By Jay Zawaski-
(CBS) I've been a Blackhawks fan for close to 25 years now. In the 15 years I've had the personal freedom of not living with my parents, I've made several trips to see the Blackhawks on the road. I've been to Toronto, Boston, New York, Tampa, St. Louis, Nashville and Columbus.
Before this past weekend, I'd never taken a trip to Joe Louis Arena.
I'd never really thought about why I'd never gone to Detroit to see a game. I understand that Detroit isn't exactly a destination city, but it's not like St. Louis and Columbus are exactly Las Vegas, either. Why would I avoid such an obvious hockey destination?
As I entered Joe Louis Arena, it became clear. My memories and associations with that building are all negative. The Red Wings were the representation of everything the Hawks weren't while my hockey fandom and knowledge were developing. They had always been a thorn in the side of the Hawks. They were winning multiple Stanley Cups while the Hawks toiled in obscurity. That entryway, that concourse, that center ice logo emblazoned with "HOCKEYTOWN" -- they always meant defeat, disappointment, anger and mostly envy.
I think it was fitting that the game I did see Saturday at the Joe didn't feature my favorite team. It was the back end of a home-and-home between Detroit and Toronto. With that, I could take in the sights and sounds of the building without a rooting interest and get to understand what Hockeytown was all about.
What I encountered was totally unexpected. Everyone was happy. Everyone was smiling. The ushers were kind and personable. The fans were knowledgeable and welcoming, even to the visiting Toronto fans, who occupied about 35 percent of the crowd Saturday night. This wasn't the house of horrors I'd expected. It was a great time and a great venue, despite its blemishes. There was a vibe I hadn't experienced in a hockey arena since the old Chicago Stadium closed. It topped Madison Square Garden and Fenway Park. Joe Louis Arena quickly became my favorite road venue ever, in any sport.
The experience didn't end in the arena, either. After the game, we headed to Dino Ciccarelli's sports bar, which is pretty much a bar crammed into a crawl space. Inside, we shared a table with Wings and Leafs fans and got to talking hockey. As introductions came around the table, team loyalties came with the names. "I'm Cody, from Saskatchewan, and I'm a Leafs fan." "I'm Mike from Grand Rapids, and I'm a Wings fan."
"Hey, I'm Jay. I'm from Chicago."
The response to the word "Chicago" was quite staggering. Every person at the table just nodded. The notion was, "That must be cool." Red Wings fans, envious of the Blackhawks fan? Surely, you jest. It was real and something I never thought I'd experience.
"Jonathan Toews, man. He's so much like Stevie Y." That was a Red Wings fan talking about a Blackhawks player. Can you imagine?
This feeling continued Sunday night, as I watched the Center Ice broadcast of the Calgary-Winnipeg game. In the intermission, the Sportsnet broadcast aired the final installment of their Hometown Hockey series. This time, they were in Selkirk, Manitoba, a town 14 miles northeast of Winnipeg and home to just under 10,000 people. On the broadcast, the crew interviewed two preteen hockey players, one girl and one boy. The two were asked who their favorite players were. The girl answered, "Jonathan Toews." The boy answered, "Duncan Keith."
While I grit my teeth and complain about Jeremy Morin's lack of ice time and how little I like the team's 12th forward and sixth and seventh defensemen, it's nice to be reminded of just how elite and respected the Blackhawks have become and how envious fans of great franchises have become.
The Joe is scheduled to close after the 2017 season. If you consider yourself a hockey fan, make sure you see it once before it's gone.
Jay Zawaski is the executive producer of the Spiegel and Mannelly Show on 670 The Score and the Blackhawks columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JayZawaski670.
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