By JED LOCKETT
BLUEFIELD — Christmas Day. I was nervous as always. But this was different. This time, my gift would hopefully be a gift to someone else.
The recipient, my mother Nora. Even though she does not classify herself as such, she is a fighter and a survivor. Hodgkins Disease could not stop her in 1976. Neither could a failed marriage in the early 80s, heart disease in 1992 or breast cancer in 1994.
She overcame it all, then rose to the top of her profession as the director of Easley Library at Bluefield College. Yet she was depressed. She had not taken a vacation in literally decades, with the exception of a few sports trips that sowed the seeds for what I am doing now. She had a desire to see other places, but was always afraid to go.
She counts three things among her loves in life, English history, crafting and hockey. She became a hockey fan watching NBC’s telecasts during the early-1970s and picked a team — the Detroit Red Wings — in 1974. But hockey soon left the air and she would not be able to watch again until ESPN began televising it in the 1980s and ’90s.
I fell in love with the game in 1994, and witnessed the rebirth of the Red Wings and their dominating all-Russian line.
But I did not rediscover my joy for hockey until Jan. 1, 2008. The Penguins and the Sabres played an outdoor game dubbed the Winter Classic at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo.
During the game, Penguins star Sidney Crosby took the starring role, first with a puck-juggling exhibition in the first period, then by scoring the game-winner in a shootout.
My mom watched with me and we talked about how much fun everyone there was having and how great it would be to go to the next one.
We watched the Stanley Cup Playoffs and saw the Red Wings beat the Penguins in six games for the title.
Later that summer, the NHL announced the next location of the Winter Classic, Wrigley Field in Chicago for a game between the hometown Blackhawks and their Original Six rivals, the Detroit Red Wings. That would be my Christmas gift to the woman that meant more to me than anyone else.
I started planning and saving immediately, and purchased lots of warm clothing for each of us.
After I opened my gifts, it was mom’s turn. I had bought her a teddy bear from Build-A-Bear Workshop named Sergei, dressed him in a Red Wings uniform and gave him to mom as an early Christmas gift. She fell in love with him instantly.
Later, she opened a zippered pocket on the front of a newly-unwrapped jacket and pulled out a pair of perforated pieces of thin white cardboard.
On them were printed the words, “Detroit vs. Chicago. December 30, 7:30 p.m. Joe Louis Arena.”
Mom exclaimed, “Detroit AND Chicago?”
Our trip to the Windy City would include a detour through the Motor City.
There was just one hurdle to overcome. My mom had caught a cold and was not feeling well enough to cook us Christmas dinner. A few days later, she was better but still not 100 percent.
Yet we decided to go on. On Dec. 29, we stopped at Arby’s on the way out of Bluefield where I asked, “Are you sure you want to do this?”
She thought for a minute, then replied, “Let’s go on. If I get to feeling really bad, we can come back home.”
We would not see home again until Jan. 3.
• • •
Driving into the outskirts of metropolitan Detroit, you can tell that it was once one of the busiest, most industrious cities in America. The remnants are still there. But that is all they are. Many lots that once housed buildings are empty and many of the buildings that were a part of this city were decaying and covered by graffiti.
In the distance, the GM Building stood out among the downtown skyscrapers as a gleaming marvel of modern architecture and American ingenuity. But recent headlines have taken much of the gleam out of a Motor City landmark.
Yet Detroit prides itself as being resilient and finding a way to stay relevant. The three casinos in the distance prove that. And the downtown area is experiencing a revival. Comerica Park and Ford Field are the crown jewels, but it has extended to the area near the bank of the Detroit River.
Detroit is known as many things, one of which is Hockeytown. The nickname began as a marketing promotion by the Red Wings in 1996 as a testament to their loyal and fervent following. But it is not just a trademark. It has become a badge of honor that is defended valiantly by the Red Wings’ faithful.
Hockeytown is everywhere. In extends outside the arena into the city where the Hockeytown Café sits across the street from Comerica Park. But it is everywhere inside Joe Louis Arena as well — at center ice, on the shopping bags from the souvenir stand, on souvenir pucks, even on the concessionaires’ cups and napkins.
