I moved to Detroit in 1999 and I started working at the Free Press that August, when the paper’s office was located on Fort Street, just a few blocks from our current offices.
I was a copy editor in the sports department, where we did the exciting work of journalism in a large, gray, windowless office. On our worst deadline nights someone would yell out to no one in particular, “I’d jump out a window if we had one!”
To get to the sports department, you had to walk down a long hallway and on the walls hung several posters of our memorable front pages and their headlines. There was “NOT BAD, BOYS!” with Isiah Thomas pressing the NBA championship trophy tight to his cheek after the Detroit Pistons won their first title in 1989. “Gr-r-reat!” captured the Tigers’ 1984 World Series victory perfectly with Mary Schroeder’s iconic picture of a jubilant Kirk Gibson.
Then there were the Detroit Red Wings posters. They celebrated their two Stanley Cups with “Stanleytown” in 1997 and “BELIEVE” in 1998.
I stood in awe and stared at them often, a little worried someone might notice my fixation. Because, you see, I was a hockey fan who had grown up in Los Angeles with my love for the Kings unrequited and my loyalty pitied and misunderstood by fans of the city’s other teams. (Thanks for waiting till I moved away to win those two Cups, guys.)
YOUR CHANCE TO REMINISCE: How to order new Free Press book commemorating the Wings’ 1997 Stanley Cup title
So when I was extradited — I mean moved to Detroit, I was excited to see one thing for myself: Joe Louis Arena. Even though it was already middle-aged, the Joe felt like it was in its prime. It was where champions played. For a kid growing up a hockey fan in L.A., the Joe was mecca, like the Montreal Forum filled with its banners. Or the Boston Garden with its tiny rink. And Chicago Stadium and its annoyingly loud goal horn.
When I started working at the Free Press, people were still buzzing about the Wings. They had just made an early exit from the playoffs, but the team was largely intact and Scotty Bowman was in charge. Confidence was high and fans remained giddy. Coworkers were happy to gloat about the snapshots on their desks of them posing with the Stanley Cup, which had visited the Free Press.
It felt like I had just missed the world’s most epic hockey party.
Today, I feel like I’m missing that party again, because I miss the excitement that goes with having some kind of rooting interest in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Wings have missed the playoffs for five straight years, but the drought feels even longer than that because they haven’t felt like a dangerous team since they won a playoff series in 2013.
When I came to Detroit and I turned Hockeytown into my home, I thought the Stanley Cup playoffs were a birthright, a given. Yet here we are again, watching the most intense, frenetic pro tournament in American sports sitting on our hands, watching from our couches and biding our time through an interminable rebuild.
Instead of witnessing our own magical moments this spring, we have to settle for the vicarious pleasure of watching other teams create their own memories.
We can watch Minnesota Wild forward and Calder trophy lock Kirill “The Thrill” Kaprizov dazzle us with blinding skill and his nose for the net.
We can watch Hart trophy lock Connor McDavid, who had an insane pace of 105 points in 56 games — 21 more than anyone else — do his best Wayne Gretzky impression as he tries to resurrect the Edmonton Oilers.
We can watch a pretty cool Original Six series between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens, which has produced one of the most amazing goals in playoff history by Paul Byron.
We can watch it all, but their victories won’t be ours, their glory won’t belong to us and mark our memories. Until the Lions win a Super Bowl, the defining date in Detroit sports during our lifetimes will be June 7, 1997, when the Wings ended a 42-year drought and swept the Philadelphia Flyers in the Stanley Cup Finals.
The most common description I’ve heard from those who witnessed the moment in Joe Louis Arena when Steve Yzerman lifted the Stanley Cup is that they had never seen so many grown men crying in one place at the same time.
It was the proper emotional response because Yzerman’s Cup hoist lifted up all Detroiters in a single, unifying moment of catharsis that ended in tears but began with a blood-letting in March during the Wings’ sanguine and sanctifying brawl with the Colorado Avalanche.
But we have none of that now. No shedding of tears or blood. No dire anticipation for tonight’s game. No excitement for driving down to the stadium. No Karen Newman, no Mo Cheese. No nothing. Just a bunch of hurry up and wait.
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At his season-ending news conference, Yzerman said he and his staff would be watching the playoffs along with the rest of us as he examined trends and strategies. It made me sad to think of him watching the hockey world go by, because he was brought back to Detroit for one thing and one thing only.
But the Wings seem so far off from being consistently competitive, let alone being a team that can make a deep run in the playoffs, it’s depressing to think how long this is going to take. Yzerman might need to put down his cane when he lifts his first Cup as a general manager.
Because this is what it’s all about here in Hockeytown. The Stanley Cup. The rest of this, the rebuild, the process, the coach, the draft picks — it’s all academic and a way to keep our interest occupied. For now, that will have to do. But what I want, and what we all probably want, is another poster.
Contact Carlos Monarrez at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.