Detroit — They filed in under two-and-three story tall murals of Steve Yzerman lifting the Stanley Cup — June 7, 1997 — Nicklas Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg in action, and Joe Louis in his boxing stance.
Their eyes went up and around, surveying the new place, Little Caesars Arena.
“Wow, there’s so much to see,” said Jim Ackerman of Olivet, who attended Red Wings games in Olympia and Joe Louis Arena. “It’s unbelievable!
“This is way better. This will do Detroit so much good. It will be the rebirth of everything, just how it looks.”
Ackerman’s seats were up high in the new building. But he liked the sight lines.
“We’re way up in the seats, you know, the cheaper tickets,” he said. “We’ve looked at them. Great seats!”
Enthusiasm came easy on the Wings’ faux opening night, a preseason game against their old rivals, the Bruins, in the Red Wings’ new home.
But a bigger debut, for the regular season, awaits Oct. 5, against the Minnesota Wild.
The size of the crowd underwhelmed. The game, a 5-1 drubbing of their old rivals, featured cautious watchfulness from fans, not the overwhelming enthusiasm one might have expected for the first hockey game in the Red Wings’ new and third home in the city.
The place was just about slightly over half full.
The ear-piercing “Let’s go Red Wings!” chant will likely have to wait until the regular-season opener.
Wings fans know their club, with its roster in search of new stars, is forecast to hover around the bottom of the league this season. But Little Caesars Arena seemed to impress pretty much everyone, despite an occasional glitch — most of which can be worked out over time.
The fans, many of whom have had their season tickets passed down from intimate Olympia and the through the glory years at Joe Louis Arena, are not easy to impress.
But Little Caesars Arena impresses in ways that any $869 million sports venue should, and the Ilitches and the Wings and the management of Olympia Entertainment got a lot of things right.
“Honestly, when I walked in I had no words,” said one of the early arrivals, Anthony D’Alessandro of DeWitt.
“It’s a beautiful building. It’s amazing.”
D’Alessandro said he saw a lot of games at Joe Louis Arena last season and a few before that.
Asked to describe his feelings, in comparison, walking into the new place, he said, “Yeah, that is where it kind of shook me.
“It’s totally different. I mean, even just looking up at the ceilings, it’s a totally different atmosphere.”
Sitting about 15 rows from the glass in the northeast corner of the ice, D’Alessandro said his seats were in the same position as last season at Joe Louis Arena.
As many who have sat in the lower bowl in Little Caesars Arena say, it is just about the same sight angles as the lower seating in Joe Louis Arena. D’Alessandro agreed.
It is in the higher levels, where the stands are stacked closer to the ice, that seating scheme and the angle of incline improve the sight lines. And I think the affect is dramatic.
Some of the seats are higher off the ice. But they are also horizontally closer because of the stacked levels, and steep inclines.
The sense aloft is of a bird’s-eye view.
“I like it, but my husband thinks we are too high,” Darlene Frost of Royal Oak said. “He says the players are too small.
“But I liked it. It’s like you can reach right out and touch the players. You’re right on top of them.”
That may be the major debate that emerges about Little Caesars Arena. Time will tell.
Some fans in the upper sections, and scribes high aloft in the media gondola, thought we all were higher off the ice than at Joe Louis Arena.
But the arrangements provide a far better prospective of the game —almost on top of it — than at Joe Louis Arena.
That is the intent of the architecture, and I think it has been accomplished in spades.
And I wonder if some of Saturday’s dissenting voices will have different perspective as time goes on.
Outside, this part of town, long perceived as a bit of a never-never land between downtown and Midtown, was bustling.
D’Alessandro and Ashley Pompa, of Grand Rapids, said they stayed downtown in a hotel and took the People Mover and walked to the arena.
When Mike Ilitch talked about building a new arena for his Red Wings, he talked about a lifelong dream as a Detroiter of seeing folks walking the sidewalks and using downtown.
If things work out, it will be a big part of his legacy.
Having attended high school three blocks away from 1971-74, I can testify things are certainly looking up, north and south of I-75 along Woodward.
I have not seen it this vibrant, this much in use, in my lifetime.
Flowers in beds up and down the median of the grand, main drag of the city, with a trolley car running by.
Fans walking just off the main concourse and sitting in restaurants and bars that front on Woodward, people-watching through the big, tall windows on the sidewalks of Brush Park.
This neighborhood, with its old Victorian mansions, most now demolished, provided the residences for the city’s elite in the 1850s.
It hops again now.
A new city
Just 10 years ago, and for the previous 40, I would have thought the scenes unfolding Saturday were in Boston, San Francisco or Seattle, certainly somewhere else where the economy and course of the post-industrial economy treated towns more kindly.
But no. This is Detroit.
Perhaps the most important part of Little Caesars Arena is that this sort of urban lifestyle happens, here, now.
“It’s really cool to come here, and be downtown,” Pompa said of their hockey and sightseeing tour of Detroit.
