Saturday, March 25, 2017

Gopher players share memories from Joe Louis Arena

Jack Ramsey (16) earlier this month (Photo: Daniel Mick)
Before the wrecking ball swings later this year towards the walls of Joe Louis Arena, Jack Ramsey skated once again on the same ice sheet his father once called home.

Years later the Minnesota sophomore forward was much bigger and more aware of his surroundings. It’s bound to happen when your first time, as it was for Ramsey, came as a small child unable to stand on his two feet.

“It was cool,” he said about the experience last weekend. “Just to get out there and walk on the bench before the game, and look at all the banners out there and history, see all the names written on the walls. It was incredible to play on the same ice as all the guys that came before me.

“It made me think a lot. It made me think about my dad too so it was pretty special.”

Minnesota’s trip to Detroit for the 2017 Big Ten hockey conference tournament doubled as a farewell for its Michiganders. The tournament was the final time college hockey was played at Joe Louis Arena, which opened in December 1979. As far as NHL rinks go, only Madison Square Garden is older and it underwent a major renovation over the last decade.

Next season, the Red Wings and other hockey events such as the annual Great Lakes Invitational move away from the banks of the Detroit River to Little Caesars Arena, just north of downtown Detroit across Interstate 75.

(Photo: Nathan Wells)
Born in Michigan when his father, former Gopher and 1980 US Olympian Mike Ramsey, played the final seasons of his career for the Detroit Red Wings from 1994-1996, Jack spent the first 2 years of his life out there before moving to Minnesota.

“I have pictures of my mom and dad pushing me around on the ice when I was a little baby,” said Ramsey. “Those are the first pictures I have of myself I wouldn’t say ‘skating,’ but I had my feet on the ice being pushed around there.”

Teammates Mike Szmatula and Brent Gates Jr. (Grand Rapids) are the first two to call the Great Lake state their home in the nearly century of Gopher hockey. None of the three wore maroon and gold yet when Minnesota won the 2015 Big Ten hockey conference tournament.

“I was telling the guys the whole weekend it’s pretty much the best rink ever,” said Szmatula, a native of Commerce Township, 35 miles north of Detroit.

Szmatula, who sat out last season due to transferring from Northeastern, didn’t get to play in either of Minnesota’s series in Michigan this season.

Like Ramsey, Szmatula also skated on the Joe Louis Arena as a youngster. At six years-old, Szmatula said he was one of the many children on the ice during intermission entertainment (what at Mariucci Arena would be a “Little Chipper”).

“It was really fun to have friends and family (at Joe Louis Arena). Growing up, going to games there it was a cool experience,” he said.

Unfortunately, Szmatula, Ramsey and Gates only got one chance to play in Detroit. Penn State’s Erik Autio scored in double overtime to end Minnesota’s chances at repeating its own magic at the Joe despite a pair of chances by Szmatula in the extra period coming close to finding the back of the net.

Minnesota warming up at Joe Louis Arena (photo: Nathan Wells)

Still, Szmatula praised the old building’s ice sheet. Ramsey got some tips from Mike about the boards and soft glass, which the elder Ramsey jokingly said to Jack was the source of prolonging his career.

They did get to do one more memorable thing in their final game in the old building, however. As part of Szmatula returning to the lineup after missing seven games, Ramsey was moved to his right wing. Gates played to the left of Szmatula at center to create a Gopher Michigan line in the Great Lake State.

“That was special to play with the two Michigan guys,” said Ramsey. “They were obviously pretty excited to get to play in their home state and play in front of friends and family. I felt honored to be able to line up with those guys in the Joe.”

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