Joe Louis Arena Tribute: Saying goodbye to Red Wings' old barn

 

Joe Louis Arena stinks. Which is why we love it.

The Detroit Red Wings would walk under the stands en route to their cramped amenities at the Joe. It was a pathway paved with old popcorn and saturated with spilled beer. “No matter how many times it was mopped up, you were smelling it,” Brendan Shanahan recalled last year. “To me, that was part of the character of the Joe.”

Compared to what modern arenas offer their teams and fans, an arena that opened in Dec. 1979, doesn’t offer much beyond character these days. But character goes a long way; and it’s the thing you miss the most when these old barns are gone.

Case in point: When the New Jersey Devils left Brendan Byrne Arena for Newark. (Note to Wings fans: I swear, on my Claude Lemieux jersey, this is not a 1995 troll. Just an anecdote.)

I spent my childhood walking over a rickety bridge from the parking lot and pin-balling through smoke-filled corridors and ascending so many stairs in the upper deck you half expected Saint Peter to be seated in your row. The Rock is, legitimately, one of my favorite arenas in the NHL today. But the Meadowlands had the warts I miss.

It also had the memories, of Stanley Cups (and charmingly awkward Stanley Cup parking lot parades). As the Red Wings play their final game at Joe Louis Arena on Sunday – against the Devils – it’s incredible to ponder how many memories where made for Detroit fans in that old barn.

The championships. The legendary players. The decades of dominance.

The thousands of cephalopods…

It’s my honor that some of the most passionate Red Wings-centric writers and bloggers took time to contribute to this roundtable farewell to their hockey cathedral.

Here are George Malik, The Malik Report; Dana Wakiji, Editor for DetroitRedWings.com; Paul Kukla, Kukla’s Korner; J.J. From Kansas and Kyle M. from Winging It In Motown; and Clark Rasmussen of DetroitHockey.net. We thank them for their time and consideration.

What was your favorite thing about Joe Louis Arena? 

Malik: There’s a moment at Joe Louis Arena where you have to peel back these gigantic fabric curtains to go from the darkness of the cavernous concourse to get to your seats, and when you open the curtains, the gleaming ice surface of the Joe, the seats, the suites, the scoreboard, the banners hanging from the blue-painted ceiling and this blast of fresh, cold air hits you a little after the brightness and color contrast do…and suddenly, you’re out of the darkness and into this cathedral of hockey. The stale beer smell never really leaves you, but it lessens considerably when you get closer to the ice.

In terms of the act of watching a game, the sightlines at the Joe are astonishingly good. There are two rows of seats in section 227A where you have to stand up to watch the game, but other than those seats, there are no bad ones in the house, and you don’t feel nearly as crammed into your seat as you really are while you’re watching the game, because the ice just opens up in front of you, and the price you pay for the steep, cramped quarters is a view that feels like it’s right on top of the ice surface.

There are no frills in the Joe, and that places the focus squarely on the hockey you watch at the facility.

Wakiji: One of my favorite things about Joe Louis Arena is that it is a great place to watch hockey from pretty much anywhere in the building. Although the press box was not ideal in terms of setup, you were fairly close to the ice and could see plays develop. You were also close to the fans so you could feel the noise as well as hear it.

The other thing just watching the incredible players throughout the years play there. Seeing Nick Lidstrom defend a two-on-one was a thing of beauty. Watching the Russian Five — Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov, Slava Kozlov, Vladimir Konstantinov and Slava Fetisov — hang onto the puck while opponents tried in vain to take it away was unlike something I’d ever seen. Steve Yzerman and Henrik Zetterberg were not the biggest, strongest or fastest but are two players who helped make Joe Louis Arena what it was.

Kukla: The atmosphere at the Joe is at the top of my list. Being among other fans who are game-ready, not there to be seen and ready to root on the Wings.

I have been to many NHL rinks and some just bring the fluff. Piped in music which is way too loud, told when to cheer on the scoreboard and hoping to get on camera. In Detroit, fans are there to just watch hockey and everything else is secondary. It is what I want from a hockey fanbase, to watch extremely talented athletes perform at the highest level.

J.J. From Kansas: What I always loved about walking up the steps, heading through the metal detectors, and then elbowing through the concourse was stepping through the curtains into the bowl itself. Depending on how much you spent on your seat, you either had to step through a small tunnel or head up another flight of stairs, but the buildup to seeing the entire arena was always well-worth the payoff and, no matter how many times I went, I was never not taken aback by the scope of things. There’s not a bad entrance to the bowl in the Joe because there’s not a bad seat in an arena built for the fan perspective first. The relative lack of style in the luxury row and the tacked-on press box give the Joe a unique feeling compared to the more-modern arenas I’ve been in that it was a house built for the plebes in the seats and that the money would follow them.

