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303 ON TOUR: Jeremy reflects on Detroit…

My birthday may be at the end of the month, but I got my present on April 3.

When Mark Willoughby, my wife Lynn and I got to talking on the way to Bridgestone Arena on March 27, we bantered about the possibility of going up to Detroit for the potentially-important Preds and Red Wings game on Saturday, April 3. After watching Jimmy Howard and Pekka Rinne put on a goaltending clinic that required 11 rounds of  a shootout to decide a winner, Lynn and I looked at flights and what it would cost to make the trip up to Motown. Needless to say, with less than 14-days notice (and barely 7-days notice), flights were well out of our price range and we canned the trip immediately.

Then Tuesday came around.

My wife had done some checking and Detroit was less than a four hour drive from her parents house in Ohio. We’ve done the drive from Nashville to Atlanta on several occasions, which takes the same amount of time, so we said “Let’s do this!”

Thanks to Good Friday, I had Thursday off of work and Lynn took Thursday off as a vacation day so we could jump in the car and go that morning. After spending a day and a half with her parents, we woke up Saturday morning bright and early and were Detroit bound.

We arrived in Detroit early enough to take in a lunch at the Hockeytown Cafe, just across the street from Comerica Park and, the home of the 2010 Frozen Four this weekend, Ford Field. I was smart enough to only wear my Preds polo and not my Preds third jersey in the restaurant so we wouldn’t attract unwanted attention. At the game, everything from friendly ribbing to outright classless comments were expected, but we didn’t want those festivities to start any earlier than necessary so the jersey stayed in the car.

Hockeytown Cafe offered good food, a great hockey atmosphere and even a free shuttle to and from Joe Louis Arena on game days. While sitting at table 124, I couldn’t help but think “what if the Preds had a place like this? What if, somewhere on Broadway, fans could come in for a bite to eat and be surrounded by nothing but hockey memorabilia, fellow hockey fans decked out in their third jerseys and TV’s with NHL Network on them before every game?” The ambiance in that place was astounding and I quickly decided that, in Nashville, a place like that would do one of two things. It would either grow the game of hockey or it’d be out of business in a year and a half.

Detroit is rich with hockey tradition. Some of the greatest hockey players ever to lace up the skates played in that town. Gordie Howe, Alex Delvecchio, Sid Abel and Steve Yzerman just to name a few. There are no shortage of authentic jerseys, photographs and sticks to go on the walls of that place. And with the Red Wings’ 11 Stanley Cups, there’s no shortage of Cup images either, going as far as a real motorcycle just inside the front doors that not only has a goalie mask as the rear wheel well, but has Stanley Cup shaped tire spokes.

In Nashville, undoubtedly, instead of motorcycles we’d have guitars but our city just doesn’t have the 90 years of history to draw on. We’d be decking out our HockeyTonk Cafe with Sergei Krivokrasov All-Star Game photos and Bubba Berenzweig jerseys. Now that’s not to say the place wouldn’t be hopping. It’s no secret that hockey fans are a passionate bunch and would love to meet up and eat at a place filled with Predators pride before every home and away game with several hundred of their closest friends. But let’s face it, Music City is about 20 years, a few Hall of Famers and a Stanley Cup away from seeing a restaurant like that along side The Stage and Tootsie’s on Broadway.

Anyway, after lunch, it was off to find Joe Louis Arena.

Detroit has a stereotype that it’s completely ghetto and unflattering to look at. One Preds fan even told me that he was driving in downtown one day and he thought it looked like a bomb had gone off it looked so bad. We have to say that we didn’t see that part of Detroit. From exiting at Grand River Avenue to the picturesque view of Comerica Park and Ford Field to the one mile drive to The Joe, our expectations were encouraged. We drove around the arena trying to find a place to park and stumbled upon the riverfront area where Red Wings fans were sitting and enjoying the view of Windsor, Ontario across the water. It was actually quite beautiful (“beautiful” not being a term we thought we’d use while describing anything in Detroit) and we were immediately sorry we didn’t arrive earlier so we could take in the view ourselves.

We parked (for $30!) and entered Joe Louis Arena at the Gordie Howe Entrance, surrounded by a sea of red jerseys. Let me just tell you, when you get to the arena before the doors open, and you’re forced to stand there in your Predators jersey, a Preds lanyard complete with Tootoo whistle and while holding a “Cellblock 303 On Tour” sign, you’re begging for attention. Luckily, only one fan asked what my sign said. Knowing it would be absolutely pointless to try and explain, I simply turned it around so he could see it, accepted his head nod, and turned it back around without a verbal response.

