HockeyTown Cafe caters to fans of all stripes

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DETROIT -- If you're not at the Joe on hockey night in Detroit, the place to be is HockeyTown Cafe, a multilevel sports bar that barely could contain the Penguins and Red Wings fans gathered there just before last night's game.

It's closer to the Tigers' Comerica Park than the Red Wings' Joe Louis Arena, but an easy ride on Detroit's People Mover, which loops around the city and costs 50 cents for a one-way trip.

At 5 p.m., three hours before the game, there were black and gold jerseys heading in bunches to HockeyTown, including a newly arrived foursome: cousins David Ziccoreli of New Kensington and Fred Bruni of Morgantown, W.Va., with friends David Sites of New Ken and Ryan Zampogna of Lower Burrell.

Although they were all here last year, construction detours had gotten them a little lost on the way in and they wound up in international border territory, Ziccoreli said, but they were not alone and given directions that helped them make it to Detroit in time for a pregame meal. Next stop was Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final between the Red Wings and the Penguins.

Ziccoreli and Bruni had left behind two very disappointed Penguins fans -- David's son Aiden, 4, and Fred's son Alex, 3 -- but they made it clear that the boys were being brought up properly. "We're raising Steelers, Pirates and Penguins fans," Bruni said.

Inside HockeyTown, where the red and white was suddenly very evident (off-setting the fan standing by the bar with a Stanley Cup hat and Pens jersey), the four friends joined in the occasional cheers of "Let's Go Pens!" that could be heard above the boos from their Red Wings counterparts. There was no outright hostility from either side, and there even were words of understanding for Marian Hossa, who jumped ship to the Red Wings after the finals last year.

"He was taken out of context by the media," Ziccoreli said. "Sorry, but he was. He meant he turned down the Edmonton deal for a better chance to win the Cup with the Red Wings, not that he couldn't win with the Penguins."

Then, true Pittsburgh fan that he is, he explained why it was better to have acquired Bill Guerin anyway. "Ray Shero makes all the right moves," he said, and the four friends all agreed.

Statuesque

There was a pink-out in Detroit yesterday afternoon, where an estimated 50,000 people, many wearing pink T-shirts, participated in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. The Red Wings red and white was in evidence, too. The Marshall Frederick sculpture "Spirit of Detroit" at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center was adorned with its playoff outfit yesterday morning: a huge Red Wings jersey.

There had been some concern over whether the tradition of dressing the statue would go on as Detroit began its quest for its 12th Stanley Cup title last night against the Penguins, but the team agreed to pay $6,500 for refinishing the statue after the jersey is removed -- it evidently erodes the sculpture's wax patina, which recently underwent a costly restoration.

The fee had proved too much for Michigan State University and the NCAA, which decided against decorating the statue during the Final Four basketball tournament at Ford Field. At the time, news reports had the fee at $25,000. (In Pittsbugh, the Art Institute of Pittsburgh has created a Penguins jersey that's fit for a T-rex, and it adorns the dinosaur statue near the building's entrance on the Boulevard of the Allies.)

Over by Joe Louis Arena, hard by the Detroit River, there was no evidence of the crowds running for the Cure or the ones to come for Game 1 as the two teams held their pregame skates inside. Just across the street from the arena, fishermen staked out spots at intervals along the RiverWalk, hoping for a bite from the walleye, bass and catfish. Across the river in Canada, Caesars Windsor Casino and Hotel dominated their view.

The fishermen there a day earlier may have caught a glimpse of another tradition, a barbecue for Red Wings players, coaches, staff and "a few stragglers. We'll feed them," says Al Sobotka. You may have heard of Big Al, a triple threat as a Zamboni driver, twirler of octopi and master barbecuer. The whole octopus-Red Wings relationship started in 1952 and is well documented, as is Al's twirling exploits with cephalopods.

But the Red Wings also get the benefit of his barbecue skills.

"We started small in the '80s, we did some venison burgers, odds and ends, we did some stews. Players started liking it and then from there it escalated."

Now it's a monthly tradition during the season, and there's one before each round of the playoffs. Al says the menu is chicken, hamburgers, sausage and "ribs I prepare myself," plus roasted potatoes and cole slaw. "And that's it. The barbecue always has to be the same. They don't add anything on. No dessert or anything,." Al says.

And no, there's no octopus at the barbecue.

In the news

The lead stories in the Detroit papers, besides the Stanley Cup Final, is the expected filing for Chapter 11 Monday by GM. The Detroit News led with the "GM stock dives; Opel sold." The Detroit Free Press had Mayor Dave Bing and Wayne County Executive Robert Ficno countering an offer for GM to help keep them in downtown Detroit. The mayor of Warren, Mich., is trying to lure the automaker to a tech center in his town.

At the current GM headquarters in the Renaissance Center, all was very quiet on Saturday. Cars are in display by the entrance and near a food court on the lower level, where banners read: "GM: Total Confidence." And "100 Years of innovation, 100 years of leadership, 100 years of putting people on wheels -- And we're just getting started."

The readers write

Two e-mails arrived following yesterday's story about the Host City of Champions:

The first read in part: "Versus, the national media and the smug Chicago press and fans, it's refreshing to read something that touches on the positive strides we've made in recent years. We have a long way to go, but seeing and enjoying how we've responded to our recent opportunities to host premier events, I'm proud of our direction," wrote Tom Wilkinson

Another e-mail, from Bob Miller, felt the story failed to go far enough in Detroit's recent string of hosting duties. He writes:

"Your article today points out why we think we are among the very best in the nation for sports support. Actually, however, if you include Auburn Hills as part of metro Detroit, here is a more complete list of recent major national events in this area: 2002 Stanley Cup Final, 2003 NBA Finals, 2004 NBA Finals, 2005 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, 2006 World Series, 2007 Super Bowl, 2007 NCAA Men's Wrestling National Championships, 2008 NCAA Men's Basketball Midwest Regional Final, 2008 Stanley Cup Final, 2009 NCAA Men's Basketball National Championships, 2009 Stanley Cup Final and 2010 NCAA Men's Ice Hockey National Championships."


Sharon Eberson can be reached at seberson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1960.


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