June 20, 2013 at 7:06 am

John Niyo

Joe Louis Arena will be scarcely missed when Red Wings' new place goes up

The Red Wings' days at Joe Louis Arena could be numbered. (Max Ortiz/Detroit News)

We won’t miss the press box at Joe Louis Arena because it really was never there. It’s just a row of seats — the top row, way up high — haphazardly constructed as an afterthought back when the Red Wings were one, too.

And nobody in the building will miss the view, because there simply isn’t one. The sight lines for hockey games are pretty good. But there’s not a window in the place, save for the tiny portholes on the heavy-hinged exit doors. Employees down at the Joe will tell you they can go days without actually seeing the sun during the winter.

Finally, though, it appears those dark days are coming to an end, as city officials on Wednesday offered another glimpse of their emerging plans for a new downtown arena and entertainment district. The proposed $650 million project moves forward now after the Downtown Development Authority announced the “framework” of a deal is in place with the Ilitch family’s Olympia Development group.

What comes next are weeks and months of meetings — and probably a fair bit of posturing, what with 44 percent of the estimated cost coming from public funds — before any shovel breaks the ground.

Asked Wednesday for a timetable on the project, George Jackson, the president of the Detroit Economic Growth Corp., said he hopes to have a final deal in place by the end of the year. Before that, though, he joked, “I’d like it completed by tomorrow.”

So would the Red Wings, obviously. This has been owner Mike Ilitch’s vision for years, frankly, long before a team-friendly, 30-year lease expired on the city-owned JLA, isolated as it is along the riverfront.

Flawed at birth

It’s a common refrain by now, but the Joe — the fourth-oldest arena in the 30-team NHL — was outdated almost from the moment it opened in 1979.

The steps are too steep. The concourse is too narrow and dimly lit. The restrooms might’ve handled the sparse crowds when the Red Wings first moved in, but these days the bathroom lines are legendary in length.

As modern amenities go, it leaves much to be desired — it’s amazing to think The Palace in Auburn Hills, home of the Pistons, was built less than a decade later — though to be fair, it’s also one of only three NHL arenas that aren’t currently named for a corporate sponsor.

So there’s that. And then there’s the hockey. But that’s about it, which is fine for many hardcore hockey fans, certainly. It’s just bad for business, generally speaking.

A new arena surely will help the Wings’ free-agent pitches in the future, and figures to generate several million dollars in additional revenue annually for the team, along with some — but not all, trust me — of the other economic benefits that business leaders were touting Wednesday.

They started playing games at the Joe in late December 1979. But when the Ilitches bought the Red Wings from Bruce Norris in 1982 for the princely sum of $8 million, the franchise was, in the words of longtime team executive Jimmy Devellano, “in the Detroit River.”

“I mean, really in the Detroit River,” Devellano said, emphasizing his own words as he celebrated the 25th anniversary of that purchase in 2007.

Starting from scratch

It was Devellano who was hired by Ilitch to salvage it, a project that would take several years and plenty of work – Steve Yzerman in their first draft, Petr Klima in the trunk of a car, Vladimir Konstantinov with bribe money and a faked illness — not to mention the championship blueprint the accomplished general manager brought with him from the Islanders.

His first payroll was $2.8 million, or slightly less than Mikael Samuelsson is scheduled to make next season. And Devellano remembers asking Marian Ilitch after his introductory press conference in July 1982 how many season-ticket holders the team had.

They went to ask box office director Bob Kerlin, Devellano recalled, and “Bob said, ‘Mrs. Ilitch, give me 10 minutes and I’ll tell ya.’ That’s how long it took to count ‘em.” Turns out the number was only 2,100 season tickets.

So while the front office started building through the draft, it also tried to fill the seats by adding personalities on the ice (Ron Duguay) and even giving away free cars during games.

They don’t have to do that anymore, of course. Not with a team that has made the playoffs 22 years running, the longest active streak in professional sports.

And certainly not in this proposed new arena, which will increase demand for tickets not just with its new-car smell, but also with a smaller capacity — about 18,000, compared to the current 20,000-plus.

It’s going to be impossible to transplant the memories — everyone knows that. But they’ll take 11 Stanley Cup championship banners with them as a reminder. (Four more than they started with in 1979.) And they can take the half-dozen retired numbers that hang from the rafters. (Make it seven, actually, since Nick Lidstrom’s No. 5 will join the others sometime next season.) Heck, maybe Al Sobotka can figure out a way to take those old plywood end boards, too.

Nobody’s packing just yet. The future remains an “incomplete portrait” at the moment, as Jackson says. But from the Red Wings’ vantage point, it’s hard to believe it’s not brighter.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com
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