CAN’T STAY AWAY ON OPENING NIGHT

“SQUEEZE MY knee,” Gordie Howe said.

He was sitting in a 1955 Ford convertible, part of a lineup of classic cars waiting in the Joe Louis Arena tunnel, a 1926 Chrysler, a 1932 Plymouth, a 1965 Mustang. In their leather seats sat a collection of men, three or four per car, men ranging in age from their 30s to their 70s, wearing red and white jerseys with their names stitched on back, famous men who had all, at one point or another, shed blood, sweat and teeth for the hockey team that plays by the river.

Men like Gordie Howe.

“You look too young to be riding in a car,” I had teased him.

“Oh, yeah?” he answered. “Squeeze my knee.”

I did. He flexed it back and forth. It felt like dice were being shaken inside his skin.

He shrugged.

What you give to the game.

The reason you come back.

Wednesday night was the home opener of the Red Wings’ 75th season. And it was also just another night of hockey in Detroit. That is the confluence that makes this town unique. The Wings’ ownership, sensing, as always, a marketing opportunity, collected several dozen former players for the anniversary celebration, from Gordie Howe to Johnny Wilson to Bill Gadsby, John Ogrodnick, Eddie Mio, all to way to Joey Kocur, who only retired a few minutes ago, and brought them out in classic red and white cars, waving to the crowd.

But no such theatrics were necessary. This was hockey season. And people come back, year after year.

“So what’s this car doing in the back?” I asked the men in the 2000 Mustang, former goalies Greg Stefan and Mio, forward Dino Ciccarelli and defenseman Lee Norwood.

“We were in front,” Mio joked, holding up a plastic cup, “we came back for beer.”

Ciccarelli laughed. “This,” he said, “is the easiest pregame I ever had.”

The reason you come back.

Hockey night in Detroit

In all my years of sports writing in Detroit, the hardest thing to explain to outsiders is our fascination with hockey. Few American cities can understand. Maybe some Canadian ones.

Detroit is different. It’s more than its proximity to the Great White North. It’s more than the two Stanley Cups this hockey team won in the last four years.

No, it’s more about an identity, a work ethic, an approach to sports that has at least a vague resemblance to the way most of us work, grinding, slogging away, remaining humble. Hockey, the Red Wings, make people feel that way. It’s a team the goes way back, one of the Original Six. It’s a team that didn’t get surly when it lost and didn’t get cocky when it won. The fans followed suit. Remember, this building was packed when there was barely a star on the roster, when the nickname was “Dead Wings,” when hope died with the season opener.

They still came back.

And there they were again Wednesday night, the red and white army, converging on the entrances, auto workers and executives, men with cigars, women in oversized hockey jerseys.

“Is there a hockey game tonight?” the driver of my cab asked me.

He was from Nigeria.

“Oh yeah …” I mumbled, as three people in Yzerman jerseys darted in front of our vehicle. “There’s a hockey game tonight.”

Seventy-five and going string

Back now in the pregame tunnel, Kocur was joshing with Stefan, Mio, Norwood and Ciccarelli. Kocur, after more than 800 games, had just announced his retirement from hockey. He had taken a new job with the Wings, Video Coordinator. I don’t know what that means. Maybe he doesn’t either.

“Since when did you watch tape?” one of the ex-players joked.

Hey. Whatever. The fact is that Kocur, who spent six years away from the Wings
— he won a Stanley Cup with the Rangers in 1994 — still chose to immediately join this organization when he hung up his skates. And for every Kocur, there are a half-dozen ex-Red Wings who would jump at the chance to be back under the rafters.

There is a connection the players make with this team, and a connection this team makes with this town. Even the saddest stories, Vladdie Konstantinov and Sergei Mnatsakanov, wheelchair-ridden since their accident several years ago, were nonetheless on hand Wednesday, wheeled out to thunderous applause, as if they wouldn’t think of not being there for a Red Wing anniversary.

Seventy-five years of anything is an anomaly these days in sports. There have been teams in that time that have been born, moved, died, and were reborn somewhere else. Canadian teams moved over to America. Some billionaire built a new arena and a team kissed its heritage good-bye and came running.

And here we were Wednesday night in Detroit, at the Joe, one of the oldest buildings in the NHL, walking the same skyway, dodging the same traffic, cheering the same names and roaring loudest for the current captain, Steve Yzerman, who one day will be in his own red-and-white car in an icy promenade
— not because he needs the cheers, but because this is what we do around here, Detroit, the start of hockey season. We come back. They come back. Creaky knees and all.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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