The plaza, with a giant screen along the west side of the arena, drew a similar crowd on what clearly was more of a boating and football day than a hockey day.
But its promise registers in the amount of social media buzz, especially among younger folks, about the party and hockey possibilities there.
“This is a whole plaza with a band playing here and everything,” said Donna Preston of LaSalle, as she waited to get an autograph from Jiri Fischer, the director of player development.
“If I don’t have a ticket someday, I might come down and watch from here,” Preston said, looking past the performing band, “Cancel Monday,” to the large screen behind them.
Other than those who might find the seating inside a bit high, there were some deficiencies.
Most were behind the scenes, and some will take care of themselves
Anthony Mantha, Dylan Larkin, Frans Nielsen and Martin Frk all said they found the ice bad.
But like a race track surface that requires the grinding down of racing, the rink in Little Caesars Arena requires lots of skating.
Of course, that is on the way.
“The ice was really choppy out there,” said Nielsen, beginning his 11th season in the league. “We’ve only skated on it twice and it’s been like 95 degrees out there, so I’m sure it’s going to get a lot better.”
Nielsen said the ice was no worse than he expected, given his experience with new surfaces while playing for the Islanders.
“I remember going into Brooklyn when we were new in there. It was pretty much the same thing, I remember Pittsburgh, we were one of the first to come in there and play. It was really rough.
“It’s going to take a little bit of skating on it before it gets used to us.”
Nielsen and others said they got true bounces off the new boards against the Bruins. Some of the players said they noticed some considerable variance in rebounds off the boards within close proximity at some of the early practices. But it did not seem to be an issue Saturday.
“Boards were good out there,” Nielsen said. “We got true bounces.”
The concourses also are a bit sparse, with little of the memorabilia on display one might expect, especially from the most successful United States franchise in the NHL over 91 years, and with the Pistons, and their considerable legacy in town, playing in the building, too.
But Red Wings public relations folks said that is all to come. In fact, in a sizeable room above the current souvenir shop, a museum will be established that fans can eventually tour and absorb the history of the club.
The shot clocks displayed in the arena did not work until sometime after the 10-minute mark of the first period.
And then there are some media concerns, including some electrical outlets that had not been turned on.
Tough to see
But the biggest glitch for the media -- and it affects only us in print, because the broadcasters are a floor lower -- is that the huge scoreboard, with the awesome display of play in contrast, tint and clarity so vibrant that the action seems real, obstructs the view of the benches.
It will be tough, or impossible, to see when coaches are objecting to calls.
It will be tough, or impossible, to see which player is injured, at what part of their body and whether they remain on the bench or head to the room.
When I congratulated GM Ken Holland and senior vice-president Jim Devellano for a job well done on the new barn, at the end, I joked that they had thought of everything.
Even hiding the players’ benches from the inquisitive, information-seeking scribes, especially those of us intent on deciphering injuries through our binoculars.
You know, before we are told two games later, “Upper body. It might take some time.”
Of course, the obstruction is unintentional, and Holland and Devellano knew I knew that.
But Holland found the idea it might have been intended hilarious. And Devellano immediately laid claim.
“That was my idea!” he said, playing along with the joking, thumping his index finger into his pumped out chest.
A good laugh was had, and it was all in jest.
And, the fact of the matter is, as I finished up this column some of the best folks working in the arena came by and said there might be a solution in sight, for the sight problems of us ink-stained wretches.
The big, really cool scoreboard, may well be raised.
Fans will adjust, or not, to the changes in their areas of the building. But, as they left, the notable thing was how many still had a bit of wonder in their eyes as they filed out.
We will all have our favorite parts of the place, and that is likely to evolve over time.
Eventually, we are likely to agree the best part is when whatever captain of the Red Wings lifts the first Stanley Cup won here.
The Brown Bomber
For the time being, I have my own favorite thing.
It is not about hockey, but some hockey people should take pride in getting it done.
Joe Louis is remembered here.
The longest reigning heavyweight champion in history who came out of the auto plant at River Rouge to smite almost all comers, including the minions of Adolph Hitler on the eve of World War II, becoming the first African-American to stake a huge claim to minds and hearts of all his countrymen, stands tall here, in one of America’s great black cities.
His name will no longer be mentioned prominently on Red Wings’ broadcasts to the nation, when announcers identify the venue.
But Joe Louis is big in Little Caesars Arena.
He stands in the mural three stories high, ready to toss one of those awesome, lethal hands in furtherance of his sport, his country, his people and those who seek liberty everywhere.
And if one heads to the second and third level up from the main concourse and stands across from the Louis mural at the Woodward Avenue entrance, one can see through the enormous windows out over Brush Park to where the Brewster federal housing project stood.
There, several city blocks away, in the recreational Brewster Center, Louis trained.
They are memories Detroiters should not forget.
And Louis stands as a reminder, at the Woodward entryway to Little Caesars Arena, of the greatness of one athlete’s life and a city.