red Wings play the best team in the world, The Edmonton Oilers.
This night was special enough being able to watch Yzerman and the Wings take on Gretzky and the Oilers, but my dad had also arranged a tour of the Red Wings dressing room for the guys of Green Mate hockey, and I was allowed to go for the ride. I was even more excited for my cousin Chris, who was from Japan, but was living with us in Chatham at the time and had never been to The Joe before in his life.
We flew out of the bus and went straight in to the Red Wings’ dressing room along with the twenty Japanese guys in silver Green Mate coats. The room was completely empty as we walked around. I stared at every stall as I made my way through the room, but my eyes kept darting to the one on the other side, one of the last stalls in the room. I was kinda afraid to go over there.
There was a buzz around one particular locker stall as I made my way around and I quickly saw that it was Bob Probert’s stall. The players were all speaking in Japanese and the interpreter said that they were all shocked at how hard and crusty his gloves were. I put them on and couldn’t even bend the fingers in them they were so hard and stiff. I even tried to toss them to the floor, like Probie would when he had to dance on the ice. Just as I was taking the gloves off there was a loud sound.
Everyone looked over to the stick rack and saw that one of the Japanese players, the smallest player on the team, #22 Chikasawa-san standing red-faced and in fear. The players surrounded him as he held the broken stick in his hand in horror He had been leaning and flexing one of the sticks on the rack and it broke under his weight. We all looked at the name at the top of the stick.
Chikasawa was petrified that he was in deep do-do either from the toughest guy in the NHL or from his stern Green Mate captain Mori-san. Everyone tried to make him feel at ease. He was genuinely worried.
The rest of us just laughed in hysterics as he tried to put the broken stick back on the rack. We walked through the facility and saw the luxury at their disposal. A lounge, weight room, two hot tubs, massage tables, a kitchen and the coaches offices all adjoined to the dressing room. “This is the coolest dressing room in the world” I thought to myself before I made it back to the one stall before we all got ushered out to the real world of the concessions and the seating bowl.
I went over to the stall and sat on the stool. I looked at the bag of letters that was sitting in front of it, and then the jersey that was hanging on a hanger in the stall.
“19” on the back.
A “C” on the front.
I was sitting in Steve Yzerman’s stall. This is where he prepared for games. This is where he trained for his work. This is the seat of one of my hockey idols, and I can’t believe I’m here. I was jolted out of my daydream by long time family friend and Chatham Daily News sports reporter Mike Bennett;
“Put on the jersey and I’ll take a quick picture” he said as I sat there like a zombie.
Am I allowed? I’m certainly not worthy, I thought to myself. It was like the Stanley Cup. You can look at it in awe, you can take a picture of it, but you can’t really touch it unless you have earned the right to do so. This is how I felt about Stevie’s jersey. “I’m going to get in trouble for crossing the line, just like I always do” I thought to myself again. Benny coaxed me on. No Red Wings, or Red Wing officials were in the room, except for goalie Glen Hanlon, who had quite a look on his face as he saw his dressing room inundated by a Japanese hockey team.
“Come on just do it fast, I will get the photo and no one will see.”
I put on the jersey and Mike took the picture. The black and white is one of my favorite photos of all time, but somewhere along the move and shake of life I don’t know where it is today.
The group was ushered out of the room and up to the seats and this is where cousin Chris and I sprung our next plan into action.
Chris and I wanted to make contact with one of the Oilers. When Chris had lived in Japan in previous years his dad Mel was a player and coach on the Japanese professional hockey team Kokudo Keikaku. Chris had met Dr. Randy Gregg when he was starting out his playing career in Japan and played for Kokudo. Years later, Randy Gregg was a defenseman on the Oilers. We headed for the stands down by the visitors bench as the Oilers warmed up for the game.
We were standing there watching the best in the world warm up. Gretzky, Kurri, Coffey, Messier, Lowe, Fuhr they were all out there flying around, snapping pucks in the net and to each other. You couldn’t hear the puck hit the stick, even though the passes were harder than my 13-year old slap shot. I was mesmerized again for the second time in fifteen minutes as Chris punched me in the arm.
“There he is right there, stretching on the boards by the bench,” it was Dr. Randy Gregg.
Now what? I thought to myself, he isn’t going to sign an autograph while he is in the warm-up. Chris took action and started yelling in his direction. He was only a few feet away.
“RANDY! RANDY!” he yelled to no avail. “RANDY” he tried one more time, and Randy Gregg looked up and towards our way.
“CHRIS? Hey wow nice to see you,” he said as he glided over to us.
They exchanged hello’s and smiles. Gregg was working and it was obvious the reunion would be short and sweet but then we were floored by what he said next;
“Come down here right after the game, and I’ll take you guys under to the room to meet some guys.”
Mission accomplished and it had worked out even better than we thought it would. This is not really happening I thought to myself as Chris and I high-fived and laughed our way up to our seats in the upper bowl. We told dad what happened and he was willing to let us go back down after the game. I could not have been more excited as I watched the game. The Wings were definitely out-matched on paper but they hung in close with the Oilers for the entire game.
The highlight of the game for me was when a huge mêlée broke out in front of the Oilers net and two guys broke free of the crowd and squared off beside the net. My heart was racing as Mark Messier and Joey Kocur dropped the gloves and squared off. Unfortunately, they left a little bit too much room between them before the dance and the linesman quickly jumped in before a punch was thrown.
The Oilers squeaked out a one-goal win with Randy Gregg scoring the winning goal. Chris and I sprinted down to the bench after the game and waited for Randy to come get us.
He never came.
Chris and I waited and waited, until the usher kicked us out and Randy never came out of the tunnel. Disappointed, we raced to the back loading dock where the bus would be waiting and there was a crowd of people roped off and gathered by the door. We met up with dad and he said that this is where the Oilers will be coming out on their way to the bus. We jostled our way to the rope and stood there with our pads while all the Oilers came strolling past signing autographs.
Gretzky stopped and spoke with us as he signed. Kurri and Fuhr smiled. Coffey scowled and scribbled something that looked more like a check mark than his signature. We never saw Messier come out. I don’t remember seeing Lowe or Anderson and we definitely didn’t see Dr. Gregg.
Even though the story ends with a little bit of anti-climactic disappointment in the fact that we didn’t get in to the Oiler room that night, it was an awesome adventure for two kids obsessed with the NHL.
As I prepare for this weekend and the final days of the stairway entrance, the red, padded seats and the smell of popcorn and giant squid in the air. I will never forget;