Playoffs in Detroit 'the best time of year'

DETROIT -- The folks at Superior Fish Company recommend a tasty smoked octopus dip made with cream cheese.

"It's really nice," co-owner Kevin Dean said.

Octopus dip? Maybe in Los Angeles or Chicago or even Atlanta. But in Detroit the only good use of an octopus is heaving it onto the ice at Joe Louis Arena during a Red Wings playoff run.

Think of it as a rite of spring.

Back in the day, when NHL games were actually played at the arena known simply as The Joe, the Superior Fish folks offered a full octopus kit for Red Wings fans. The staff would parboil the beasts to remove some of the natural slime, which provided for better grip and less slip.

Kevin Dean and his brother David would even offer tips on the best launching techniques.

"It depends on where your seat is," Kevin Dean said.

But Red Wings fans won't get a chance to display their skills this year.

While fans of the Tampa Bay Lightning might be missing the opportunity to watch their team start to defend its first Stanley Cup this week, Red Wings fans are missing out on something a little more.

No other city's identity is more intrinsically linked with an NHL franchise than is Detroit's. By virtue of their successes, the Red Wings have become a unifying force in a community whose history has been marked historically by racial problems, poverty and crime.

Each of the Red Wings' last three Stanley Cups -- in 1997, 1998 and 2002 -- has been followed by a parade through the city's downtown core, attracting more than a million fans. Each event was staged without incident, each celebration defying the city's haggard reputation.

Those parades and the team's heritage were part of the presentation that landed the city next year's Super Bowl, said Michael O'Callaghan, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Detroit Metro Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Those parades also have been symbolic of how important the game is to the city, he said.

"All of the bad rap Detroit has gets put away for at least one day. We won't get that chance this year," he said.

Curiously located amid a tangle of freeway overpasses and parking structures, Joe Louis Arena was for many winters a lonely beacon of comfort in an otherwise desolate downtown. Now the exterior of the 26-year-old building is tired-looking, grimy and seems woefully out of step with the new kids in the downtown sporting fraternity.

About a 15-minute walk north and east from the rink sits Comerica Park, the 5-year-old home of baseball's Tigers, and next to it is Ford Field, home of the Lions. The two sports complexes are the cornerstones of a massive revitalization that has drawn leaders General Motors and Compuware (whose owner, Peter Karmanos owns the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes) to the downtown core. Construction sites that dominate the area reflect $40 billion in announced projects since the city was awarded the 2006 Super Bowl five years ago, O'Callaghan said.

Still, the optimism for the future remains blunted by the current absence of the Red Wings.

It was a sparkling April day as fans spilled out of Comerica Park after the Tigers' second home date of the season, a 7-2 loss to the Kansas City Royals. Tigers paraphernalia was everywhere, but beneath the orange and blue and the familiar stylized "D" beat the hearts of hockey fans feeling the loss of the Winged Wheel.

"It's great for the Tigers, but it's not the playoffs," said Justin Pankow, 25.

"It sucks. I like baseball, but I never watch baseball on TV. But hockey, I watch every single game I can get my hands on," added Pankow's friend Chris Wilkewicz, 26.

"This is probably the last year we'll get to see Yzerman. Ruined over money," he added, referring to the Red Wings captain who is revered in the city. "It's really the best time of year."

A few blocks south of Comerica Park, Steve Yzerman towers 14 stories over downtown from the side of the Cadillac Tower.

"Born: Cranbrook, BC, 1965
Adopted: Detroit, MI, 1983."

(Editor's note: On Wednesday, the day after this story was posted and the Stanley Cup playoffs were scheduled to begin, the 170-foot-by-100-foot mural of Yzerman was painted over with white paint. Its sponsor decided not to renew its contract.)

Across the street is the Checker Bar and Grill, a popular gathering place for downtown business types and families for 50 years. The Checker regularly shuttles patrons back and forth from Red Wings games in its self-described "Checkermobile." Without an NHL season, business has been down as much as 45 percent, said Karen Munro, who runs the bar with her sister Kathleen.

"This winter was really tough," she said.

A ceramic cow stands on the counter and is periodically passed by the regulars to help pay the bills. Many of the worn bar chairs are affixed with brass nameplates, another revenue generator.

"Thank god for the regulars," she said. "Everyone's trying to help us stay alive."

Will she miss the playoffs?

"We would have been packed. It's major. It makes everybody happy. We're hockey. We're sports," Munro said. "It's really depressing."

Between The Checker and The Joe sits one of the city's most recognizable landmarks, Marshall Frederick's sculpture, the Spirit of Detroit -- a seated man holding a bronze-gilded orb in one extended hand and a family in the other. And he is strangely underdressed. For the past eight years, the statue has joined the city's celebration of the playoff run by donning a giant 14-by-15 foot Red Wings jersey.

During the 1997 playoffs, city workers were told to take the sweater down because it was believed to contravene city bylaws. Angry fans flooded municipal offices with calls, and the sweater returned.

Now it remains folded and packed away somewhere in the bowels of Joe Louis Arena.

A short walk north of The Joe is Mac's On 3rd. On the roof a sign reads "NHL + NHLPA Bring Back Hockey Now!"

Manager Anthony Bruce emerges from the kitchen and pulls on a gray shirt depicting the Wings' 2002 Stanley Cup win. He figures business is down 50 percent without hockey. He knows he is not alone.

"It's amazing how dependent this town is on this franchise," Bruce said. "We're all affected by this one way or another. It's not just the bars and restaurants. Our wholesalers are complaining that their business is down. Our suppliers' business is down.

"It's amazing how everybody else can make money on the NHL but supposedly the owners can't."

A few days ago, Bruce was out playing golf with his buddies. They were talking about getting out the personal watercraft and going to the cottage when suddenly it dawned on them that normally they would have been making plans based on the Wings and their playoff series.

"We're a sports community," he said. "We depend on sports for our entertainment. For us, there really is nothing else."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.