Detroit — In Joe Louis Arena, fans witnessed the long-desired revival of a great sports franchise, acquainted their wide-eyed children with a cathedral of sports, smuggled octopi, proposed marriage, praised and cursed the hockey gods and, uncountable times, rhythmically bellowed, “Let’s go Red Wings!”
They also endured long lines, occasionally in some discomfort, to relinquish what beer and body create. Sometimes only after tenderly negotiating crooked, uneven stairs in “The Joe.”
For 37 years, events stirred hearts, warmed souls, united generations of families, engraved victory on a celebrated cup and restored faith that glory is resolute amid the caprices of life.
On Monday, the Red Wings play their first home game of their final season at Joe Louis Arena against the Ottawa Senators.
From the first game against the St. Louis Blues, Dec. 27, 1979, until now, they won more home games in the regular season (812) and in the playoffs (108) than any NHL franchise, along with four Stanley Cups.
Around the NHL, Joe Louis Arena is hallowed.
“It just had a special feeling, that the crowd was going to help you as much as they could,” said Scotty Bowman, who won three of his nine Stanley Cups as the coach of the Wings.
“It was the way the building was built, or something. I always felt in the Joe Louis Arena, and maybe it was because a lot of the old buildings used to have a promenade (in the seating areas) and it doesn’t, you always felt, well, sort of crammed in.
“That’s an advantage: No room, you know what I mean?”
The helpful fans exulted, and some wept with joy on June 7, 1997 when an idol they cherished from his youth, Steve Yzerman, skated with the Stanley Cup held over his sweaty, fatigued head, graciously presenting it to them.
It was the Red Wings’ first Cup in 42 years.
A decade later in 2007, moments before his number went to the rafters, Yzerman choked back emotion during the on-ice ceremony when the sustained ovation finally subsided.
“The first time I stepped on the ice, I was in awe of the building,” Yzerman said. “I was in awe of the atmosphere.
“I felt that throughout my entire career.
“It’s incredibly inspirational to step on the ice with the support we receive. The expectation and demand for excellence from the fans in this building and Red Wings fans everywhere was truly an inspiration to me.”
In 1980, their transcendent hero, Gordie Howe, returned to skate among them once more in his 23rd NHL All-Star game in Detroit, the throngs stood, clapped and chanted “Gor-die! Gor-die!” ignoring even the great man’s entreaties to let the game begin.
It went on for several minutes.
Writing his autobiography, “Mr. Hockey,” 34 years later, Howe said, “I can still remember the announcer calling the lineups that night.
“If Detroit fans consider you to be one of their own, they’ll stick with you through thick and thin.
“Standing on the ice that night was not only one of the great moments I enjoyed in the game of hockey, but also one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in my life.”
And in 1997, a year after an on-ice assault when Claude Lemieux literally bashed in Kris Draper’s face, Darren McCarty landed a first punch that diminished Lemieux’s consciousness and reduced him to a turtled presence.
The building reverberated with the roar of fans avenged.
Marvelous moments in the history of one of the greatest sports towns in the world, and they occurred in an arena soon to be demolished.
But the mere words “Joe Louis Arena” will long conjure memories of millions of lifetimes.
The four Stanley Cup seasons rank with the 22 major professional sports championships won by the major Detroit franchises: seven in the Olympia; four World Series at the site of Navin Field, Briggs Stadium and Tiger Stadium; one NFL title at University of Detroit Stadium and three at Briggs Stadium; and three NBA championships at the Palace of Auburn Hills.
But Joe Louis Arena almost never happened. In the mid-1970s, the City of Detroit had to rush to prevent the Red Wings from moving to Pontiac.
The Old Red Barn, “The Olympia” in the local vernacular, was 49 years old in 1976. The near West Side neighborhood was increasingly impoverished for a decade, as residents of means moved farther out Grand River and into the suburbs.
The construction of the Jeffries Freeway, which would hasten the social trends, was just completed.
Having lost the Lions to Pontiac in 1974, Mayor Coleman Young and others swung into action.
The politics and finances of the deal meant the development of the new arena would have to be swift and economical. Both requisites were accomplished.
“Architectural significance? There’s probably not very much there,” said Paul Urbanek, the current design director for the architect of “The Joe,” SmithGroup JJR.
“The very industrial look of the exterior was purposefully thought of as the industrial grittiness of Detroit, where it came from and what it was about, as well as the economics of the building,” said Urbanek, who was not involved in the design 40 years ago, but who still plays hockey at age 60.
“It was intended to be built very, very economically, and it was.”
The total cost of the development was $57 million, strikingly cheap when ground was broken on May 16, 1977.
When the site was selected, it required shoehorning the big building between what was then called Cobo Hall and an area set aside for the construction of Riverfront Towers, the three-skyscraper residential complex.
“The site was very tight,” Urbanek said. “And there’s always been some controversy about the outside stairs that are perceived as being too steep.
“Of course, everything that has happened to arenas in the years since it has opened have changed significantly from when The Joe was done.”
The suites are high, just under the roof.
Only gradually did the industrial sparseness of the concourses fill with photographs of the Red Wings, displays, more welcoming concession areas and statues of Howe, Ted Lindsay and Alex Delvecchio.
“It may be the last vestige of an arena that was very much set up for the game of hockey, whereas the new arenas are made for the event and entertainment of hockey,” Urbanek said. “It is all about the game itself, and these are the seats.
“All you had to do was get the folks to the seats and they were going to watch the game. And that was it.”
During the construction, when it came time to set the two massive 30-feet tall, 441-feet long trusses that run the length of the building, Jon Csont was in charge of part of the operation.
It was the first time that Csont, now a general superintendent and 43-year employee of the general contractor on the construction, the Barton Malow Co., supervised such a task.
