Closure of Michigan roller hockey mecca leaves players, employees heartbroken

Nolan Bianchi
The Detroit News

Shelby Township — On the exterior, Joe Dumars Fieldhouse is not, by any means, a good-looking building.

Frankly, the interior won't win any design awards, either. And it smells terrible.

None of that mattered to most anybody who stepped inside the landmark of North American roller hockey, though, and after 25 years, the sudden shutting of its doors leaves many yearning for that blended stench of hot air, sweaty hockey pads and fresh popcorn just one more time.

Players surround the crease during a Little Caesars Roller Hockey Association house-league game.

“It was a heartbreaking feeling,” said Grand Rapids Griffins forward and Clinton Township native Tyler Spezia, who played roller hockey at the Shelby Township sports and entertainment facility for 14 years.

“Joe Dumars is where I learned to play hockey. It’s where I took my first strides as a hockey player. It’s where I scored my first goal.”

The fieldhouse is another victim in the nationwide effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. After Michigan Gov. Whitmer’s mandated shutdown of all entertainment facilities, bars and restaurants went into effect last week, rumors began to spread on social media that the fieldhouse might be closing its doors for good.

That turned out to be the case, as employees have been told that the fieldhouse will not reopen.

This was posted on the fieldhouse’s Facebook page last week: “Because it is hard for us to say whether we will be able to open again after this mandated and extended closure, we wanted to take this opportunity to say thank you to each and every one of you for your continuous support over all of these years.”

That was a delicate way of stating the inevitable, a harsh reality of a financial situation that was never great to begin with, even before complications caused by the novel coronavirus arose.

Matt Koleski (second from right) and other Joe Dumars Fieldhouse employees at the outdoor bar patio.

“Nobody was getting rich there, as people are starting to understand,” said Matt Koleski, who runs the fieldhouse’s Little Caesars Roller Hockey League.

Meanwhile, the Detroit location of the Joe Dumars fieldhouse has been converted to a drive-thru testing site for people possibly infected with coronavirus.

In addition to two inline hockey rinks, the Shelby Township fieldhouse was home to 13 basketball courts, six indoor volleyball courts and three outdoor volleyball sand courts. There was a full bar and restaurant, a mini bowling alley and a bayou-themed arcade center complete with whirlyball, high-ropes courses, arcade games, putt-putt, fowling and a rock-climbing wall. In other words, it was a lot to lose.

But when the stay-home order is lifted, people will still have places to play basketball. There are other arcades to visit. A volleyball game can be started up pretty much anywhere. And eventually, folks will be able to eat at restaurants again.

The hockey, though? There will be no replacing what Joe Dumars Fieldhouse meant to that community. At its peak, it was somewhat of a mecca of roller hockey, fielding an estimated 13,000 teams through its doors between leagues and the tournaments during its lifespan.

Detroit Red Wings forwards Dylan Larkin and Sam Gagner were just a couple of the future NHL players to play on the sport-court tiles of Rinks A and B.

“A few people have said to me, roller hockey will never be the same in Detroit without the fieldhouse,” Koleski said. “You lost a leader in the industry, you know? After Detroit, I would say California is probably the only place that’s thriving with roller hockey right now.”

Tyler Spezia

And yet, the number of games played, or the tournaments that will need a new venue, seem minimal in counting the overall impact of its closing. The fieldhouse was like a second home to countless families over the years.

“I grew up there … I was a ‘rink rat,’ as you call it. I knew everybody, I watched a lot of games, I knew all the refs, I knew all the people in the arcade,” Spezia said. “It was like a kid’s playground in there for me.”

There are hundreds that could relay a sentiment identical to Spezia’s. Not all of them went on to play pro hockey, but this place, while fielding some very competitive roller hockey contests, was always more about the lighter sides of the game.

“People meet lifelong best friends through that place. Every person that’s going to stand up in my wedding some day, I’ve met at the fieldhouse,” said Tyler True, another Dumars staple who spent “seven days a week” playing and officiating games for much of his teens and early 20s.

“The coaches, the mentors, the trainers, the pro athletes, I think that looking up to them is a huge thing,” True said. “It was a huge thing for me. My dad passed away at a young age, and Matt Koleski filled that spot in my life.”

On any given Saturday, you’d be hard pressed to come through the front door and walk 30 feet to Rink A without having to dodge a stinky 9-year-old in roller skates. There’s not a table in the restaurant that wasn’t bumped into during a game of high-speed tag on wheels.

Complaining to the boss was never much help.

“Those will be my best memories, watching kids just tool around the lobby, 100 miles per hour, running into parents and stuff like that,” Koleski said. “It’s fun to see those friendships, those relationships. … That’s what I’m going to miss the most, is just seeing the friendly faces.”

Young roller hockey players participate in a skills clinic put on by Joe Dumars Fieldhouse.

After returning to the area and joining the fieldhouse as a referee in 2000, Koleski, along with manager Joe Hawkins, founders of the roller hockey operation, Kevin and Ken Houle, and countless others, helped the fieldhouse grow into a juggernaut within the industry.

They were intent on letting the kids be kids. Koleski often opened up the rinks for free when there weren’t games being played, and did whatever he could to make sure that there was always a team for someone to play on, no matter the circumstances.

“I think that’s what I’m proud of, is that we were able to, no matter how many teams there were, how successful things were at that given time, that everyone was comfortable that walked through those doors,” Koleski said.