Thursday, January 14, 2016

Trip to Hockeytown, USA 2015

In late June of 2015, the NHL released the schedule for their upcoming 2015-2016 season.  As always, the first thing I do when its released is see when the Wings play opening night and when they play the Pittsburgh Penguins.   As a die hard Wings fan, living in Pittsburgh, for many years, when they play the Pens in Pittsburgh, its my best time to see them in person.  This year, I noticed that the Wings would be coming to town for a preseason game on September 30th in Pittsburgh, which is also the anniversary of Maria and I's first date.  However, I also noticed that the two would be playing in a regular season game on Dec 31st at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.  New Years Eve is our engagement anniversary, which happened in Detroit after watching the Wings at the Joe.  Plus, I've been wanting to return to Detroit with the kids before they tear it down in a couple years.  Having Caleb see his middle name, Yzerman, hanging in the rafters of the Joe, where Steve Yzerman won so many games would be really special.  Never one to pass up a good adventure, Maria bought 4 tickets for the New Years Eve game and booked us a hotel that was literally 0.3 miles from the Joe.  It was my Christmas and Birthday present.  I was beyond thrilled and began counting down the days before the season even began.

On December 30th, we packed up the van, I jammed as much Red Wings clothing into my bag as I could and we headed off for Hockeytown, USA.  You know how they say a watched pot never boils.  The same can be said when driving to a place that you're really excited to go.  The GPS said it would take us 4 hours and 31 mins to get there and that's a long time, but it was the longest 4 hours and 31 minutes of my life.  I felt like I had been driving west for so long, that I would soon hit the Pacific Ocean.  Well, okay, maybe not that bad.  My excitement spiked when I saw my first highway sign that said "Detroit" on it.  It spiked again when we passed a giant Detroit Pistons basketball.  While coming into the city on M-10, we exited a tunnel and suddenly we were face to face with a huge sign that said "JOE LOUIS ARENA Home of the Red Wings".  I nearly wrecked the van as I yelled "Guys!  Its the Joe!!"  It wasn't even fair, I was totally unprepared for that, but it was the first of MANY pleasant surprises in our stay in Detroit.

We checked into the Crowne Plaza hotel, unpacked our bags and headed over to the Joe immediately.  It was actually kind of busy as the GLI (Great Lakes Invitational) hockey tournament was having its championship game between Michigan and Michigan Tech.  As I stood in front of the Joe, my daugther, Emily came running over and jumped into my arms for the picture.  Despite not really showing an interest in the Red Wings or just sports in general, she was really excited and seemed to be feeding off of my excitement.  We walked around the arena to the Gordie Howe entrance, snapped a few more pics and headed back to our hotel.  We made plans for dinner at Motor Burger in Windsor, Ontario (which was absolutely fantastic), did a little shopping at the "small" Devonshire Mall and then headed back to the hotel for bed.

The next morning, I woke up and thought to myself, "Oh my God, today is the day.  I'm going to the Joe to watch the Red Wings... TO-DAY".  I looked over at the kids bed and was surprised to see Emily already awake.  "Hey pumpkin, did you sleep alright?", I asked.  She responded, "I woke up like 5 times during the night.  I'm so excited to go to the Joe!"  I knew the feeling and was again surprised by Em's level of excitement.  That morning we did the Hudson Cafe on Woodward Ave, walked around the city a bit and over to the Spirit of Detroit statue.

In the afternoon, we headed over the greatest restaurant in the world (or at least, I think so), Hockeytown Cafe!  Besides the Joe, this was the most exciting place I wanted to visit on the trip.  A Red Wings themed restaurant, with pictures, old jerseys, NHL trophies, Red Wing themed menus, Red Wing patterned carpet, Red Wing art, big screen HD TVs everywhere.  It looks like what my man cave would look like if I were a billionaire.  When the food arrived, Caleb looked at the Hockeytown decorated paper underneath the food in his basket and said "Wow!  I can't believe I'm eating on something this nice!"  After we finished our meals, we did a tour of the place, snapped a bunch of pics and headed over to Comerica Park, the baseball stadium for the Detroit Tigers which is literally right across the street from Hockeytown Cafe.  Later, we passed Cheli's Chili Bar, the bar owned by former Wings defenseman Chris Chelios and took the people mover (love that name!) back to the hotel.  It was almost gametime!

