There’s no city in America like Detroit. Like New York, Chicago and Boston, Detroit is a large city with a unique place in our country’s history. Detroit rose like no other in the first half of the twentieth century, then fell so hard it filed for bankruptcy in 2013, becoming the largest American city to do so.
Detroit has fascinated me for years. I’ve always loved big cities and my goal was to see them all before I died. I’m not sure what made Detroit stand out. Maybe it was all the jokes I heard over the years that it was an absolute hellhole: grimy and ugly, rampant with violent crime. I always thought they were exaggerating the truth, as people tend to do. I wanted to see for myself. Is it really that awful? When I told people I was heading to the Motor City for the first time, some said they would pray for my safety as if I was going to be shot grabbing some food downtown. You’d think I was traveling to a war zone in the Middle East.
It’s also intrigued me from an athletic standpoint. Detroit calls itself Hockeytown, but what has it done to deserve that title? The Red Wings basically gave themselves the nickname, painted it at center ice in Joe Louis Arena and the city embraced it. I always thought it was weird when a team, city or person gives themselves a nickname. At the same time, it was ballsy to anoint yourself as “Hockeytown” when many areas in the country could make that same claim. Places like Warroad, Montreal, Boston, and Minneapolis/St. Paul are good examples. Even Buffalo is trying to call itself that. That’s just sad.
I’m from Minnesota, which has dubbed itself the State of Hockey (the Wild use it the same way the Red Wings do). Growing up there, I saw how important hockey was. The state high school tournament is one of the biggest events of the year, the Wild had a long sellout streak, and local college teams like the University of Minnesota have large fanbases – the state’s famous Iron Range is devoted to it. How devoted to hockey is Detroit?
My opportunity to find out came last weekend. I had to travel to Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions, to cover the Michigan high school state football championships. I never thought I’d be spending my Thanksgiving in what Forbes Magazine dubbed America’s Most Dangerous City, but I was excited.
I currently live in Marquette, which is in the Upper Peninsula. Up here, the Red Wings are huge. I frequently see people young and old wearing jackets, hats and T-shirts emblazoned with the famous winged wheel. College and high school hockey are also big in the U.P., so I figured that would be the case when I entered the Lower Peninsula. However, that wasn’t the case. I did see several signs and billboards for the OHL’s Saginaw Spirit, so I guess that counts for something.
I arrived in Detroit late and spent Friday morning at the football games, but the rest of my day was free to explore. I walked around with my wife and searched for any signs of hockey life. My first destination was the Hockeytown Café, which is supported by the Red Wings and has a huge logo on its front to beckon hockey fans to enter, along with a revolving hockey puck. It definitely is Red Wings domain. Memorabilia is plastered all over the walls and in trophy cases. It’s pretty cool. However, I left disappointed and not just because my fries were cold. There was a distinct lack of Red Wings fans in the bar. A game was going to start shortly as Detroit was playing the Devils in New Jersey and I didn’t see a soul dressed in red or white. I waited for a little while, but when no one came, I left to explore other areas. I walked around the area and still could not find any one remotely interested in either the Wings game or hockey in general. I heard talk about the Lions, the Pistons and the sad state of University of Michigan football as the Wolverines were about to play archrival Ohio State the next day. Hell, I even heard talk about the Tigers and if they would be good again next year and their season was at least four months away. Not a word was said about the 11-time Stanley Cup Champion Red Wings.
Before I set out the next day, I did a little research online to see what others had said about Detroit and Hockeytown. Mostly, I saw that people questioned the idea of Detroit as Hockeytown and the only people who defended it were Wings fans themselves or the local media, which seems to have fully bought into the slogan. It was almost as if it was the world against Detroit, which is something I think the city would embrace.
After covering another football game Saturday morning, I set out for Joe Louis Arena. I had already tried to purchase tickets to Sunday’s game against Vancouver, but I was told the game was sold out. (Though later highlights of the game showed a lot of empty seats). Still, I thought if I went down there, maybe I would see the inside of the arena and talk to some employees. I took the People Mover, aka Detroit’s monorail, down to the banks of the Detroit River where the Joe is located. If you look across the river you can see Windsor, Canada. When I looked over the water, I wondered what Canadians thought about the idea of Hockeytown. Did they think it was accurate or ridiculous? (A good question for next time.) I walked around the outside of the arena and I was underwhelmed. It’s gray, old, dirty and has the charm of your local rec center. Seriously, if you didn’t follow the NHL and you stumbled upon it, you probably would think it was a convention center that the architect didn’t put a lot of thought into. I wanted to see if the inside of the building would change my opinion, but I couldn’t get in. I tried multiple doors; they were all locked. The only open door – propped open with a rock – belonged to the ticket office. I entered expecting to see a handful of employees selling tickets, but I only saw one guy reading a book. I wanted to go inside, even though I couldn’t get tickets to a game, so I asked him if there was a pro shop. Maybe the employees could tell me how much merchandise they had sold today, or what they thought of the “Hockeytown” brand. He said there wasn’t a pro shop and I’d have to look elsewhere if I wanted souvenirs. Dumbfounded, I left and boarded the People Mover again, headed for one final location.
I set out for the middle of downtown, where the majority of people would be. If wasn’t going to find any Red Wings fans near the Joe or at Hockeytown Café, I figured I’d at least I’d find one there. Well, there was a rink where people were happily skating while puffy flakes of snow fell from the sky. They were also friendly as they were willing to take my photo and even wanted to be in my photo. There was also a giant Christmas tree with statues of snowmen and penguins around the square. It was a fun sight to behold, but nobody was talking hockey. I heard the same talk about the Lions and the Wolverines, but zero about the Wings. After grabbing a few tourist snapshots, I went back to my car and drove back to my hotel.
I figured going in that Detroit wasn’t Hockeytown, but I wanted to give the city a chance to prove me wrong. Hockeytown Café had zero hockey fans on game day, the Joe was deserted and the merch shop was closed. Disappointed, I tuned into the Wings game and less than 30 seconds after it started, the Joe experienced a blackout. The lights had officially gone out in Hockeytown.