Published September 28, 2016
If Joe Louis Arena was ever state-of-the-art, that state lasted about a week.
The parking situation was reprehensible. The stairs leading up to the entrances were punitive and heart attack-inducing. An enterprising individual could have made a mint by selling oxygen tanks near the doors.
The suites should have been equipped with plenty of facial tissue because of the bloody noses they caused due to their distance from the ice surface.
The building was plopped on the banks of the Detroit River and there was nothing to do after the game but trudge to the inefficient parking structure and wait 45 minutes to get out. There wasn’t a bar or a restaurant within reasonable walking distance.
There wasn’t nuance to speak of once you stepped inside. The concourses were narrow and the floors were sticky.
Yet this was the hockey barn that saw the Red Wings finally break their Stanley Cup drought in 1997—17 years and some change after opening in December, 1979.
It didn’t help the Joe that it was following Olympia Stadium, an Original Six building that had personality, history, escalators and a balcony. Olympia was built in the 1920s and it showed. JLA was built in the 1970s and by opening night, it seemed like its time had passed.
By contrast, the Palace of Auburn Hills, which opened in 1988, is still a benchmark by which today’s sports arenas are measured. From its mezzanine-level suites to its massive and more than adequate parking lot—plus its expansive and attractive concourses—the Palace kicks JLA’s rear end.
But whenever there are championships won, the arena gets a bump for being associated with those teams and those years, fondly.
It didn’t start that way for JLA, however.
The Red Wings were not a good hockey organ-eye-ZAY-shun when they moved into the Joe on December 27, 1979. In fact, they may have been one of the NHL’s worst.
Contrary to what some believe in their revisionist history, Joe Louis Arena isn’t the House that Mike Ilitch built. Ilitch didn’t purchase the team until 1982; the Norris family can be blamed for JLA’s inadequacies.
First, the Red Wings moved into their new arena in mid-season, which in of itself is odd; usually you want to christen a new building at the start of a season. But again—the Red Wings in 1979 were hardly a model franchise.
There was only one playoff appearance since 1966; the decade of the 1970s was filled with coaching changes, awful hockey, horrible drafting and mind-boggling trades.
The Red Wings weren’t given the derisive moniker of the Dead Things for nothing.
But Olympia Stadium was indeed old and the neighborhood wasn’t the greatest. Despite their warts, the Red Wings did need a new arena; it was time.
They could have done so much better than Joe Louis Arena, however.
The sight lines were good—I’ll grant you that. But the seats were too far away from the ice. It would have been a terrific nod to the old arena and just plain good sense to mimic Olympia’s balcony, which made sitting upstairs dramatic. I remember looking onto the ice from the balcony at the old Red Barn on Grand River and McGraw and feeling like the players could hear me call them by name with little effort.
Yet the Red Wings captured four Cups while calling JLA home, winning two of those championships in front of their own crowd. So for that, I think Red Wings fans have more reverence for the Joe than it deserves.
But after this season all that will be moot.
This is JLA’s swan song—a season-long farewell to the monstrosity on the River. A year from this October, they’ll drop the puck at Little Caesars (I know, I know) Arena to usher in a new era of live sports attendance in the Motor City.
LCA won’t just be a hockey arena; there’ll be pubs and restaurants and shopping and things to do—a new extension of Woodward’s mid-town hustle and bustle that has been drawing folks to the city by the droves in recent years.
LCA will be like nothing we’ve ever seen in Detroit. It will blow Ford Field and Comerica Park out of the water—and yes, the Palace—when all is said and done.
There’ll be plenty of time to reflect on Joe Louis Arena. The reliving of the building’s most memorable moments will go on from now until the final game is played next spring. There were the two Cups won on its ice, and the playoff heartbreak that occurred on it as well. There were the concerts with its bad acoustics and the GOP Convention in 1980.
They had Gordie Howe’s viewing there in June.
Soon JLA itself will have a viewing.
Will you be shedding any tears?