Hockey fans bid farewell to Joe Louis Arena, and an unforgettable era

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Today, Hockeytown closes for the summer.

When it opens again, it will be in a new home for the first time since the winter of 1979-80.

Joe Louis Arena has been home to a lot of events and teams. It’s been home to arena football, indoor soccer, even the Pistons one year when the Silverdome roof collapsed.

It’s been the home of the Great Lakes Invitational and to OHL teams.

But it will be remembered as the home of the Detroit Red Wings, a building which is the antithesis of the Palace of Auburn Hills, which was built less than a decade later but is loved like the Palace never was.

“It has its little hiccups and things about it that make it special,” Pinckney hockey coach Ted Kroll said. “The Palace is a beautiful place, and I’ve been there a lot, but there’s something about the Joe that give it that feel.”

Beneath the stands, the Joe smells of stale beer, among other things. It was an arena designed in a hurry and created due to political expediency.

And, today, none of that particularly matters.

It was created in the aftermath of the Lions and Pistons moving to the Pontiac Silverdome. City officials there offered to build a rink for the Wings to replace the Olympia, which was situated in a deteriorating neighborhood and was more than 50 years old at the time.

The Red Wings had a deal with Pontiac and had started selling suites when Detroit mayor Coleman Young swooped in, offering a rink with rent a third of what Pontiac would charge and control over the facility.

Then-owner Bruce Norris took the deal, and Joe Louis Arena opened on December 12, 1979, with a basketball game between the University of Michigan and the University of Detroit.

There were a few glitches: A reporter asked where the press box was after the arena was completed, drawing blank looks. No one had thought to include one. So one of the top rows saw its seats taken out and a press row put in.

There’s only one loading dock, and no storage, so beer kegs were stashed along a wall, leading to the beer smell so many who played there are familiar with.

There weren’t enough bathrooms for 20,000 people, and the concourse was bare-bones at best.

Getting there wasn’t easy, either, especially in the days before the People Mover was built. For whatever reason, it was considered a good idea to build a giant staircase for patrons to use as a main entrance.

But, as we get used to new things, those are the items that go from annoyance to character. We speak fondly of Tiger Stadium while putting in the back of our minds the fact it had thousands of seats where views were obstructed and you had to hear how the fans who could see the play reacted before you could.

For hockey fans, the sightlines at the Joe are tremendous. In fact, the things about the arena that were about hockey were gotten right, right down to the ice.

“It’s different from even Michigan Tech,” said Reid Sturos, the Brighton native who just finished his college career at Tech. The Huskies played at the Joe in the GLI every year but 2013, when it was held at Comerica Park. “When you get to the Joe, they take care of the ice there. The boards are very lively. When you shoot the puck and miss the net, the puck is bouncing out into the slot. It’s something you always remember from the Joe.”

Over the years, as a new generation discovered hockey, it became the place to be.

“I think for a Michigan native, especially, it’s hard to describe,” said Damon Whitten, a Brighton native who played there while at Michigan State and coached there while an assistant at Michigan Tech. “When you spend your young life going down there and watching Steve Yzerman on the ice and then (Bob) Probert and (Vladimir) Konstantino and (Nicklas) Lidstrom, to step on that ice is really unique for a Michigan native.

“It’s hard to describe,” he continued. “They’re some of my fondest memories, whether it’s the GLI or Michigan vs. Michigan State matchups, it was sold out when we were there, and some of the best memories of my life were when I got the chance to play in that arena.”

For every Damon Whitten, though, there were hundreds of kids who played there, too, in countless state tournaments and other games for all ages.

“I believe it was squirt hockey,” Pinckney coach  Ted Kroll said, talking about his one and only skate on the Joe Louis Arena ice. “I think I was about 9 or 10 at the time. It was unbelievable. We got a tour of the (Red Wings) locker room, and then you step on the ice. It was quite the thrill to be playing on the same ice.”

“There’s a lot of memories, a lot of history in that arena,” Sturos said. “Growing up playing there, growing up watching the Red Wings and getting to play on the same ice is a memory I’ll never forget.”

For Brighton coach Paul Moggach, the wave of nostalgia this week has a familiar feel.

Moggach grew up in Detroit near the Olympia, and saw many games involving his favorite player, Gordie Howe, including the nights he saw Howe tie and then pass Maurice Richard as the NHL’s all-time goal scorer.

“When you experience the games in a place like Olympia or Joe Louis, it’s tough to see it go,” he said. “But just like when Joe Louis came, you find (Olympia) can be replaced, and Joe Louis will be replaced.”

Its replacement, Little Caesars Arena, will have plenty of loading docks and bathrooms, and a press box, and all the amenities people look for in arenas these days.

The new generation will hear from its elders, one is sure, stories about the Joe and its flaws and how much people loved the memories made there, the Stanley Cups, the moments we experienced individually and as a group.

“There’s a lot of history there,” Grand Ledge-Fowlerville coach Randy Montrose said. “It’s time, though. When you look at all the new arenas and you travel the country, it’s definitely time for a change. But it’s no different than from when Tiger Stadium was taken down. There’s a lot of history in each venue, but a lot of great memories, for sure.”

Unlike Tiger Stadium or the Silverdome, which stood for a decade or more after their main tenant left, the Joe is on prime riverfront property. There’s a financial incentive to move on, and quickly, and so the Joe will be torn down after Little Caesars Arena opens later this summer. A few concerts and a WWE event are scheduled before it makes way for whatever is next.

And then we’ll marvel at the new place, compare it to the old and get to the business of making new memories.