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.