Awaiting the pre-game skate.

After about five minutes, we walked up the stairs, through the doors, passed through the metal detectors (yes, metal detectors) and walked around to find our seats. Once we located section 119, row 13, we took our place down by the glass for warm-ups. Just like in St. Louis last season and Atlanta this season, I rested the “303 On Tour” sign on the glass and awaited the Predators taking the ice. While waiting, I finally got a chance to take it all in. The fact that I was actually in Detroit, Michigan. The fact that I was actually standing inside Joe Louis Arena. The fact that they actually have banners hanging from the rafters that don’t say “7th Man” and “Inaugural Season,” but banners that mean much much more than that.


What an amazing place to be.

Only then did it really hit me what we were doing. Sure, the thought of going was exciting and the road trip itself was fun but we were actually there. This wasn’t a fantasy anymore. I wasn’t a 15 year old boy growing up in California fantasizing about seeing a game there one day. I was a 32 year old married man who was in one of hockey’s oldest buildings about to watch the team he loves with the woman he loves.

Oh yeah, and the team he loves could clinch a playoff berth right before his eyes with a win or overtime appearance.

A handful of other Predators fans joined Lynn and I at the glass just before warm ups. A couple had driven up from Smyrna the day before and another family was originally from Nashville but now lived in the Detroit area. It was very comforting to know that, if anything went down among the sold out Red Wings crowd, a whopping nine other people had our back.

As the team took the ice for the pre-game skate, Preds players took their turns shooting on goal and then circling past those of us that were on the glass. Just as we did in St. Louis and Atlanta, we caught several of them sneaking a peek at the sign. In addition, there was a young Inuit boy who had come down to stand next to us who brought a sign that said “Tootoo is my buddy.” Jordin Tootoo saw the sign and responded with first checking the boards in front of the kid and then later playfully asking him through the glass if he was his buddy. A very cool moment that reinforced why I like Tootoo so much.

The view from our seats.

After the pre-game skate, we went back to our seats and settled in for a doozy of a hockey game. We didn’t meet any Wings fans that were rude or obnoxious which, quite honestly, surprised us. We figured just with the enormity of the game alone (a playoff berth on the line), we’d find ourselves engaged by some unruly fans but we worried for nothing. Oh sure, when Shea Weber scored the first Preds goal I heard a few “sit down Nashville’s” and “Nashville sucks” but nothing as vilifying and abrasive as Blue Jackets fans were and all of their pent-up anger and aggression from having to live in Columbus.

Another thing we noticed was the sheer volume in that building. Is it louder than a playoff game in Bridgestone Arena? Absolutely not, but for a regular season game it was loud. When Pavel Datsyuk tied it up with less than a minute remaining in regulation, the roof just about blew off the barn. Lynn and I were engulfed in sound and we have to tip our caps to the Red Wings faithful who really brought it that day.

Of course, as loud as it was when Datsyuk tied it, it was just as quiet when Ryan Suter whizzed the overtime winner by Howard’s right shoulder. Before the puck hit the twine, it seemed like the Detroit fans had already gotten up to start collecting their things. The feeling between the third period and the overtime session was amazing to realize that we had just punched our ticket to the playoffs but the feeling after that Suter goal was incredible. Being able to stand up inside Joe Louis Arena where my team had beaten their arch-rivals in their own building — in overtime, no less — to put themselves in the post season was absolutely unforgettable.

As we walked out, 303 On Tour sign in hand, we met very little resistance until we were physically walking out the door. From afar we heard “*expletive* you, Nashville!” But just as we started to accept the long-awaited ugliness of Detroit, another Red Wings fan yelled “Hey!… Not cool man. That’s not how we do things here.” The faith in the Red Wings fan base that we had surprisingly built from scratch throughout the day was restored.

Lynn and I got to the car and began reflecting on the whole experience while we were waiting to pull out of the parking lot. The Joe was an amazing place to take in a game, the city wasn’t as bad as everyone said and the game was every bit as exciting as the Wings/Preds game the Saturday before. But the most amazing part was the fans. They weren’t as courteous as St. Louis fans are and they weren’t as welcoming as Nashville fans are, but boy were they knowledgeable, respectful and passionate.

I guess that’s what happens when you’ve been around since 1926, are an original six NHL team and have won four Stanley Cups in the past 15 years.

Thank you Detroit. Thank you for an amazing birthday present.


NOTE: I will be on PredsOnTheGlass Radio with Buddy Oakes tonight to talk about the trip. Click here to tune in live or to listen via podcast after 8pm Central.