June 1, 2009 at 1:22 am

Lynn Henning

Joe Louis Arena holds its own in NHL's modern era

A Red Wings fan tosses an octopus on the ice before the start of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals. The tossing of octopi is one of the traditions that gives Joe Louis Arena a lively atmosphere. (Daniel Mears/The Detroit News)


No one I know has liked turning 30.

Joe Louis Arena is no exception.

Hockeytown's ground zero is getting old, fast -- astonishingly so for those of us who were on hand for the arena's first event, Dec. 12, 1979, when Michigan State and the then-University of Detroit basketball teams met for the riverfront facility's inaugural ball.

It was gleaming, fresh, and smelled of fresh paint. The concourses shone. The red arena seats appeared as if they would stretch on a 45-degree angle to the sky.

And they almost do.

Which has always been a problem for those of us who remember what it was like to see a hockey game at the Red Wings' old red-brick mecca, the Olympia, where fans all but dangled over the ice in that wonderfully vertical monument to a grand era of hockey in Detroit.

Staring at Joe Louis Arena during a late-afternoon stroll before Sunday night's Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals made me wonder how it was holding up, technically speaking. Spring sunshine bounced off the arena's gray-silver siding, making it shimmer and appear younger than its years.

But it is getting grayer by the season. It is no secret Mike Ilitch, the Red Wings owner, would by now have happily been planning or building a new showcase behind the Fox Theater had a quasi-Depression not rocked Motown.

Old, but well-preserved

The place is a bit light on elite suites where big money rolls for games and events. It lacks the efficiencies and technology that are routinely part of the package when new facilities are built in a new century.

It is simply old. At least as calculated by arena standards.

But it hangs in there, mostly because the maintenance and upkeep are first-rate. Joe Louis Arena is clean. It is familiar. It has become, for so many Detroit hockey fans, the only arena they have ever known, which means long lines for the restrooms are viewed, like winter in Michigan, as something you uncomfortably accept.

The fact JLA's life has coincided with the hockey team's renaissance probably earns it a pass from fans who might also moan about sight lines and rafter seats. The hockey product at JLA has simply been so good for so long that not everyone is focused on the venue.

Nostalgia value

Kevin Allen, a Wayne native who covers hockey for USA Today, and who regularly sees all the NHL arenas, was asked Sunday how he compared Joe Louis Arena, '79 vintage, with other, newer facilities.

"The only real complaint is creature comforts," said Allen, referring to the bathroom lines. "But the ice is generally pretty good, and players love the atmosphere here.

"I probably look at it with the same nostalgic feeling I had for the Olympia," Allen said. "And now my children see this as a historical place the same as I saw Olympia."

Al Sobotka, the arena manager better known for his playoff octopus twirls, sat Sunday in his office (it's what you would picture an arena office as being -- like something in a submarine) and talked about Joe Louis Arena in 2009.

Sobotka was decked out in a handsome, salt-and-pepper playoff beard. He has been working at either the Olympia or Joe Louis Arena for the past 38 years, since he began as a Denby High School junior sweeping aisles. He knows JLA better than anyone.

"Still rocking and rolling," Sobotka said of his workplace. "It's still in good condition.

"We've spent a few dollars on it. But mostly it's a matter of just taking care of the building."

Like anyone getting older, the upkeep is more frequent with age. The problems grow more serious, although no one has suggested Joe Louis Arena is suffering from anything terminal -- other, perhaps, than human nature's yearning for the latest and newest.

What counts is still what happens inside. Stanley Cups can make everything else seem irrelevant, right down to your latest 10-minute wait to use the bathroom.

lynn.henning@detnews.com">lynn.henning@detnews.com (313) 222-2472

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