When you think of Brendan Shanahan and Steve Yzerman, one phrase should instantly pop to mind: musical theatre.
At least it will for playgoers who make their way to Detroit’s City Theater to catch Hockey, the Musical!
Mitch Albom’s sing-song comedy, which opened Thursday and runs through June 19, arrives on the heels of the Detroit writer signing on to pen the biopic for John Scott, sport’s unlikeliest All-Star Game MVP.
Albom covered Hall of Famers Yzerman and Shanahan (who gives a shoutout to Toronto in the play) when they skated for the Red Wings, and both filmed cheeky cameos for the production.
“I always thought hockey was a lovable underdog sport compared to football, baseball and basketball. I had some success with a play I did about [Tigers play-by-play legend] Ernie Harwell at a theatre here in Detroit, and they had been bugging me for the last few years: ‘Please do another play.’ I always wanted to do a musical because I was a musician when I started out,” Albom explained to Sportsnet in a recent interview.
Since City Theater attaches to the popular Hockeytown Cafe, a puck-themed bar/restaurant across from Comerica Park, the inspiration was obvious.
“You go down and see all the pictures on the wall of Yzerman and Gordie Howe, then you walk 10 feet and see a musical about hockey. Wouldn’t that be funny?” Albom says.
Albom started writing the piece, which takes place in a mythical rink and cribs from 1950s and ’60s rock ‘n’ roll, when the 2015-16 NHL season began. Musical numbers include “Kill Baseball,” “Oh, Octopus, My Octopus,” and “God is a Canuck”—in which our Lord guzzles Tim Hortons and vacations in Whistler.
“It’s kind of Spamalot on skates. It’s very over-the-top funny, bawdy about all the crazy things in hockey,” Albom says. “The premise is that God has decided that Man has made too many sports. He wants to teach the world a lesson, so he’s going to send a flood to wipe out a sport. He sends for an angel, and the angel picks hockey, arbitrarily.
“This fan rushes out of the audience and says, ‘Oh, God, no. Not hockey. Anything but hockey.’ And he assembles a group of five diehard fans to make the case for why hockey is so special that it shouldn’t be eliminated.”
The 57-year-old Albom is better known for his bestselling philosophical books, like Tuesdays with Morrie and The Five People You Meet in Heaven. But the writer comes by his love for hockey honestly.
“I grew up in Philadelphia and made my career in Detroit—what else do you need to know? We were the Broad Street Bullies when I was growing up there. I got here in ’85, and that was a little before Jacques Demers came in and they had their turnaround. Stevie Yzerman got drafted, and they started to become the Red Wings,” Albom recalls, fondly.
“They had those years against Edmonton when they got stopped. The Probert Era. Guys like Adam Oates and Gerard Gallant. Eventually they got [Scotty] Bowman here and grew into a dynasty. I covered all that, including what I consider the greatest assemblage of talent ever, which is the 2002 team. It’s been with me my whole life as a kid. I’m not any good at it, by the way. I can’t play it to save my life. But hockey was always around me since I was a kid in Philadelphia.”
One-Timers with Mitch Albom
On the difference between interviewing hockey players versus other athletes: “Huge. They’re the best. Hockey players are the only athletes who say hello to you first. That’s one of the reasons I love hockey and always have a soft spot for it. When you’ve covered professional baseball, football, basketball, it’s like a breath of fresh air going into a hockey locker room, where guys are not pretentious. They don’t have a lot of attitude. They’ll give you a slap on the arm: ‘Hey, how you doing?’ They’ll remember your name. They’re just good guys.
“There’s something humble about the game. I don’t know what it is. I used to say it was money, but they make a lot of money now. I covered it when the top guy would make $1 million. Now the back-end guys make a lot of money, but the game doesn’t celebrate ego. I like that.”
On Little Caesars Arena replacing the Joe: “You have to understand that the new arena is tied into a lot of new development in an area of Detroit that had almost been an eyesore for many years. What they’re doing is not just a stadium; it’s housing complexes. And it’s attached to the other area of Detroit that’s sort of picking up.
“So people see that new arena and they see opportunity. They see jobs coming back. The Joe — which I’ve lived in for 30 years, since 1985 — it’s geographical location is isolating. It’s all alone by the river. There’s just no way to develop around it because it’s by a highway.
“People will miss the rafters and the smell and the sound of it, but it’s not quite like when Tiger Stadium was being knocked down, because everybody sees how it’s part of our rebirth. People from Detroit are anxious to get out from the bad circumstances we’ve been under for a long time. This is going to be another centerpiece in the urban development of that. People are more excited and less nostalgic.”
On what he sees in super rookie Dylan Larkin: “Something else. I just keep thinking, When I was 19, what was I doing? It’s exciting. When I got here, Yzerman had just been drafted. He was a 19-year-old kid too. [Actually, Yzerman was 18 as a rookie.] You could kinda sense, wow, there’s going to be a long career here. We’re lucky. I won’t get to see the end of Larkin’s career as a sportswriter, but it’s come full-circle for me here. When I began as a sportswriter there was a 19-year-old kid and now there’s another one. Hopefully he’ll have that kind of career.”
(video and audio clips via CBC)