Musings from Motown

Sitting in the recently renovated, bright and airy lobby of the Marriot Hotel in Detroit’s Renaissance Center – that’s the Ren Cen to the locals – it’s impossible to think about this year’s CCHA Championship Tournament without looking ahead to next year’s Frozen Four, to be played just up the road at Ford Field.

It’s not so much the Frozen Four or even the venue that occupies me today. Rather, it’s the backdrop for the 2010 tournament, the city of Detroit itself.

I love this town, having become smitten the very first time I covered the CCHA tourney in 1996. Those were some bad old days in Detroit, when the city and state of Michigan were in no shape to do anything to improve the place. Long before Hurricane Katrina showed us what can happen to a U.S. city that takes a sudden hit, Detroit was allowed to decay and suffer slowly, a city once so glorious that it rivaled Chicago and surpassed Toronto.

While there has been significant progress in downtown Detroit and pockets throughout the city – a big city at 143 square miles, not counting the surrounding ‘burbs – there are still areas of genuine blight, including the wretched area surrounding Joe Louis Arena. There are boarded up high-rises throughout the city, which radiates out from a central point along the Detroit River in the style of Washington D.C. or Paris. There is litter and garbage lining every thoroughfare leading into or out of the city. The roads are atrocious, as they are all throughout Michigan (as my pothole-busted brake line of a few weeks ago can attest).

Then there’s the local politics. It was hard enough to watch Detroit endure the ridicule brought on by the antics of former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, but current council member Martha Reeves – of Martha and the Vandellas fame – criticized Jay Leno for offering to give a free concert at The Palace of Auburn Hills because it’s outside of the Detroit city limits. Never mind that the NBA’s Detroit Pistons play there, clearly outside of the city limits.

And it’s harder still to know that those two episodes are symptomatic of an inept government in a city that needs real leadership.

Yes, the city has its issues. What I fear, though, is that college hockey fans will judge Detroit only by its flaws. Certainly, it’s a city more suited for adults than the families that plan their yearly vacations around the Frozen Four – although Michigan, as I’m finding, has a lot to offer families, especially those who like outdoor activities. Detroit has casinos and restaurants, the suburbs have shopping. There are some safe parks and nature preserves within driving distance. Across the river, Windsor, Ont., caters more to adults as well.

I’m wondering, though, if people will judge Detroit less harshly in 2010 because of the current economic hard times across the U.S. While Detroit looks like its taken one of the hardest hits of all, many communities are suffering. When we all suffer, perhaps we jump to judgement a little less quickly.

After CCHA commissioner Tom Anastos’ briefed the media about the seating configuration at Ford Field at last year’s CCHA tourney, I was all on board for the Frozen Four in Ford Field. My biggest concern before that was the fan experience, but that meeting with Anastos settled those apprehensions. This morning, Anastos had the media to brunch again, and again the Frozen Four was a topic – and I’m even more confident that the venue will be up to the task.

But will people come? And when they do, will they see what I do in Detroit, a city with many good-hearted people who recognize the enormous potential here and who work hard to realize that potential? Or will fans be put off by the swaths of blight and other evidence of decades of neglect?

Maybe – just maybe – fans will see an American city that suffered a fate that no city deserves. Detroit isn’t New Orleans, undone in a week by Mother Nature, but Detroit was undone by forces greater than itself in ways that it couldn’t control.

That’s what I’m hoping fans will see when they come head to Ford Field next year.