Whenever I feel exhausted or beat down, I hop on Youtube and watch Darren McCarty drop a natural hat trick on Patrick Roy.
I was seven years old when I watched Game 1 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals, and by now I’ve memorized the video. It’s tied at two in the third period, but before long, Darren McCarty fires a wrist shot that Roy can’t see. He throws his hands up before picking the puck out of the back of the net, and the Wings have the lead.
Cut ahead 11 minutes, and it’s still 3-2. McCarty skates into the offensive zone with the puck, firing a slap shot from the top of the circle with the utmost confidence, and again, Roy has no chance.
4-2 with four minutes left, and a mistake by Roy gives McCarty a rebound right in front of net, which of course he puts away easily. Gary Thorne shouts “DO YOU BELIEVE IT?” at the top of his lungs as the goal horn sounds for the third time in the period. Hats and octopuses rain down as the crowd goes crazy, not just because the Wings are going to win, but because Darren McCarty—an enforcer, not a goalscorer, and who hadn’t previously scored in the playoffs—is the hero.
Steve Yzerman was the leader of that team. Brendan Shanahan, Sergei Fedorov, and Brett Hull were the goalscorers. Dominik Hasek was the unbeatable goalie. Chris Chelios and Nick Lidstrom were the backbone of the blue line. But McCarty belonged to the fans. He was the guy who stuck up for his superstar teammates when they got hit with cheap shots, who tossed pucks into the crowd during warm-ups. The enduring image of McCarty destroying a terrified, turtling Claude Lemieux—not as an act of aggression, but as payback for Lemieux’s face-breaking hit on Kris Draper a year earlier—crystallized the attitude and identity of the team, the building, the city. McCarty was the soul of Joe Louis Arena.
That 2002 Cup was the culmination of the Red Wings dynasty, or at least that phase of it. They were captained by Yzerman, who was supported by what seemed to be an endless supply of great players from Europe, blockbuster free-agent signings, and likeable role players. The team won three cups in the Yzerman age, and when he passed his captaincy on to Nick Lidstrom, there was enough left for one more run in 2008, when a radically different team won a Game 7 against Pittsburgh thanks to a heartstopping last-second save from Chris Osgood.
But now, the Red Wings face the end of three interwoven eras. Mike Ilitch, who brought the team out of embarrassingly low depths after buying them in 1982, passed away in February. A month later, the Wings’ unprecedented 25-season playoff streak mathematically ended. Finally, on Sunday, Joe Louis Arena, the Wings’ home since 1979, will host its last NHL game.
There are mixed feelings all around. Ilitch’s legacy is complicated, but after his death he was hailed as the man who revived Detroit. And some Red Wings fans are actually happy about the end of the playoff streak; the Wings have lost in the first round four out of the last five years (including twice to Tampa Bay, where Yzerman is the GM), and it was clear even at the beginning of this season that the yearly patchwork of veteran signings wouldn’t keep the team afloat forever. Better to take some time to focus on rebuilding than stay stuck in the purgatory of April exits.
Then there’s the end of the Joe. Admittedly, JLA is a flawed building. It’s ugly and windowless and takes up valuable riverfront area. Its concourses are cramped and feel like a basement. Its location is fairly removed from the new attractions of the city, like gentrified Midtown or the Tigers’ and Lions’ more modern venues. The new arena, named after Ilitch’s pizza company, will be cleaner, more accessible, and likely more comfortable.
However, while I’m sure Little Caesars Arena will be an improved “entertainment venue” over JLA, I’m far from convinced it’ll be a better place to watch hockey. I’ve been going to games at the Joe my entire life, and I’m not ready to move on from the retro video boards, the tight, intimate seats, the lack of in-arena distractions, and the way “Let’s Go Red Wings!” echoes around the corners of the upper deck (at least when the team was playing well, which, as long as I’ve been alive, has been almost always).
It’s likely, too, that the Red Wings will be entering their new, clean, corporate-branded stadium without much in the way of personality, talent, and charm on the ice. Very few players stand out as bright spots from this failure of a season, and too much roster money is still tied up in veterans at the tail ends of their careers, like Niklas Kronwall and Henrik Zetterberg, as well as guys that don’t or can’t play, like Jimmy Howard and Johan Franzen.The one game I attended this season was a lackluster 3-1 loss against the Islanders, and while fans went ecstatic for the lone goal at the end of the 1st, by the final minutes many had left, frustrated with the Wings’ inability to create opportunities against a mediocre opponent. The team’s days as the NHL’s premier franchise are long past, and it’s going to take years to get back there.
The front office can no longer just import all the all-stars they want anymore. Both the salary cap and the fact that they’re simply no longer a destination team will force them to rebuild through smart draft choices and player development. This new Red Wings era will, at least initially, not be marked by success, and all the banners they hung at Joe Louis likely won’t have company anytime soon at Little Caesars.
So the Wings will enter next season needing new directions in ownership and identity, but the job in front of them isn’t so daunting as the standings would indicate. As fans, we don’t need four Cups, and we certainly don’t expect a team to ice nine Hall of Famers, as those 2002 champs did.
There’s a reason why I always watch the McCarty video to get inspired rather than, say Yzerman lifting the cup. McCarty is the identity of that old team, as the city’s institutional memory immortalizes it: pride and toughness. As the Wings move out of the old arena where that identity was forged, they just have to bring some of that soul with them. They don’t need to provide a dynasty; they just need play that’s easy to cheer for.
But we’ve enjoyed enough wins to be able to wait, and to know the heart of the Joe wasn’t in the hardware. The new era of the Red Wings doesn’t need to begin with another Yzerman or a Lidstrom or a Zetterberg. They need, more than anything, a guy like Darren McCarty.