The building itself was nothing really to look at.
Hastily constructed and opened in December of 1979, Joe Louis Arena was the warehouse that became home to the “Dead Wings” after the team played over 50 years at Olympia Stadium. The latter hosted some of the great names in hockey history – Howe, Lindsay, Delvecchio, and Sawchuk to name a few. There wasn’t much indication the new home of the Detroit Red Wings would become the place where other household names would lace up their skates.
Then Steve Yzerman was drafted, and everything began to change.
In the meantime, not much changed about the Joe. From the outside in, the structure wasn’t exactly inviting. A dull, gray box-shaped building standing on the banks of the Detroit river with no windows, no suites between the upper and lower decks, incredibly steep and potentially hazardous steps, and initially, no press box. You could count the number of restrooms for both genders on one hand. Not exactly the kind of brand new home you picture for a storied Original 6 franchise.
The Joe has plenty of detractors who scoff at the notion that those things were simply part of the building’s charm and history, and who can’t wait for the team to move to the brand new, state-of-the-art Little Caesars Arena this fall. And to an extent, they’re right. The building was outdated seemingly from the moment it opened, and it’s past time for a newer and shinier home.
But as the fans walk up those stairs for the final time this afternoon, they won’t be thinking about the many times they nearly slipped and fell during the winter when the steps were covered in snow and ice, or the lack of amenities, or the over 20-year-old scoreboard.
Their thoughts will likely drift to Darren McCarty pounding Claude Lemieux into submission, and then later scoring the Stanley Cup winning goal in spectacular fashion. They’ll think of the Russian 5. The Bruise Brothers. Steve Yzerman finally hoisting the Stanley Cup in 1997 to end 42 years of futility. The many championship banners and retired numbers of past superstars that called Detroit home. Countless “Datsyukian” dekes. The countless times that long-time building manager Al Sobotka rounded the ice with the Zamboni. And of course, plenty of octopi.
And maybe, they’ll crack a smile when they go back home and think of the stale beer smell that was prevalent through the entire building, and even chuckle at remembering having to urinate in a trough after standing in line for what seemed like hours.
Sure, Joe Louis Arena wasn’t much to look at from the outside (or inside). But it was home to our hockey team, and the memories developed throughout the decades are endless and unforgettable.
Red Wings fans young and old will always have their own version of what Joe Louis Arena meant to them. It was never the flashiest or most comfortable building. But it was ours, and many will find it difficult to say goodbye today. For a new generation of hockey fans, this is the equivalent of Tiger Stadium closing.
Little Caesars Arena will be spectacular, but the memories forged under the Joe’s goofy blue ceiling will last a lifetime.