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Memories abound at The Joe in Sabres' final visit

DETROIT -- For all his years in hockey as a player and coach, no night stands out for Dan Bylsma more than June 13, 2009.

The Buffalo Sabres coach was back in Joe Louis Arena for the final time Monday night and admitted each visit here over the last eight years has brought him flashbacks to the night his Pittsburgh Penguins won the Stanley Cup. In Game Seven of the '09 Cup final, the Penguins held on for a 2-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings, with Marc-Andre Fleury diving to his right to make a save on Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom just before the buzzer to preserve the Penguins' first title since 1992.

"Game Seven in here and the four hours after Game Seven in that dressing room were my most memorable as a coach for sure," Bylsma said Monday in the hours before Buffalo's last game in the rink everyone in hockey circles calls "The Joe."

"I kind of have stapled in my brain the last five seconds. Pretty much every time I step on that bench, I'm holding my breath for Lidstrom at the side of the net and Fleury's save. I always have those kind of flashback memories every time I step back in here. To me, this was the ultimate destination point for playing hockey."

Bylsma is a Michigan guy. The first NHL game he saw was here, a visit in the early 80s by the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers. He watched college hockey here and played for Bowling Green here.

"The top-seeded team always got the dressing room we're in right now -- which you thought at the time was the Taj Mahal," said a laughing Bylsma. "It's not quite that. When I walk in there, that was the dressing room to have."

The arena opened as the replacement to Olympia Stadium on Dec. 27, 1979, completed at a cost of $57 million and named after the iconic heavyweight boxer and Detroit native. It will be replaced this fall by the $733 million Little Caesars Arena, about a mile uptown. It is technically the second-oldest rink in the NHL although New York's Madison Square Garden (1968) was completely renovated the last three years.

Joe Louis came along at a lean time for the Detroit franchise, which did not win a seven-game playoff series from 1966-1986 but finally started to hit prosperity. In 1995, the Red Wings made their first Stanley Cup final in 40 years but were swept by New Jersey. The Wings broke through in 1997, ending their 42-year Cup drought by beating Philadelphia, with captain Steve Yzerman taking the Cup from Commissioner Gary Bettman in front of a roaring home crowd that watched the Wings complete a four-game sweep.

The Wings' 1998 Cup clincher was in Washington, and their 2008 victory came in Pittsburgh. But their 2002 victory under Scotty Bowman in Game Five over Carolina was also at the Joe.

The most famous moments other than victories involved Gordie Howe. Mr. Hockey was feted by a roaring standing ovation that lasted several minutes when he was introduced prior to the 1980 NHL All-Star Game. When he died last June, Howe's body was put in state for a public viewing on the ice that lasted for more than 12 hours and was attended by thousands.

One of the arena's entrances is named after Howe and his statue is one of several in the arena concourse. The building oozes with history, particularly in the area around the Red Wings' locker room. There are black and white pictures of the franchise's legendary players over the current Wings' lockers, with former Wings and Sabres goalie Roger Crozier joining Terry Sawchuk and Mike Vernon where the current goalies reside.

Photos of the team's 11 Stanley Cups are high at one end of the room. When players head to the ice, they go past plaques dedicated to the team's Hall of Famers and walk under a sign that reads, "Greatness is a Daily Choice" and look straight into murals of the stars from the 1997, 1998 and 2002 Cup champs.

"It's my second year and almost every day I have to pinch myself I play here," said Red Wings center Dylan Larkin. "I look right across from my seat and I see Nick Lidstrom's and Steve Yzerman's faces and it says 'Stanley Cup champions'. Everywhere you look it's history and reminders of the great players that came before."

After Monday's game, there are just six games left before the building heads for the wrecking ball. It will close with a final weekend April 8 against Montreal and April 9 against New Jersey.

"I thought I had a lot of people coming my first year to want to come to a game to see me play," Larkin said. "This last month has been pretty crazy with people wanting to come to see the Joe. It's already hard to find tickets."

As for other events, Joe Louis Arena is one of the most famous college hockey venues in the Midwest. It's hosted concerts, wrestling, arena football and WNBA and NBA playoff games when there were schedule conflicts at other venues.

It was the site of the 1980 Republican National Convention, when Ronald Reagan was nominated en route to winning his first term as President. It was also the site of the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, most notable for the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan soap opera that saw Kerrigan attacked in the warmup arena next door at Cobo Hall.

The Sabres haven't had that much success in the building or really been a part of many major moments. One reason, of course, is the Red Wings spent many years in the Western Conference so the teams have never met in a playoff series.

The Sabres' first regular-season overtime decision was here, a 6-5 loss on Oct. 26, 1983 on a goal by then-rookie Steve Yzerman. Their most significant win was a 3-2 shootout triumph on Oct. 13, 2006, which came one day after Buffalo was struck by the October Surprise storm and was part of the team's 10-0 run to start the season.

Maybe Buffalo's most infamous moment here was the line brawl the teams staged two days before Christmas in 1987 involving goaltenders Tom Barrasso and Greg Stefan. Somehow, Yzerman ended up brawling with Buffalo tough guy Kevin Maguire as his teammates came to his aid. An incensed Bob Probert punched the mask off Barrasso and hit a prone Maguire in a pileup, earning a one-game suspension.

"It's pretty cool. So much history here and you're sad to see it go," said Sabres forward Marcus Foligno. "Maybe you won't miss the dressing room aspect on the visitors side but there's emotion for guys who've played here many times."

Marcus Foligno was not yet born when he his father played the first 2 1/2 years of his NHL career with the Red Wings before getting traded to the Sabres in 1981. Mike Foligno, now a scout for the Vegas Golden Knights, was a first-round pick of Detroit in 1979.

"He talked about the games here and the emotion in this arena, the packed nights he played in," Marcus Foligno said. "He's been scouting around and when he comes here he said he has a lot of memories for it. It's definitely one of the special rinks in NHL history."

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