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A Christmas arena story

A surprise under the Christmas tree leads to a memorable arena visit.
In 1965, there was a young boy who lived in Detroit and was a big hockey fan. Although he had rarely seen the Red Wings play on TV, the boy knew his heroes well. That’s because he listened to just about every game — the only way for a youngster to follow the team at the time. At the time, Detroit did not televise games. On Saturdays, "Hockey Night In Canada" showed games from Toronto or Montreal. But this was only available when the boy and his brothers could convince their mother to switch away from Lawrence Welk, which aired at the same time. (Detroit games, however, were blacked out.)

Going to a game was a concept that was never discussed. Olympia Stadium, the team’s home arena, was usually sold out. Besides, it was located in a "bad" area of town, a place a mother wouldn’t dream of letting her son visit.

So, the only time the boy could see his favorite team play was the rare occasion when the Wings played a nationally televised Sunday afternoon game at Chicago, New York or Boston. His link to the team was Budd Lynch, the team’s longtime radio broadcaster (who, at age 90, still does the public address work for the team).

When Christmas came that year, the boy scouted the horizon under the tree for possibilities. There were the usual items — an oblong box that he knew contained handkerchiefs from Aunt Marcie. Other boxes were sweaters and clothes. Some big boxes contained hoped for toys or games. In the corner of this pile of gifts, the boy spotted something unusual — an envelope with his name on it. Oddly, it wasn’t stamped. The boy wondered: What kind of gift could be in an envelope? And from whom?

For reasons he could never recall, the boy reached for the envelope as an early choice but his mother stopped him. "Save that one for later," she said. The boy reluctantly obeyed but his curiosity level was now very high.

By mid-morning, the feast of gifts was nearly complete. As was the family tradition, each child had one gift left to open. The boy was left with the envelope. Go ahead, said his mother. Open it. The boy did so and stared in disbelief. It was two tickets to see the Red Wings play the mighty Montreal Canadiens at the Olympia the next night. His older brother Johnny was going to take him to see the players he knew so well but had rarely seen.

The lad’s joy was such he never noticed the location of the seats. The tickets were stamped "Standing Room” — a concept he knew nothing about. "Oh, it will be fine," his brother assured him.

For once, Christmas dragged as the boy eagerly awaited the trip down Grand River Avenue. Walking inside the Olympia for the first time, he was struck immediately by the large scoreboard hanging over the center ice. It was an old clock with smaller clocks for the penalties. (Fans may recall Chicago Stadium and Boston Garden had the same type of clock well into the 1970s. The clock changed colors to signify the final minute of the period. No digital stuff here.)

"Where are we sitting?" the boy asked.

"We’re not," the brother replied. "We have standing room."

"Where’s that?"

"Wherever we can find a place. Quit asking questions.”

The pair walked around the building for a long time, looking for a place to stand. As game time neared, they still hadn’t found a place where they could see the ice very well. As a last resort, they headed for the upper deck. At that point, an usher stopped them.

"Where’s your seats, boys?" he asked gruffly.

They showed him the tickets. "Can’t stand up there," he said. "Standing room is over there." He pointed to an area of the building that seemed light years away.

The boy began to cry. "This is my first game ever and I can’t see anything," he wailed.

"First game, eh?" said the usher. "Well, there is one place you can stand but don’t tell anybody I told you."

He took them to an alcove that contained a huge spotlight — the kind used when the circus came to town. "Nobody will bother you here," he said. "It’s kinda high but you’ll see everything. I like watching the game from here myself."

The brothers took their places near the spotlight. The usher was right. Although the players looked like ants in the far corner of the arena, you could see all the plays.

The Red Wings and Canadiens didn’t disappoint. Detroit attacked Montreal goalie Gump Worsley constantly but couldn’t get a goal. Montreal did the same to Detroit’s goalie (memory has it that is was Roger Crozier) but the game was still scoreless as the big clock over center ice changed colors for the final time.

This wasn’t possible. How you could you go to your first NHL game and not see a goal?

Then it happened. Bill Gadsby took a shot from the blue line that was partially blocked. The puck rolled to Alex Delvecchio, who slid it past Worsley and into the net directly (albeit 100 feet) below them.

The boy jumped so high he nearly fell out of the alcove. He didn’t know how much time was left but he knew it was in the final minute of the game. The Wings ran out the clock and took the 1-0 win.

Life takes funny routes. As it developed, the boy ended up covering several NHL games as a reporter and has been a public address announcer for prep and college games since 1971. In that time, he has probably seen 1500 games. He may not remember the game he worked last week but he can still recall that December night 42 years ago.

This holiday season, it is very likely everyone reading this column will receive an envelope of some sort. It will contain a check or a gift certificate — perfectly acceptable and useful presents. It is probable the contents of that envelope will have considerably more monetary value than the one received by a little boy in Detroit 42 years ago.

It was many years later when he discovered the stated monetary value of the gift he enjoyed so much was four dollars — two dollars per ticket. The boy would beg to differ on the actual value. He still considers it one of his most priceless Christmas gifts ever.

Dave Wright is senior editor at August Publications.

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