The doors to the Joe open 90 minutes before gametime which was 6:00pm, so right at 4:30pm, we left our hotel room cut through the Cobo Center and over to the Joe.  It was pretty cold and the wind made it feel like the artic, so we had to be quick.  We learned the way to the Joe through the Cobo by just following people that were on their way to the GLI championship game yesterday.  Our anticipation kept rising as we walked closer and closer amongst a crowd of other Red Wings fans.  As we came out, we were walking parallel to Steve Yzerman Drive and the kids did an all out sprint towards the arena.  Maria told them to wait and pose for a picture at the bottom of the steps.  Immediately after she put her camera down, they both turned around and began running up the huge steps just outside the Joe.  I don't know why, but this moment struck me as being really special.  I don't know if it was because we've been waiting for this moment since August.  Or maybe its because my kids are finally getting to visit my favorite sports arena.  Or maybe its because last time I was here, it was just Maria and I and she was just my "girlfriend" and now we're back I'm married to this gorgeous woman and we're entering this place with our kids.

We got in, got our free programs and began to take in the sites.  It might have been my second time at this arena, but it was just as good as the first time as I got to watch both Emily and Caleb with wide eyes take it all in.  "Look!  An octopus!!" exclaimed Emily pointing at a cartoon Octopus wearing a Wings jersey hanging from the ceiling.  "Look Dad! Gordie!" yelled Caleb as we passed by the Gordie Howe trophy.  We did a full lap around the Joe, taking so many pictures, you'd think we were putting together a presentation for a virtual tour.  We noticed one of the kiosks handing out certificates and looked to see what was going on.  The Red Wings created a certificate welcoming kids to their first game at the Joe Louis Arena.  How perfect was that?    At that point, we figured, we should probably head over to our seats, see the ice and the plethora of championship banners hanging from the rafters.

We took about two steps into the heart of the Joe, when a female Red Wings employee ran over to us, asking, "Excuse me!  Would your kids be interested in participating in a dance off during the second period?"  Maria and I looked at each other for a brief second before saying, "Yes!  Yes!  Of course!"  The employee said that they could pick whatever song they wanted and to meet her by section 115 at the 12 min mark of the 2nd period.  We said we'll be there and continued on to our seats.  As we walked up the aisle, Maria grabs my arm and says "We have now until the 12 min mark of the 2nd period to get these kids as jazzed up and sugared up as we can."  Caleb seemed a little nervous and said he didn't want to do it, but I convinced him otherwise.  "Come on, buddy!  This is a great opportunity.  You're going to be dancing for everybody at the Joe!  You!  Caleb Yzerman.  Once again, someone with the name Yzerman is going to be getting cheers at the Joe.  This will be one of those things that you will NEVER EVER forget."  Over hearing me pumping up our son, Maria turns to me, "Hey hun, are you sure YOU don't want to be in the dance off?"

The pregame warm ups began and all 4 of us headed down to the glass behind the Red Wings net.  In comparison to the other arenas I've been in, getting from the second tier all the way down to the glass we actually quite easy.  No need to exit the area and go back in.  No bars preventing you from getting from one section to another.  Watching the pregame warm ups is easily one of my favorite moments of going to a hockey game.  To be that close to the players.  To be close enough to see the stitching in their jerseys.  The sound of the skates cutting the ice.  The vibration and sometimes deafening sound of the puck smacking off the glass.  Its unforgettable.  It was a little more crowded in the Wings end than I'm used to in Pittsburgh, but the kiddos still got a spot near the glass.

The starting goalies for the game were Detroit native, Jeff Zatkoff in net for the Pens and 23 year old Petr Mrazek for the Wings.  Neither team had been playing particularly well at the time, the Wings were just coming back from a road trip and lost their last two and the Pens had just lost to Toronto the night before in Pittsburgh in OT.  As the game started, the Wings looked like they might break out of their slump as they scored two quick goals.  After the first one, I was thrilled, not just for the goal, but because my kids would get to experience a goal celebration at the Joe.  The roar of the crowd, the horn, the "Hey Hey Hockeytown" song played after the goal.  That's what its all about.  After the second goal, Maria left in search of sugar to get these kids wound up for their dance off later that night.  Earlier in the night, Maria and I were looking around the arena and noticing many people that looked like other people we know back home and how weird it was.  With Maria still away, Caleb points to another section and goes "Hey!  That girl looks like Mom!"  Emily looks over "Hey!  That DOES look like Mom "  Caleb continued, "What the heck?  How many people look like Mom in this world?"  I started scanning in the direction he pointed looking for this Maria doppelganger and found her, "What the... that IS your Mom.  Why in the world is she over there and what is that box she's holding?  Does she know those people over there?"  Kids burst out into laughter.  Caleb pats me on the shoulder "Sorry Dad, but I think you lost your wife".  I give Caleb a confused face and look back at Maria who waves at us and then when there's a stoppage in play, gets out of her seat and heads back over to us with a box of donuts.  "Sorry, I went to 226-B.  I forgot we were in 226-A.  Then I couldn't get back because play had started and I had to wait for a break in the action before I could get up."  She handed the donuts over to the kids who immediately began devouring them.  The first period ended with the good guys on top 2-0.

