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In Search of... Hockeytown U.S.A.

With Detroit's claim to fame undermined by poor attendance at Red Wings games, SI set out to find the U.S. city that can rightfully call itself the capital of hockey in this country

Posted: Tuesday December 4, 2007 10:54AM; Updated: Tuesday December 4, 2007 10:54AM
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While the Red Wings struggle to sell out, the Wild (above) is thriving thanks to grassroots hockey.
While the Red Wings struggle to sell out, the Wild (above) is thriving thanks to grassroots hockey.
Darren Carroll/SI
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The year was 1996. The "Got Milk?" campaign was at its zenith, and a fast-food Mexican chain was about to introduce a wisecracking Chihuahua who would proclaim "Yo quiero Taco Bell." The advertising agency for the Detroit Red Wings, Bozell Worldwide, was also cooking up something that would capture the hockey zeitgeist as neatly as the Red Wings would the next two Stanley Cups.

"Hockeytown," which still graces the center-ice circle at Joe Louis Arena, remains a brilliant slogan, a motto so evocative that the Canadiens emulated it this season with "The city is hockey," evidence that Montreal has game if not syntax. Of course in Detroit in 2007 the Hockeytown moniker seems as appropriate as, well, dipping a beef taco in a glass of milk.

Detroit's Hockeytown crown has slipped. There were so many empty seats in The Joe during the playoffs last spring that you could have twirled an octopus in some rows of the upper deck and not slimed a soul. This year's home opener (against defending Stanley Cup champion Anaheim) was almost 2,500 short of a sellout. The Wings still offer dazzling hockey, showcasing three of the NHL's best 20 players -- Norris Trophy defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom and dynamic forwards Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk -- but ennui now grips the denizens of the down-at-the-heels arena. Despite the team's Western Conference-leading 18-6-2 record through Sunday attendance has continued to dip. This isn't a return to the Dead Things Era, when Detroit went to the playoffs just twice from 1967 through '83, but the Wings are clearly at the yawn of a new era. They have sold just 14,500 season tickets for their 20,066-seat rink this season.

"Coming in from the airport there was a billboard advertising Red Wings tickets," St. Louis Blues goalie coach Rick Wamsley says. "I don't think I've ever seen that."

There are scads of reasons for Hockeytown turning tepid, most notably a state economy that has lost more than 300,000 jobs since 2001. (Curiously, the economy seems better a few blocks away at Comerica Park, where the Tigers drew more than three million fans for the first time in '07, and in the suburbs where the Pistons have played to 100% of capacity in their 22,076-seat arena so far this year.)

"There are lots of things at work," Detroit general manager Ken Holland says. "Steve Yzerman retired [in '06], and there were people who were Steve Yzerman fans first and Red Wings fans second. We had a work stoppage [the '04-05 lockout]. Maybe in Canada where hockey is part of the fabric you can pick right up where you left off, but here the bubble fans found other things to do. And we're fighting our own success. When we won the Cup in 2002, there were so many big names" -- Yzerman, Lidstrom, Brett Hull, Sergei Fedorov, Brendan Shanahan, Luc Robitaille, Igor Larionov -- "it's unlikely you'll ever see a team like that again in any [salary-capped] sport."

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