Once upon a time, there was a 12-year old boy who lived in Detroit and was a big hockey fan.
It was the days of the six-team National Hockey League. Although it was a competitive league, the Montreal Canadiens were the gold standard. They won five Stanley Cups in a row from 1956-60 and seriously contended just about every year they didn't win. The hometown Red Wings? They made the playoffs just about every season but couldn't get over the hump, even losing in the Stanley Cup Finals two years in a row.
The boy knew all this and a lot more. That’s because he listened to just about every game -- the only way for a youngster to follow the team. At the time, there was no local television of Detroit games. On Saturday nights, when he could convince his mother to switch away from Lawrence Welk (which aired at the same time), he would watch “Hockey Night In Canada.” But Detroit games were blacked out.
Olympia Stadium, the home rink, was usually sold out. Even if he could find a ticket, the rink was located in an area of town his mother wouldn't dream of letting him visit. The only time the lad could ever see his favorite team play came on the rare occasion when Detroit played a nationally televised Sunday game from Chicago, New York or Boston.
Christmas 1965 came with the usual trimmings. The boy scouted the horizon in advance for possibilities. There was the usual thin box from Aunt Marcie – handkerchiefs. There were big boxes (toys, he hoped). There were square boxes that he knew from experience were clothes. Then he spotted something unusual. In the corner of the pile of gifts was an envelope with his name on it.
Since it wasn't stamped or addressed, his mind began to race. What kind of gift could be in an envelope? For some reason, he reached for it as a first choice. His mother stopped him, saying "Save that for later.”
When you tell a kid that at the holidays, you drive the interest level up astronomically. Fearing he might miss out on another gift, the boy reluctantly obeyed. When the feast of gifts was nearly complete, the boy was left with the envelope. Go ahead, said his mother. Now you can open it.
The boy opened it and stared in disbelief.
It was two tickets to see the Red Wings play, of all teams, Montreal 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. His joy was such that the boy 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 he eagerly waited the next night. The Olympia was a wonderful mystery. The boy knew the building was red on the outside but that was it. Walking in the door, he was struck immediately by the large clock scoreboard hanging over center ice. "Where are we sitting?" he asked his brother. "We're not," he said. "We have standing room."
"Wherever we can find a place. Quit asking questions.”
Print from captainofthefleet.com
The two 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. The pair wandered into the balcony. At that point, an angel appeared in the form of an usher.
"Where's your seats, boys?" he asked gruffly.
We showed him our tickets. "Can't stand here," he said. "Standing room is over there.”
The boy began to cry. "This is my first game ever and I can't see anything," he said.
The gruff usher suddenly smiled. "First game, eh?" he said. "There is one place you can stand but you can't tell anybody I told you about this."
He took the two boys to a small platform with a spotlight – the kind you used to see when the circus came to town. "Stand here," he said. "Nobody will bother you. It's kinda high but you'll see everything. I like watching the game from here myself."
The usher was right. The players looked like ants in the far corner of the ice but you could see everything. The Red Wings and Canadiens didn't disappoint. It was a terrific hockey game. Detroit attacked Montreal goalie Gump Worsley constantly but couldn't get a goal. Montreal did the same to Detroit's Roger Crozier but couldn't score, either.
The game was still scoreless in the third period. This wasn't possible. How you could you go to a NHL game and not see a goal? Then it happened. The Red Wings took a shot from near the blue line. Alex Delvecchio, a center, tipped it into the net. The boy jumped so high he nearly fell out of the alcove. He had no idea how much time was left but it was clear it was the final minute of the game. The Wings ran out the clock and took the 1-0 win.
Hockey Hall of Fame photo
Since that time, the boy has seen thousands of hockey games. But he remembers that one as if it happened last night. The boy has also received many envelopes as gifts. They have contained cash or gift certificates – very good things, indeed. But he still remembers that first envelope. It wasn’t until four decades later he learned the official value of it was four dollars – two dollars per ticket.
To the boy’s way of thinking, however, it was priceless.
Dave Wright, a Detroit native, is the sports information director at Hamline University in St. Paul, and also does public address work at the Minnesota State High School League hockey and basketball tournaments.