Exit From Hockeytown
by Matthew Olzmann
Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Sometime early in my parent's marriage, a "news" story aired on one of the major networks in Detroit. My aunts and uncles tell several versions of the story, but the one I remember best goes like this:
The reporter looks at the camera and says, Despite hockey's popularity in the area, few people know where hockey pucks come from, or how they're made.
They grow on trees.
Not many people know this but there's a type of tree where the sap leaks out, drips from the bark, and collects at the end of the branches. As it hardens, it slowly turns into nearly perfect rubber discs. These are harvested and used as pucks on ice rinks everywhere.
The camera pans back to reveal the trees behind the reporter.
The reporter reaches up, and plucks one from a branch.
A close up of the puck.
This is when my mom, Mary Ann Olzmann, turns off the TV, goes downstairs and says to my dad, "Did you know hockey pucks grow on trees?"
It is the first day of April.
And my mom—bless her heart—will likely hear this story on every April Fools' Day, for the rest of her life.
This is a story about cities and memory.
I was born in Detroit, but live in North Carolina now, and it's strange not being in Michigan this time of the year. Back home, as winter melts into early spring, the thawing ice and the bluer skies usually signals the approach of the NHL Playoffs. In Detroit, it's basically taken for granted that Red Wings will be a part of those playoffs, as the team has been a force in the postseason for the past 22 years. This streak of consecutive postseason appearances is currently the longest streak of its kind, not only for hockey, but all North American professional sports.
The Red Wings play in the Joe Louis Arena, and at center ice, the word "HOCKEYTOWN" is displayed in bold letters. I always thought that nickname for Detroit was a bit corny—a corporate-driven marketing thing—but I also thought it was unique to Detroit, and was ours alone.
It's strange the way your perception of a place changes when you're not there.
"I find it weird that Detroit would have the nerve to call itself Hockeytown," says Brian Conlan, a librarian for the Warren Wilson College library.
"Why's that?" I say.
"Because everyone knows the center of the Hockey Universe is Minnesota."
"What? Minnesota once lost its NHL franchise to Dallas of all places. You can't let Texas—where it never even snows—steal your hockey team and still call yourself the center of the hockey universe."
"Maybe. But did you know that Eveleth, Minnesota, is home to the world's largest free-standing hockey stick?"
I didn't actually come to the library to talk about hockey. I came to check out a copy of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities. Tomorrow, I'll be substitute teaching in my wife's "Writing About Place" class, and I thought it might be interesting to consider how a "place" might be imagined.
In this book, Marco Polo and Kublai Khan are chatting about the empire, and the descriptions of the cities are all outrageous. There's the city where inside every skyscraper is a person slowly going mad. There's Octavia, which is made of ropes and nets, like a spider web over the void. And Armilla which has no ceilings, walls or floors, just pipes that sprout up in every direction. Strange cities. Beautiful cities. Haunted cities. And when I first read this book, years ago, I wanted to visit each of them.
According to Wikipedia, the following cities have all been referred to as "Hockeytown":
- Binghamton, New York
- Montreal, Quebec
- Warroad, Minnesota
- Buffalo, New York
- Boston, Massachusetts
- Chicago, Illinois
- Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Saint Paul, Minnesota
- Sapsborg, Norway
- Detroit, Michigan
It's apparently not as exclusively synonymous with Detroit as I originally thought. Whatever. However, Wikipedia also notes that "Hockeytown"—when combined with the Red Wings' logo—is officially a "registered trademark owned by the franchise." (So take that, Brian from the library.)
Also, Eveleth is, indeed, home of the largest free-standing hockey stick.
Red Wing fans are a little spoiled. Traditionally, the attitude is this: Stanley Cup or the season is a total failure.
In most years, this seems perfectly reasonable.
To understand why Detroiters feel like they always have a shot, consider what a 22-year postseason streak means.
Over two decades, the Wings won with different stars, team captains, goalies and coaches.
They've been the favorite, and the underdog. The hunter and hunted.
They were faster and stronger than everyone, and when they couldn't be that, they were smarter, tougher, or simply more patient.
They outspent everyone.
They traded away their top prospects and draft picks for proven—but aging—stars.
They stole Sergei Fedorov from Russia in the middle of the night.
They figured out where Europe was before the rest of the league.
They won four championships.
They made it to the finals six times.
Perhaps most impressively, they won after the league deliberately changed the rules specifically to screw them over. When 2004-2005 season was cancelled for a lockout, I'm sure somewhere, someone said the league was trying to achieve "cost certainty." What it meant for the Wings was a salary cap.
