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Building America’s Hockey Capital vs. Hockeytown

For the 2010-2011 season, the Washington Capitals adopted a new slogan: “Building America’s Hockey Capital”. It’s an optimistic statement that while the team isn’t “there” yet, they’re working towards something great. Shooting out of the gate with “America’s Hockey Capital” would be a bit presumptuous, given the lack of recent postseason success and Washington’s history as a football town. But with a full arena, tons of hype, and an on-ice product that could be called the most exciting team in the NHL, the team and the city have reason to dream big.

Meanwhile, the city of Detroit has long held claim to being “Hockeytown”, based on the success of its famed Red Wings. With the team’s history of nearly continuous success since the early ‘90s (and their long and storied histroy as an Original Six franchise), they’ve earned the right to state their case as the top hockey city in America.

The news of a trip to Michigan to see an old friend, and the promise of a trip to Detroit’s famed Joe Loius Arena for a Wings game, brought about an interesting opportunity to compare my experience as a long time Washington Capitals fan to that of the Detroit Red Wings and the city of Detroit overall; to compare an established ‘Hockeytown’ to one building towards becoming one.

More after the jump.

The City
A lot has been written in recent years about the decline of Detroit as one of the great American cities. With population loss, widespread unemployment and an unoptimistic view of the city’s future, Detroit is a city in a tailspin. It’s gotten bad enough that the Weather Channel no longer recognizes ‘Detroit’ on the national map. The Michigan natives I spent the weekend with told loads of Detroit jokes. They also said that unless they were going to work or taking in a Wings or Tigers game, they would never set foot in the city.

Meanwhile, Washington DC is experiencing a bit of a renaissance. Crime is down, construction is up. People flock to the city for shopping, nightlife, fine cuisine, the wonderful museums and games or concerts at Verizon Center. The Chinatown neighborhood around the arena was revived when the facility was built over ten years ago and as only continued to thrive since. It’s a fun time to live in and around DC.

The Neighborhood
The neighborhood around Verizon Center is full of options for pre or post game food, drink, and entertainment, whether you’re a college kid or a family of four. The Metro drops you directly underneath the arena and nearly everything is a short walk from the venue’s front doors. You’re greeted with helpful signs, well lit streets and on a game night, hundreds of Caps fans taking in the neighborhood’s establishments.

The area around Joe Louis Arena is sparse. Parking a few blocks from the Joe, we only passed a few people on the street, most of who were going to the Wings game. There are no shops, restaurants or bars near the arena; no places to hang out. Everyone grabs dinner in nearby towns, driving into the city to catch the game and then immediately heading back home to the suburbs. Comerica Park and Ford Field, homes of the Tigers and Lions respectively, and their nearby bars and restaurants are located almost 2 miles to the north of Joe Louis Arena, which sits on the south side of the city along the Detroit River and next to a freeway. There is nothing else around for blocks.

The Arena
Joe Louis arena, which opened in 1979, has a huge advantage over Verizon Center in one aspect: it hosts no sporting events other than hockey. The tenants are the Detroit Red Wings, and with that solo residence comes the opportunity to decorate every part of the arena in Red Wings colors and paraphernalia. Statues of Gordie Howe greet you upon entrance to the Arena. Pictures of current players and beloved former players line the pillars and walls inside. There is no mistaking that this is indeed the home of the Detroit Red Wings. It’s not an entertainment facility, it’s a hockey rink.

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The arena, which reminds me a bit of the old Capital Centre in layout, holds 1660 more fans than Verizon Center, yet feels much smaller. The arena’s only real flaw is its age. At over 30 years old, it is devoid of most of the modern amenities that are quite common at Verizon Center. The jumbotron is dated and only displays the bare bones information about the game. And I couldn’t find an out-of-town score board (other than on my phone).

The Bathrooms
No contest. The bathrooms at Joe Louis Arena are tiny, almost closet-like rooms hidden under the stands. Most have only one shared entrance/exit, making it difficult to squeeze by fellow patrons. Sure, there are enough of them that you never have to walk more than a section to find one, but even in the middle of a period there are lines. Oh, and there are troughs in the men’s rooms.