During the intermission, Caleb mentioned that he was nervous, but I continued to assure him that everything would be alright.  "You guys dance and sing around the house all day long, now you're just going to do it for a crowd and win awesome prizes.  Just be your crazy self out there."  The second period started and the Pens went on a power play.  It didn't take long for them to take advantage either making the score 2-1.  After the Pens goal, I realized we had a row of Pens fans behind us.  Lovely.  I come all the way to Detroit and I still have to listen to Pens fans when they score.  Maria asked them where in Pittsburgh they were from and they said "Oh we're not from Pittsburgh.  We're from Windsor."  Really?  This was one of the many themes of the night.  Maria would approach random Pens fans, ask them where in Pittsburgh they're from and they would respond the same way.  We're from Dearborn, we're from Ontario, etc.  Anywhere BUT Pittsburgh.  Out of about 20-30 people we talked with only two were ACTUALLY from the Burgh.

As the clock ticked down to 12 minutes, you could see the nervousness on the kids faces.  At the next stoppage in play around the 12 minute mark, Maria grabbed the kids and headed down to section 115.  I stayed behind to do the filming.   As the period continued, I lost focus of the game and was more concerned with the kiddos.  Kris Letang scored yet another powerplay goal to tie it up 2-2.  During a TV timeout with 5:51 left in the second period, I hear "So I have Caleb and Emily here...", I nearly jumped out of my seat, pull out my phone and began recording, totally not expecting them to be on already.  It was time to see if all the sugar we fed them would pay off.

Caleb was up first and he started dancing to DJ Snake's "Turned Down For What".  He jumped around and danced like crazy with thousands of Wings fans laughing and cheering. Emily continued the Dance Off, dancing to the same song, spinning and whipping her body around to the beat of the song with more cheers for the Joe crowd.  "Okay, who's it going to be?  Is it going to be Caleb?"  Announcer holds her hand over Caleb's head followed by a roar from the crowd.  "Or is it going to be Emily?"  More cheers from the crowd.  As their father, it was quite a thrill to hear my kids get cheered, but in a somewhat ironic twist, it was the boy with the middle name "Yzerman" that won the dance off.  For participating, everyone in our row won gift cards for Massage Green Spa.  See the Dance off video!

I sat back in my seat, put my hand on my heart and tried to calm down.  I took a few moments to myself, looking around at the banners, then looked at my phone and noticed I had a missed call and a few texts from my wife.  I couldn't hear the voicemail, so I looked at the text which read, "I'm going on the zamboni during the second intermission!"  I sat up fast and yelled "What?!" out loud, grabbing the attention of pretty much my entire section.  Once again, my heart was pounding out of my chest.  At this point, the game was secondary to me.  I just wanted to get to intermission.  Maria made several jokes throughout that day about selling the tickets to one of those scalpers outside the Joe or the hotel losing our reservations again (it happened the first time we went to Detroit), so I wasn't completely sure if she was telling the truth about the zamboni ride which is absolutely UN-BELIEV-ABLE!

As the second intermission began, I moved down closer to the ice and saw a guy dressed as Abe Lincoln on the first zamboni.  I looked at the second one coming onto the ice, squinted my eyes, looking for Maria and I saw my white jersey and her long hair and yelled, "Oh my God!  She IS on the zamboni!!"  After they introduced Abe Lincoln the announcer said "And riding the zamboni with Dave, the First Lady of Hockeytown tonight, Maria Fruscello."  I was floored!  They even pronounced our last name correctly!  Is this a dream?!    As she rode on the ice, they played "I just met a girl named Maria" from West Side Story.  During the pre game warmups, Maria talked to pretty much everyone down behind the Wings net and when she passed them on the zamboni they recognized her, waved and cheered.  I was just in stunned disbelief.  My Wife.  Is Riding a Zamboni. At the Joe Louis Arena.  I recorded pretty much her entire ride.  See the First Lady of Hockeytown riding a zamboni at the Joe!

