DETROIT — The lights go off, the crowd gets loud, and a man with a Zorro mask skates around the ice as spotlights twirl for player introductions.
During the game, checks delivered on the boards rattle the glass just a little more than usual, and the piped-in music is just a little louder.
When junior forward Kevin Lynch flipped in the game-winning goal less than two minutes into overtime, the crowd noise rose to decibel levels that are impossible to achieve in the Wolverines’ regular home.
Yost Ice Arena might be one of the best places to watch a college hockey game in the country, but it’s not Joe Louis Arena. The Joe is an entirely different animal.
I realized this at some point before I walked up what felt like 10,000 stairs to get to the press box — with two Coney dogs from Lafayette Coney Island in my belly, nonetheless — and at some point after I got lost trying to find the door back to the stairwell, which was marked with some very helpful signs that said “Do Not Enter.”
There is something about that arena that feeds the psyche of the Wolverines. It could be that the arena feels like it was built exclusively for people under 6-feet-tall, so fifth-year senior goaltender Shawn Hunwick feels right at home.
It could be that Michigan coach Red Berenson likes coaching in an arena that was built the year after he retired from his 17-season NHL career, reminding him of the glory days.
Or maybe it’s that the Wolverines look up to the rafters and see NHL championship banner after championship banner as they skate the same ice that some of the best hockey players in the world have skated on for the last 32 years.
Whatever the reason, Michigan doesn’t mess around in Detroit. Over the last five seasons, Michigan is 19-4 at the Joe. 19-4 against high-level competition. That’s not good — that’s legendary.
On Saturday, the game very easily could have gone Michigan State’s way. Both teams had great looks they couldn’t finish in the last 10 minutes of the third period, where a lucky bounce one way or the other could’ve decided the outcome.
In overtime, Michigan won because a Spartan whiffed at blocking the puck, leaving Lynch with a wide-open look to end it. Two months earlier, sophomore defenseman Kevin Clare ended the Great Lakes Invitational from almost the exact same spot on the opposite side of the ice.
Luck of the Joe, I guess.
Or maybe it’s more than that.
The building fits Michigan’s style of play — an old-school brand of hockey that favors defense and opportunistic scoring over flashy offensive forwards and 5-4 wins.
Michigan won’t have a 20-goal scorer this season. There’s not one flashy name. When the Joe’s speakers play Avicii, it feels like that scene in Back to Future when Marty McFly rips a guitar solo at prom in the 1950s — the music doesn’t match the surroundings.
Michigan probably won’t have an All-American skater this season. The Joe is one of three professional hockey arenas in the country that doesn’t have a corporate-sponsored name, instead using the name of the boxing legend.
Michigan’s best player is a 5-foot-6 former walk-on who was told he wouldn’t play at the beginning of his career, only to be well on his way to becoming one of the best goalies in Michigan history. The Joe has ridiculous press box seating that makes me feel like Gulliver among the Lilliputians.
Maybe that’s why Michigan is so successful at the Joe, the throwback program in the throwback building. 19-4 in the last five years doesn’t happen by accident.
It wasn’t hard to imagine the game on Saturday being played in 1980 — that’s the beauty of the Joe. Even if I didn’t fit.
The 6-foot-5 Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @everettcook