“The erection of the main truss that goes across the playing surface was a very detailed and engineered erection process for the time,” Csont said.
It involved the construction and then removal of four sets of shoring towers to support the massive load and the work, in part, of three cranes.
“I was the carpenter foreman on the project, and it was just amazing to watch it go up without any flaws,” said Csont, whose father, John, was the project superintendent.
His daughter, Nicole Schram, is a project manager on the construction of Little Caesars Arena, and whose son also works on that project.
“Joe Louis Arena was a memorable project,” Csont said. “We had great seats for watching the fireworks, until the building got closed in.”
After it got closed in, the fireworks were inside.
In addition to the Red Wings, the Detroit Shock won the 2006 WNBA title in Joe Louis Arena and the Detroit Drive played six arena football championship seasons, clinching four of their titles at home.
The 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships were held there, although Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted by the forces of Tonya Harding next door, near a practice rink set up in the old Cobo Arena.
The Ontario Hockey League played once for the Robertson Cup, and collegiate players skated in Great Lakes Invitational and Big Ten tournaments.
There were countless concerts, beginning with the Canadian band Rush, and including a weeklong debut of Prince’s iconic Purple Rain tour.
And it was in Joe Louis Arena that the Republican Party first nominated Ronald Reagan for president.
The last regular season Red Wings game is scheduled for 5 p.m., Sunday, April 9, against the New Jersey Devils, a day after they play their ancient rivals, the Canadiens.
“What I remember most about my time in Detroit was the people who worked in the arena,” Bowman said. “The players and the people who worked there, they all felt part of it, you know?
“I knew all of the electricians and the people who ran the kitchen. You sort of all felt you were one, and I think that spilled off to the players.
“Playoff time would come, and Al Sobotka would run a big barbeque, and stuff like that,” he said.
“Maybe it was when the Ilitches bought the team, but it wasn’t a corporate feeling. It was sort of a family affair.”
Final season promotions
Here are the main Red Wing promotions that will celebrate the final season of Joe Louis Arena:
Oct. 17 vs. Ottawa – Gordie Howe poster giveaway.
Nov. 4 vs. Winnipeg – Gordie Howe statue replica
Nov. 29 vs. Dallas – Ted Lindsay statue replica giveaway
Dec. 15 vs. Los Angeles – Joe Louis Arena championship banner flag giveaway
Dec. 27 vs. Buffalo – 1997 Stanley Cup Championship celebration & locker room hat giveaway
Jan. 18 vs. Boston – 1998 Stanley Cup Championship celebration & poster giveaway
Jan. 31 vs. New Jersey – Joe Louis Arena retired jersey banner flag giveaway
Feb. 7 vs. Columbus – 2002 Stanley Cup Championship celebration & poster giveaway
Feb. 21 vs. N.Y. Islanders – Alex Delvecchio statue replica giveaway
March 20 vs. Buffalo – 2008 Stanley Cup Championship celebration & poster giveaway
April 8 vs. Montreal – Joe Louis Arena replica giveaway
April 9 vs. New Jersey – “Farewell to the Joe” mini-stick giveaway
There are still tickets available for all games except the final regular-season home game on April 9. Tickets can be purchased at the Joe Louis Arena box office, at Ticketmaster outlets or online at DetroitRedWings.com
Home of Wings
From Olympia Stadium to Joe Louis Arena to Little Caesars Arena
What: Joe Louis Arena
Origins: Named after former heavyweight boxer Joe Louis of Detroit
Cost to build: $57 million
Nickname: The Joe
Architect: Detroit’s SmithGroup JJR, seventh-largest architectural and engineering firm in the U.S.
First NHL game: Dec. 27, 1979; Blues 3, Wings 2 in front of 19,742 people
First goal: Brian Sutter of St. Louis
First Wings goal: Dennis Sobchuk, assists to Mike Foligno and Reed Larson
Playoff streak: Clinched a postseason berth for 25 consecutive years, the longest current streak in North American professional sports. The NHL record is 29 straight playoff appearances by the Boston Bruins (1968-96). The Chicago Blackhawks went 28 straight years in the playoffs from 1970-97.
Venerable rink: Second-oldest NHL venue after Madison Square Garden
Suites: Joe Louis Arena has 67 suites, 62 on the fourth level and five super suites on the third level.
All-Star Game: Hosted the 32nd NHL All-Star Game in 1980 in front of a then-record crowd of 21,002 on Feb. 5, 1980. Wings legend Gordie Howe played in his 23rd and final NHL All-Star Game. Wayne Gretzky made his all-star game debut.
NHL draft: June 13, 1987, the first NHL Entry Draft held in the United States. Buffalo selected Pierre Turgeon with the first overall pick. New Jersey had the second pick and they selected Brendan Shanahan, who won three Stanley Cups in Detroit.
The brawl: March 26, 1997, Detroit’s Darren McCarty fought Colorado’s Claude Lemieux in retaliation for Lemieux’s hit on teammate Kris Draper during the 1996 Western Conference final. The brawl has been called Bloody Wednesday, Fight Night at the Joe and the Brawl in Hockeytown.
Cup drought: June 7, 1997, Wings end 42-year Cup drought with a four-game sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers in the final. Darren McCarty scored the Cup-clinching goal in Game 4 by stickhandling around defenseman Janne Niinimaa and goalie Ron Hextall.
Future: Joe Louis Arena is expected to be demolished next year with the rink and adjacent parking lot being redeveloped by the Financial Guaranty Insurance Company, a bond insurer with a $1 billion claim against Detroit. Mayor Mike Duggan said a high-rise residential building will likely replace the home of the Red Wings.