By the time they took the ice again, their payroll would shrink from roughly 77.8 million dollars to 39.5 million. They cut half their payroll, came back from the lockout, and—over the next four years—they still dominated the hell out of the league. They won their division four years in a row, went to the Stanley Cup Finals twice, won a championship once, and came within one game of winning another.
It's pretty ballsy to call yourself "Hockeytown" when—from just across the Detroit River—Canada stares back at you.
In the winter, the river freezes, and the two countries are connected by a rough sheet of ice. According to legend, the ice used to freeze so thick, so solid, you could drive on it. During prohibition, bootleggers would try to smuggle booze into the States by driving across. According to other legends, the ice would break, and there are endless stories of scuba divers—decades later—finding old cars at the bottom of the river.
I don't know how or when Red Wing Nation adopted the moniker of Hockeytown, but seems like it happened in the mid-90s, when the city's obsession with the Wings was at an all-time high.
What's always fascinated me most about sports is how the storylines, sometimes stretching across decades and generations, bind a community.
In 1995, the story was "40 years": the length of time that had passed since the Wings' most recent Stanley Cup. But things were suddenly different, and the story was about this being the year the drought would finally end. It was a new story and everyone was excited. The Wings won the President's trophy (awarded to the team with the best record in the regular season). They advanced to the finals. This was the year! Everyone was losing their collective minds.
And then the Red Wings did the unthinkable: they lost. Swept by the New Jersey Devils in four straight games.
Then it was 1996.
The story was now "41 years."
Again the President's cup. Again they were the favorites. And again they lost. This time to the Colorado Avalanche. But this loss was different. It was a beginning of a very special kind of hatred. While the story was "The Red Wings Lost," the story also became "Claude Lemieux." Lemieux, in what was seen as an unforgivable cheap shot, checked Wings' forward Kris Draper from behind into the boards, breaking his jaw, cheek and orbital bone.
Lemieux and the Avalanche would eventually defeat the Wings and go onto win the Stanley Cup.
And now the story was revenge.
In the part of North Carolina where I live, in the mountains on the western side of the state, hockey is a distant afterthought. When it snows, everything shuts down. A day later, it's 40 or 50 degrees again, and life resumes. The closest NHL team is The Carolina Hurricanes. They're in Raleigh, and owned by Peter Karmanos, another man from Detroit. Raleigh is 235 miles from the here, and the last time I asked a coworker if he had ever seen the Hurricanes, he said, "No. No. No. It's been years. They rarely affect us this far inland." It took me a good two or three minutes to realize he was talking about the weather.
And so it was 1997 and the story was now "42 years."
And the story was revenge.
Wings fans hated The Avs because they took, we thought, what belonged to us.
They hated Patrick Roy—Avalanche goaltender—because he was the best in the game.
They hated Claude Lemiex because he was good. Because he had previously destroyed us as a member of the New Jersey Devils. Because he destroyed us as a member of the Avalanche the next year. Because he destroyed Kris Draper's face with a total cheap shot. Because he always found a way to beat us. And because when Satan walked upon the Earth… And because, well, you know, fuck that guy.
On March 26th, 1996, the teams played each other in a regular season game. Tensions that had been building for a year just exploded. There were nine fights in that game. Even the goalies fought each other. A fight would break out, and in trying to break up that fight another fight would break out.
The story was Darren McCarty pummeling Lemieux.
The story was Mike Vernon—who seemed at least foot shorter than Roy—going toe-to-toe with Roy.
The story was the Wings winning 6-5.
Photographs of bloodstains across the ice.
And this was just a meaningless game in the middle of a long season.
In Invisible Cities, there are cities with a thousand wells, cities where gods live inside the buckets raised from those wells. There's a city on stilts, a city where musicians sleep in graveyards, and a city where the roads are arranged like maps of the solar system.
At some point in the book, you begin to wonder if these are the same city. Or maybe these are all part of some elaborate dream, vision, or memory.
In 1997, the year the Red Wings finally won the championship, there were other stories. Steve Yzerman—the Red Wings longtime captain—trying to win his first Stanley Cup. The "Russian Five," a group of former Soviet players, all paired on the same line and communicating, apparently, via telepathy. Brendan Shanahan. Nicklas Lidström. The Grind Line. Scotty Bowman.
But ultimately, the story was about a city.
Red and white banners hung from every house, office and storefront. Everywhere you went, people were talking about the same thing. On the radio—even stations that weren't sports stations—you heard voices yelling about whether or not, "Stevie would skate with the cup."
On the roads, every car had a Red Wings flag. You'd stop at a red light, look in the mirror, and see dozens of them behind you.