Kyle: The sight-lines. It’s one of those buildings where the term “not a bad seat in the house” rings true. Even sitting in the nosebleeds gave you an extremely up-close look at all of the action.

Rasmussen: It’d be easy to say that my favorite thing about the Joe was that there wasn’t a bad seat in the house, or the ice that was always good. In an arena short on amenities, those things set it apart.

My favorite thing is a bit more frivolous, though. I love the banners in the rafters. Is it ridiculous to celebrate the 1986-87 Norris Division Playoff Championship (or, perhaps worse, the 1987-88 Norris Division regular season championship)? Absolutely. In fact, I’ve written about how I’d do it differently. But stepping into the arena bowl and looking up at the sea of red and white banners is still one of my favorite things.

What did the arena mean to you, especially in your identity as a Red Wings fan or as far as the identity of the franchise goes? 

Malik: The Joe is where the modern-day Red Wings grew up, and it’s where I grew up as a Red Wings fan, too.

The Red Wings evolved from the Dead Wings to a team that could make the playoffs and give other teams a scare, and then to a team that could make some noise of its own, and eventually to a championship-caliber franchise. The Wings did so via some amazing wins and terrible losses (I attended the infamous Game 7 of the Wings-Leafs series in 1993, and I still cringe when I hear Nikolai Borschevsky’s name), and there was a process in terms of the evolution of coaches, player personnel and the fans as well.

The term “Hockeytown” is obviously a marketing slogan at heart, but I can at least call it aspirational when the Wings unveiled it in 1996, and there’s something to be said about the way that hockey has grown up around the franchise, in both Southeastern Michigan and the state as a whole, over the past 20 years. The epicenter of that movement was fans witnessing excellence on ice at Joe Louis Arena, and kids growing up dreaming of playing at the Joe, and it’s no coincidence that so many Michigan-born kids now playing in the NHL grew up cheering on Yzerman, Fedorov, Shanahan, Osgood, Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Lidstrom (among many others).

The Joe was where you went to see the very best hockey, the Joe was where you learned old-school, Original Six traditions of hockey fandom, and the Joe has been the clunky, creaky, cramped, slightly smelly and still beautiful home of a hockey state that’s truly grown up around the boastful moniker frozen into center ice.

Wakiji: The Joe will always be the place where the Red Wings ended their 42-year Stanley Cup drought. At Joe Louis Arena, they went from the Dead Wings of the 1980s to four-time champions in 12 years.

For 25 consecutive seasons, the Wings made the playoffs, which meant the Joe was a place the fans could rely on for postseason play. Fans expected when they came to the Joe that they were going to see a great team, a team that had a chance to win the Cup most years.

As a reporter covering the team, I wasn’t a fan of the team but some of the most memorable moments of my career have come at Joe Louis Arena. Just like the fans, I’ll never forget March 26, 1997 or June 7, 1997. The brawl when Darren McCarty exacted retribution for Claude Lemieux’s hit on Kris Draper during the previous playoffs was unbelievable, especially when McCarty scored the game-winning goal in overtime. Then, the bedlam when Yzerman lifted the Cup, that’s as loud as that building could possibly be.

Kukla: Let’s put it this way and the question should be What did the Detroit Red Wings mean to the Joe? Without the success the Wings had, the Joe would have been just another hockey rink. The Wings put there stamp on the JLA and the rest was history.  Name any other event that was famous for playing at the Joe?  Nada, end of story, the Wings created what Joe Louis Arena will be remembered for.

J.J. From Kansas: My fan experience is younger than the streak was, so the Joe has always been about a house of greatness for me. I know that it’s biased sentimentality about it, but the way the Joe stood out couldn’t be more-perfectly tied to the Red Wings, especially this year now that both the arena and the streak will both come to their end on the same day.  I’d have rather the team carried the streak onto the LCA just like they’ll carry all the banners, but there’s at least some poetry to things happening the way they did this year.

We’ve said for probably the last decade or more, as newer, more-sterile, more-corporate arenas became the cookie-cutter standard for the parity hockey league, that the Joe might be a dump, but it’s OUR dump. It’s fitting that the same can be said about the Red Wings this year. Hockey fans love nothing more than claiming fan clout by undergoing unnecessary fan suffering for their love. Blues fans have gotten to do that via 50 years of being also-rans; Red Wings fans got that way by “suffering” a cramped concourse, small bathrooms, and precarious stairs. It’s a mark of pride.

Kyle: The Joe is where the modern Red Wings era grew up. Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Nick Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, etc. — That’s where all of these players grew up as professional hockey players. It is quite honestly the cornerstone of the franchise.