The third period started and I barely even noticed as I was just anxious for them to get back, so I could talk to them about their experiences.  About 5-10 minutes into the 3rd period, I saw them coming up the steps with huge grins.  "How?  Just how in the world....?" I said to Maria.  "Well, while I was down there with the kids while they were doing their dance, I overheard someone say they needed a second rider for the other zamboni.  As soon as I heard that I said, I'd do it.  Next thing, I know, they're handing me a waiver to sign and then I was on the zamboni."  Looking at my wife, "Unbelievable!  Seriously!"  My son won a couple slices of Little Caesars pizza for the Dance Off and was holding a Red Wings practice puck, "Daddy!  They said Pavel Datsyuk touched this puck!"  Still in shock over everything that had happened in the past half hour, I just looked at him and nodded.  Each of them had a Wings practice puck and Maria also was holding a $25 gift certificate for merchandise at the Joe or Hockeytown Authentics.  "Here you can have this.  I feel bad that it wasn't you that got to ride the zamboni."  I just shrugged my shoulders, "Don't feel bad.  I loved seeing you out there!  It was great!"  Truthfully, I really did enjoy seeing her out there.  One week earlier, on Christmas Eve, she was laying in a hospital bed, barely able to move after having her gallbladder removed.  She could have skipped the trip to Detroit, but she toughed it out, every step of the way was rewarded in a huge way.  At this point, I noticed the score was now 4-2 Pens, but nothing was going to put a damper on this night.  Not for our family anyways.  "How funny would it have been if while on the zamboni, I pulled off my Wings jersey and revealed a Penguins one underneath?"  Looking at her with raised eyebrows, "Yeah, that probably would've gotten us killed."  She smiled, "I'm just kidding.  I'm definitely a Wings fan now.  Its just so much fun here!"   Nodding in agreement, "Well yeah, you were just riding around the ice being serenaded by the Joe Louis Arena with the song "Maria".  How could you NOT be a huge fan after something like that?"

As the final minutes ticked down, we left a little early so we could use this gift certificate because Hockeytown Authentics was not exactly along the way going home and the shops at the Joe were closing up.  As we waded through the crowds, we came to a souvenir shop and despite trying to get Maria a Wings t-shirt, she insisted, I get something since they all got something already.  I ended up getting a sweet looking Justin Abdelkader Stadium Series t-shirt and since I bought it at the Joe, you know that means I'm going to have to be buried in it now.  ;-)

As we walked through the Cobo, back to our hotel, Maria and I kept looking at each other in shock of the sequence of events for the night.  "Is this a dream?"  I asked.  "Is this real life??  Did I really just do that?"  Maria asked.  All of this seemed too good to be true, yet it was!  Since we didn't have a Massage Green Spa back in Pittsburgh or really anywhere near us, Maria just handed them out to random people the next couple days brightening their day.  We drove her to the Detroit airport as she was heading over the Rhode Island to visit friends (the adventures never really end, just a new one begins), before heading back to the Burgh with the kiddos.

Going into the trip, my biggest concern wasn't "Will the Wings win the game?".  My biggest concern was "Will my family have a fun and memorable experience?"  The Red Wings mean a lot to me.  I've been a fan for about 30 years.  This logo, these colors, these players, the memories, this arena are all special to me.  I was going to have a great time regardless.  For this trip though, I wanted all this to be special for them too.  They were all fans for reasons that were not their own.  They were fans because I am.  Now they're fans because they experienced one of the most unforgettable nights of their life.  One of the slogans for the Wings this year is "Its More Than Hockey".  How appropriate that slogan was for this night.  We went to a hockey game and what we'll remember from this night has little to do with the hockey game itself.  Next year will be the last year for the Joe.  Its going to be demolished and a new arena will be built and ready to go for the 2017-2018 season.  This trip will in all likelihood, be my final visit to the Joe and for the kids, their only visit.  I hate to see it go.  Cool looking, high tech modern arenas might be really nice, but nothing can replace the history, tradition or experiences of the old one.  It will be gone, but it'll never be forgotten by this family.  We'll never forget the night the Joe Louis Arena opened up its arms and gave the Fruscello family a big hug!