Back then, I had a job as a medical courier, and spent most evenings on the road, transporting little coolers full of blood, tissue samples, and urine from hospitals across the state to the airport. When the Wings reached the finals, each time they scored a goal, the highways would erupt with horns honking in celebration. You'd make eye contact with another driver, they would nod in recognition, and you just knew…
When the Wings finally won it all, defeating the Philadelphia Flyers in four straight games, the celebration seemed like it would never end. There was a parade, and over a million people came out. Confetti and music everywhere. I watched most of this on a small, black and white TV after getting home from work. But to hear the celebration, all I had to do was open a window.
We are finally champions.
A few days later, there was a car accident. Following a party, a limousine crashed into a wall. Three Red Wings were injured: Sergei Mnatsakanov (team masseur), and defensemen Viacheslav Fetisov and Vladimir Konstantinov. Fetisov's injuries were comparatively minor, but Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov faced much more uncertain futures. Both were in a coma, and Konstantinov, one of the most promising defensemen in the NHL, would never play another game.
The story changed.
The next year the Wings won another title. They wore small patches on their sweaters with the initials of Konstantinov and Mnatsakanov. As they celebrated on the ice after defeating the Washington Capitals, they brought Konstantinov out onto the ice—in a wheelchair—to celebrate with them.
There was another parade. And everyone was screaming, We are champions, but it was just a little quieter.
That seems like forever ago, but the Red Wings have continued to play at a high level. However, things fade, year by year. No one has those flags on their cars anymore. There are few banners, and few people expect the Wings to win anything this year. Most think this could be the year the hallowed playoff streak comes to an end. Their top five centers are all injured. Their goalie, Jimmy Howard, is having the worst season of his career. If the playoffs began today, March 11th, 2014, the Red Wings would not be in it.
Despite all that, even with everything they've got against them, they're basically tied with Columbus for the eight seed (having the same number of points but Columbus getting the tiebreaker). There's a still month left in the season. Would anyone bet against them? Maybe.
All the old heroes have retired.
All the old bad guys have retired. In fact, the last time I heard anything about Claude Lemieux, he was playing in a charity hockey game to benefit victims of Hurricane Sandy. I hear he's a really nice guy. I hear he's got a heart of gold.
In the end, you can't even count on the things you hated; even the villain is part of the illusion.
Via the internet, when I tune in to any Detroit radio station, no one talks about the Wings anymore. They talk about the Tigers. The Tigers haven't won a World Series since 1984. But they've been really good; they're getting really close.
The story is "30 years."
The story is the year the drought might finally end.
The story is about something new, and everyone is excited.
Like I was saying earlier, my mom often hears the story repeated of the April Fools' prank that she once believed. To some, a joke never grows old. Once it came up at Easter dinner, one of her sisters saying, "Remember when Mary Ann thought hockey pucks grew on trees?"
And my mom saying, again and again, "It was on TV. I saw it. It almost seemed real."
In another life, I think my mom and Calvino would have been friends. In her defense, if Calvino had included an entry for Detroit in Invisible Cities, it might have looked like this:
There's a city where—no matter what you've been told—hockey pucks grow on trees. The roots of these trees extend through the city and connect everyone to everything like a network of nerves. Because of this, citizens of the city have the same dreams. Snow falls across the rooftops, and the factories that have closed spring back to life. You should see it, the way the rivers freeze over and the ice grows so solid you can drive for miles in cars that were built by your grandfathers. Have you ever witnessed so many people all wearing red and white? So many banners and flags? At the center of the city, there's a silver chalice that's half the size of a full-grown man. In this city, the citizens believe that that cup belongs there. They believe justice will prevail. That hard work will change their fortunes. They think victory will push back the clock and their heroes will walk again. In fact, they will live forever.
And we will always be champions.
Perhaps you think this city doesn't exist.
I'm here to tell you that I've seen it.
It almost seemed real.
Postscript: On April 9th, the Red Wings earned their 91st point of the season, clinching a spot in the 2014 NHL Playoffs, and extending their postseason streak to 23 consecutive seasons.
Editor's note: Since the filing of this piece, the Red Wings were eliminated by the Bruins in the first round. Detroit's 23rd playoff appearance record leads North American professional sports. The closest professional sports team in that category is the NBA's San Antonio Spurs with 17 consecutive appearances.
MATTHEW OLZMANN's first book of poems, Mezzanines, received the 2011 Kundiman Prize and was published by Alice James Books. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Brevity, New England Review, Kenyon Review, Poetry Northwest, The Southern Review, Forklift, Ohio and elsewhere. Currently, he is a Visiting Professor of Creative Writing in the undergraduate writing program at Warren Wilson College.