The building manager and Zamboni driver walks through Joe Louis Arena with Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski. David Guralnick, The Detroit News
Detroit — This place, Joe Louis Arena, really isn’t that bad.
Sure, Al Sobotka hears all the grumbling and criticism of the Red Wings’ home rink, fans counting the days to when the flashy new Little Caesars Arena opens, but Sobotka will likely have a tear in his eye Sunday when the Wings close out their time at The Joe.
Sobotka knows every nook and cranny of the building. All the smells, bad and worse. He smiles whenever a wonderful memory comes to mind.
Sobotka, the popular building operations manager/Zamboni driver/barbecue chef/friend-to-all is going to miss this place.
“This is like a second home for me,” said Sobotka, who estimates he spends 80 hours per week at The Joe. “It’s a good thing my wife Sandy is so understanding. So many people tell me I’m married to this place.
“I tell her what my schedule for the week is, and she understands. There’s a job to do, and I have stay there until it’s done.
“It’s a great building, it really is. There isn’t a bad seat in this place. And all the memories here, the four Stanley Cup teams, the great players.
“I have memories, a lot of great photos. I’ll remember.”
But it’s time. Sobotka is a realist. He knows Joe Louis Arena has seen its best days.
It’s well beyond time, as any fan who has trudged upward on those steep stairs to the arena knows.
“I hate those stairs,” said Sobotka, who feels they are the worst part about Joe Louis Arena.
“It’s like moving from one home to a new home. You’re going to miss the place. I understand it’s time to move on.
“The new place, my goodness, it’s going to be beautiful. Everything is just going to be incredible. State of the art. It’ll be the best around.
“But, sure, I’m going to miss this place.”
Sobotka, 63, began his career at The Olympia on the midnight shift sweeping floors, making $3.25 per hour.
Forty-five years later, Sobotka has reached almost celebrity status among Red Wings fans for his Zamboni driving and, of course, his swinging of the Octopus come playoff time — or whenever there’s one splatted on the ice.
The entire tradition dates to the 1950s, but Sobotka took it to another level in the early 1990s during a playoff series against Chicago when he picked up an octopus and gave it a little twirl over his head.
“People seemed to like it,” said Sobotka, who added he was encouraged by owner Mike Ilitch to have fun and keep doing it because fans enjoyed it.
Sobotka still can’t believe the entire matter became so huge during the 2008 playoffs when the NHL issued a warning saying the Red Wings would be fined if Sobotka twirled an octopus.
But in a matter of days, the NHL relented — if Sobotka would do his twirling near the Zamboni gate, and not on the ice.
“I do it because the fans seem to like it,” Sobotka said.
Sobotka has kind words and thoughts for Ilitch, who maintained contact over the years while attending games.
“Just an unbelievable man, I don’t have a bad word to say about him at all,” Sobotka said. “He was always so good to me, and to so many other people. Treated me well. A fantastic owner, and fantastic family.”
It was during Ilitch’s ownership that the Red Wings became a premier organization in the NHL and their popularity in Detroit swelled to astounding levels.
Sobotka was there every evening, working, but also taking in the victories. And all the jubilation, cheering and magical moments that went with the victories, championships, Stanley Cups.
The best memory?
“Winning the Cup in 1997,” said Sobotka, almost wistfully, remembering the sight of Steve Yzerman raising Lord Stanley’s trophy and ending a lengthy drought for Red Wings fans. “I’ll never forget that night.”
But there were other evenings, games.
Sobotka said the crowd for the 1980 All-Star Game featuring Gordie Howe, then 52, was a magical evening.
“There have been so many,” Sobotka said of the endless highlights.
Sobotka plans to continue those ever-popular barbecues he holds for players, several times per season, at Little Caesars Arena.
Players and coaches enjoy the cookouts, although there have been several adventures over the years.
The one that brings the most laughs, though, is the time black smoke wafted into the arena and made a mess of one of Scotty Bowman’s practices.
“He was mad,” Sobotka said. “The players were laughing, more than anything. Scotty came over to me and he was angry.
“But then, real quick, a little later, he was the first one in line and wanted to know what we were having.”
Sobotka remembers taking a pair of seats from Olympia when it closed.
He isn’t sure about what souvenir he’ll take out of The Joe — maybe a bottle of ice, Sobotka said — but it’s for sure the cherished snapshots of the past 37 years — the Red Wings played their first game there Dec. 27, 1979, Sobotka remembers it vividly — will be the best keepsakes.
“I’ll miss this place,” Sobotka said. “I really will.”