The San Jose Sharks face off against the Detroit Red Wings tonight, and I confess that this is an opponent that occupies a complex part of my heart. Although the hatred steeps in high concentration during the year, and is especially visceral during the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Red Wings are a team that also garners a bit of warm nostalgia for me.
In the time before the NHL came to San Jose, I would spend a couple weeks or so each year at my Grandparent’s house in Michigan. My Dad’s family was from a little Norman Rockwellian town called Northville, located about a half hour outside Detroit and firmly in automaker country. It was the kind of town where you only drove a Japanese car if you were looking for a fight, and just about every single household’s paystub read Ford Motor Company. Though now graced by the ubiquitous symbols of a growing suburb like Starbuck’s and fast food joints, back then, Northville’s Main Street had a legitimate “Five and Dime” store where my cousins and I would attempt to convince my Grandfather that his 60 year old (at least) toboggan needed an upgrade. We were ofer always on that one.
Back at Grandpa’s house on Orchard Avenue, and in between skating sessions on their back pond, I’d hear stories about the Detroit Red Wings and Gordie Howe and wonder why there were no backyard fences that separated the neighbors. Inside the house, there was this stack of photo albums on the lamp table next to the fireplace, and my Grandpa would show me old snapshots he’d taken from the stands at Olympia Stadium. I remember getting more a kick out of all the guys on the ice not wearing any helmets and looking like game show hosts, with their perfectly parted, slicked hair than anything else. That, and the odd photograph showing my Dad accidentally in the shot with some long forgotten childhood friend. This was a time well before my affection [sic] affliction with hockey, and really, I was far too focused on Joe Montana back in those days to care about anything else.
Now, after almost 20 years of following the NHL and San Jose Sharks, it is a privilege and treat to view and relive these very same memories in a completely different light.
I think of my Grandpa throwing my teenage Father into his brand new 1957 Chevrolet, and rolling out to the old stadium, where on any given night, they would have seen the likes of Howe, Alex Delvecchio and Terry Sawchuk face off against that of Rocket Richard, Gump Worsley and a rookie named Bobby Hull in Original 6 clashes. Incidentally, that ’57 Chevy is a car purchase, that even years after Grandpa Williams’ passing, still lives on in infamy—as it was possibly the most extravagant purchase ever by a man, considered by most, to be the most frugal in the entirety of the combined Wayne and Oakland Counties.
Years later, I would have my own childhood experience of a Dad taking his son to his first hockey game. For me, a California native, it wasn’t a trip to venerable Olympia Stadium, but rather to the concrete eyesore that is the Cow Palace. Devoid of both history and any aesthetic appeal, unless you count the 1970s concert photos of Kenny Rogers and Whitesnake that ring the interior, the Cow Palace was certainly as drafty as anything Detroit ever put up. Also, in a testament to that strange phenomenon, the Cow Palace occupies a weird space for many Bay Area fans, where an indisputably ugly building begins to endear itself as a “cherished landmark” if left alone for long enough. The Sharks lost that night, and would lose an awful lot more that year, but the seed was planted. The Williams family story came full circle that night in 1991, and my Dad and I were now officially San Jose Sharks fans.
So, it’s not as easy for this Sharks fan to completely loathe the Red Wings as it is for many Sharks fans, but I’m getting there. The Red Wings certainly have a sparkling history and tradition, but I also remember that there was a reason that Grandpa and Grandpa didn’t allow me and my cousins to go to Downtown Detroit. The one time I did manage to sneak down there, it was like Detroit had hired the City Beautification Engineer from Van Nuys to come to the Midwest in order to realize his lifelong dream of making an entire American city look like a Del Taco mini-mall. Everything gray! Buildings! Sky! Dreams! Foliage! All of it!
To be fair, Greektown was cool and then there’s the Joe Louis fist sculpture…and then you lock your doors twice and leave quickly.
The Sharks and Red Wings would go on to face each other in the coming years in many highly charged playoff match ups, including the first playoff series win in Sharks franchise history and the reason why Jamie Baker should never, ever pay for a meal at Original Joe’s or anywhere else for that matter.
Right now, the coin-flip Sharks are playing inconsistent hockey, which makes every game more than interesting. And, it means they will no doubt test the intestinal fortitude of the Teal Faithful tonight. No middle of the road these days for the boys, and you’re as likely to see a Dany Heatley hat trick, as you are a Joe Thornton minus-5.
Good luck, keep the Maalox handy and seriously…if you ever see Bakes at OJ’s and don’t grab his check, you should be freakin’ ashamed of yourself.
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