Hockeytown is an extension of the Detroit persona. It is that hard-working yet welcoming aura that results in great success. Eleven Stanley Cup banners hang in the rafters at The Joe and the red and white concourses celebrate the past while eagerly embracing the present and future.
There is no official dress code for a Detroit Red Wings game. But the great majority of fans were dressed primarily in red or white. Most people wore jerseys, some of which were blank. But most were emblazoned with the names and numbers of former greats or current stars.
The people inside Joe Louis Arena were as warm and welcoming as the others we had met previously. An usher was eager to take our picture together. A souvenir salesman more than ready to sell me hockey pucks. All eager to hear our story and ready to wish us well on our journey.
Depressed area? Do not tell that to the people of Detroit. Do not even think that about the people of Detroit. It is a blue-collar city with a heart of gold. They believe hard work and perseverance pays dividends. So it is no surprise that they avidly support a team that has made the playoffs the last 17 seasons.
There is a lot of popular fiction associated with the Christmas season. But in this Chistmas tale, the truth must be told about a city, its people and its hockey team. That is why when we got back home we were eager to spread the good word.
Yes Virginia, there is a Hockeytown.
• • •
I saw a lot of amazing people during this journey. But the most amazing one of all was the person I took the trip with. Before the trip she was downhearted and depressed. But then came the walk over to Joe Louis Arena.
With a history of heart trouble and slightly out of shape, my mom had to stop a couple times along the way. But we finally got to the arena entrance and there was one thing separating us from the arena — three flights of stairs.
When my mom saw this, she asked, “You mean we have to go up these stairs?” I starting looking around for another way up or someone who could assist us. The last thing I expected was for her to take off and start climbing.
But when I turned back around, that was exactly what happened. She stopped two-thirds of the way up to catch her breath. A gray-haired gentleman with a mustache asked if she needed assistance. But nothing would stop her.
Later I asked her about this. She said, “There were 36 of them. There are about that many from the parking lot to my office in the library.” I responded with an incredulous, “You counted?”
Everything at the game was an experience. Entering the arena was an experience. Finding our section and opening the red plastic curtain to the seating bowl for my mom was an experience. Sitting in the Joe Louis Arena seats was an experience. As much as I enjoyed it, she enjoyed it exponentially more.
But the moment I will always remember came before the game. I went down to get something to eat but then heard a roar inside the arena. I sprinted back in to see the Red Wings on the ice for warmups — and tears welling up in my mom’s eyes. For three decades, it had seemed that it was an impossible dream. Now that dream was a reality.
She knew Chicago was pretty good and her team would have to drop a game sometime. She just wanted to celebrate a goal — not to see her team win, but to see them score a goal at home.
Before she could, she had to endure a pair of Chicago power plays. Fortunately, Detroit goaltender Ty Conklin was more than up to the task. Every shot that came his way was turned aside. Every Chicago opportunity was to no avail. Conklin stopped each of the 36 shots he faced that night and earned the honor as the game's first star.
As good as Conklin was, he was not in a position to score. Pavel Datsyuk was. When the Red Wings finally got a power play opportunity. Datsyuk lifted a shot from the left corner of the Blackhawks’ zone that went over the shoulder of Chicago goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin — and in.
The red light went on. The horn blared. My mother's face lit up like a Christmas tree. In the second period, she got the chance to relive the experience. This time, Johan Franzen did the honors, scoring from a tight angle right in front of us.
Watching this version of the Red Wings is like listening to a symphony. The players are virtuosos and they combine to make the most beautiful music. They got two more goals in the final period and the entire time we cheered. We oohed. We aahed. We clapped. We sang The Hockey Song. My mother was a kid again.
Before the game I had done a little shopping, purchasing a replica jersey like the ones Detroit would wear during the Winter Classic. I wore it during this game while my mom wore the red jersey I had bought for her as a Mothers’ Day gift a decade earlier.
When we got back to the hotel room, I slipped off that jersey and made a phone call. Meanwhile, my mom had taken her jersey off and walked over and slipped on the new one. She walked over to a full-length mirror and began looking at herself the way a 16-year old would while trying on a prom dress. She was beaming, surely dreaming of wearing it at the Winter Classic two days later.
In Monday’s edition: The Winter Classic.