Rasmussen: I feel a bit like I grew up at the Joe. My dad split a season ticket package way up in one of the corners when I was a kid and he took me to a few games a year.  Later on, one of my uncles split a suite and we’d get the whole family in for games. My cousins and I would race down the back stairs from the suite level to the concourse level to watch pre-game skate; it felt like our little secret because everyone else took the elevators. Wings games meant family and the Joe was our home, our playground. That the team finally got good at that time was an added bonus.

Have you begun to contemplate life for the Red Wings in a new arena? Will it ever feel like home?

Malik: I really did grow up as a Red Wings fan at Joe Louis Arena, so I feel sad that my hockey hangout isn’t going to be around for much longer, but the Joe is truly a concrete relic of late 1970’s technology and ergonomics, and I’m not sure how much longer it would have lasted, even with Al Sobotka and his building crew working constantly to fix the broken seats, refurbish the too-steep stairs, keep the boilers running and keep the lights on in a building that has aged hard over the past 38 years.

The Red Wings did a very good job of ensuring that fans knew that this season would be the “Farewell to the Joe,” and we hear and see updates of what’s truly going to be a beautiful, state-of-the-art arena taking shape several miles to the north of the Joe.

Those for whom the closure of the Joe has been a shocking development haven’t gone through what’s been something of a season-long grieving process, and as sad as I am about the Joe’s demise–and the demise is a literal one as the Joe will be torn down and the site redeveloped–I’m excited about the Wings moving to a new rink, and I’m excited about making it home.

The only way you really make a rink your own is by using it, and that’s what the next couple of years are going to be about for a rebuilding Red Wings team–coming of age again in a facility that’s befitting a slow but sure ascent from the first non-playoff finish in 26 seasons to a prime-time-worthy franchise again. It may take the Wings half a decade or more to become an elite team again, but after this trying season of disappointment upon disappointment, I think we’re all ready for new memories to be made while “breaking in” a new home.

Wakiji: While Joe Louis Arena has a great history, it just does not have all of the amenities that modern teams have come to expect. If there was a concert or other event scheduled at the Joe, the Wings often had to dress and drive to University Liggett in nearby Grosse Pointe Woods to practice. Little Caesars Arena will have its own practice rink, making it easier on the equipment manager and his staff.

The workout room at the new building will be so much bigger and better than the one at Joe Louis Arena. It was kind of fun to see the Wings improvising some workouts in the hallway outside the dressing rooms but it was not optimal.

Of course it will take some getting used to, but the players and coaches are going to love all the bells and whistles. The fans will, too. And as soon as they win a championship there, Little Caesars Arena will truly feel like home.

Kukla: Sure, LCA will be home, but to be truthful I was upset when it was announced the Detroit Pistons will be playing there too. But it is the way things are these days. The ice conditions will be a concern, banners brought from The Palace will definitely look strange hanging from the rafters, but over time, I will adjust.

I am looking forward to the sight lines. I was a regular at the Olympia and remember how steep it was, giving everyone a great view of the game. In the balcony, you almost were sitting over the ice and I do hope that feeling is the same at the new arena.

I’ll raise a slice of pizza on my first visit to the rink, think about what once was and look forward to the future.

J.J. From Kansas: Eventually anything will feel like home. I’ve gotten the benefit of talking to a large number of Wings fans who still have memories of the old Olympia and each of them said that the Joe became home.  Just like any move, it can take a while to acclimate, but a home is where you make memories and, like it or not, there are no new memories bound to come out of an arena that’s scheduled for demolition. The new place is going to feel like a sterile, cookie-cutter corporate husk for the Wings for a while, but the team and fans will bring their culture to it and that culture will evolve into what will make the LCA “home.”  I can’t imagine that process will be immediate, but as long as there’s Red Wings hockey being played there, it’ll happen at its own pace.

Kyle: Of course it will feel like home. It’s going to take some time, but the LCA will become a part of the city, and honestly, it might end up better than before. Despite that, the new arena isn’t going to have the character the Joe had. The constant lingering of an old foundation, the piss troughs, the tiny concourse… It was a taste of old school hockey, every single visit.

Rasmussen: I do think Little Caesars Arena will come to feel like home.  It will never be the place where I grew up.  I’ll never be able to say, “I watched Slava Kozlov beat Mikhail Shtalenkov in triple-overtime from right up there.” Being shared with the Pistons, it’s not going to have red and white history everywhere. While it has an acceptable corporate name, it’s still a corporate name.

But the Red Wings will make new memories there and fans will make new memories there and it will become home.  It will be the arena my daughter grows up in.  And maybe someday she’ll say, “I was there when Evgeny Svechnikov beat Andrei Vasilevskiy.”

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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