However, the Joe has one bonus that Verizon Center lacks: an area dedicated solely to parents for diaper changes. As the father of a 9 month old, I can attest that this would be a great addition to Verizon Center. Trying to fold down a diaper changing station in the middle of a crowded bathroom is among the more stressful aspects of attending a Caps game.

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The Food and Drink

Another no contest. Here are your beverage options at Joe Louis Arena: For beer, you get Molson, Bud, Miller and Leinenkugel’s (and their associates Light/Lite variants). For those who prefer something harder, there frozen daiquiris, margaritas and a full selection of mixed drinks. Compare that to more than double the beer selection and the same mixed drink options at Verizon Center and you’ll be begging for a Sam Adams in no time.

As far as food, Joe Louis Arena has your staples (dogs, fries, etc.) to go with shaved meat sandwich shops, Tim Horton’s, and Little Ceasar’s Pizza stands. But all I saw anyone eating in the stands was ‘pizza pizza’ (and even that was rare). It’s almost as if people would prefer to eat closer to home and spend money on the tickets and a beer or two. Given the economic strain facing most Michigan residents right now, that comes a no surprise.

 

The Fans (interaction, knowledge)
Detroit fans care only about the hockey. They’re incredibly knowledgeable about their team, its history, and hockey in general. But they don’t feel the need to play dress-up to come to a game, as evidenced by roughly half the crowd wearing nothing Red Wings colored or branded. They must also know that there is a lot of game to be played by the way almost a quarter of the arena streamed into their seats from the concourse after the 1st and 2nd whistles of the game. This isn’t the playoffs, so why go all-out? Everyone here grew up around hockey and the Wings. It’s part of the culture. It’s a sense of community that Washington just doesn’t yet have.

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There are no prompted chants on the outdated jumbotron. No silly games or constant musical interludes to fill the silence. No one yells anything during the national anthem (despite ‘Red’ being in the team name). It seems almost subdued at times. This is, again, because these fans aren’t there for a night out, they’re there for a hockey game. They know when to get excited and when to cheer and boo without being told so. Going to a Wings game isn’t like going out to a movie. It’s all about the hockey.

The Team
It pains me to say this, but watching the Wings play in person only makes the flaws in the Caps’ game more obvious. The Red Wings move as a unit up and down the ice. They, like the Caps,  are highly skilled. But when they use those skills, they do so in ways the Capitals do not. For example, when Alex Ovechkin bulls down the wing and pulls off a nifty move, it’s to create time and space for him to shoot. When Pavel Datsyuk does the same thing, it’s to create time and space to get into the corners and get a play set up around all five skaters. It’s a system this Caps team would be wise to brush up on because quite simply, it wins games.

In the game I attended, the Wings fought from behind to tie the game with several gritty goals in the 3rd period. They then poured it on in the last minute, eventually scoring with 11 seconds left on a nifty play by Datsyuk. Unlike the Caps, the Wings used their last minute heroics to win the game in regulation, not tie it. Huge difference. Never once did the Red Wings assume they’d come back to win the game until they did.

 

The Intangibles
The Red Wings have retired 6 numbers hanging from their rafters, compared to the Capitals 4. But while Hunter, Langway, Labre, and Gartner are certainly names that bring smiles to Caps fans faces, names like Howe, Delvecchio, Lindsay, Sawchuk, Abel and Yzerman are full-blown NHL legends.

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Then, of course, is the hardware. It’s everywhere, staring you in the face. It’s the real reason this is Hockeytown.

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Final Thoughts

As sad as Detroit has become as a city, hockey still rules. Old and outdated as it may be, Joe Louis Arena is redder than Verizon Center. Modern amenities don’t matter there, as the building is simply a roof over which great hockey is played. So when the question is asked: “how can anyone reasonably forecast a long-term future for any sports team” in Detroit, the answer is as long as it’s the Red Wings you’re talking about, the question is invalid.

The Washington Capitals have done something these past few seasons that I never thought possible: they’ve captured the imagination of the city of Washington DC. They’re fast, exciting, and they win. In response, the fans have come out in droves and Rocked the Red. I’m proud of what the team, and the arena it plays in, has done to Washington. DC might never be a hockey town like Detroit, but it’s still loves its hockey team. If that’s the best we can get from a football town, I’ll take it.

 

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