Mike Ilitch, the owner of the Red Wings who died Feb. 10, dreamed of revitalizing his hometown. He renovated The Fox Theatre, moved his Little Caesars headquarters there, and built Comerica Park, home of his Detroit Tigers.
His son, Chris, who runs the family businesses as president and chief executive officer of Ilitch Holdings, built upon that vision with this project.
Chris Ilitch and his team studied arenas around North America, asking others what made them proudest and what they wished they could do over again. They borrowed the best ideas and added their own. He told the Detroit Free Press he insisted each room have at least three innovations in design, materials and concepts, and often went over the plans with his father.
"Chris Ilitch has kept his foot on the gas through this entire process," said Tom Wilson, president and CEO of Olympia Entertainment. "I told him months and months ago, 'If you don't do another thing, I think you've got the best arena in the country.'"
Little Caesars Arena is on Woodward Avenue, Detroit's main street, near the Fox, Comerica Park, and Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions. With the Detroit Pistons leaving The Palace of Auburn Hills in the suburbs to join the Red Wings there, all of Detroit's major-league sports teams and most of its concerts will be within walking distance in the heart of the city.
There is so much to Little Caesars Arena: free Wi-Fi, two outdoor plazas, four restaurants, seven clubs, on and on. But here are 10 things that set it apart:
1. The Via concourse
The main concourse isn't merely a hallway ringing the bowl.
Four-story brick buildings make up the exterior of Little Caesars Arena. The area between the buildings and the bowl is as wide as 140 feet and covered by a transparent roof. That is what they call the Via concourse.
It's the opposite of cramped, dark Joe Louis Arena. It's airy, bright.
"It's unbelievable," said Al Sobotka, a building manager who worked at Olympia Stadium and Joe Louis Arena. "For one, it's big. You walk in, the feeling is going to be …
"You have to experience it yourself. It's not like you're walking into an arena, really."
It's more like a mall or indoor city street. It will be open to the public most days whether or not there is an event, so people can shop, eat or just look around.
"It has so much natural light," Draper said. "That, I think, has to be very unique in an arena."
2. Jewel skin
Inside the Via concourse, wrapping around a large part of the bowl, is what they call the jewel skin. It is a towering, 600-foot-long screen.
Twelve projectors beam light onto hundreds of metal panels, and the result is seamless video.
"You could take a Corvette at one end of the arena and rip it 100 yards around the other side of the building," Wilson said.
It will show games and concerts while they're happening, larger than life.
"I've never seen anything like it," Wilson said. "You won't see it in Disney, you won't see it in Times Square, you won't see it in Vegas, and they're all known for the outrageous and the unbelievable. It's pretty unique."
3. LED grid
Below the ceiling of the bowl, covering the entire rink area, is a mesh tension system.
Workers can walk on it, which means they can go anywhere above the surface instead of relying on catwalks, which means they can set up for events more quickly and easily.
It lowers the ceiling visually, making the bowl feel more intimate.
"This big building, which is 850,000 square feet, suddenly feels really, really tight," Wilson said.
The mesh is a grid of LED lights. The Red Wings can turn the ceiling into American and Canadian flags for the anthems, for example.
"That grid lights up into a million different colors, and so you can do things with that that nobody's ever seen before," Wilson said. "Literally this is the first time this has ever been done."
Banners can raise or lower from the ceiling on command. Though the rafters were full of banners at Joe Louis Arena, the Red Wings will have a cleaner look for their games at Little Caesars Arena: retired numbers and Stanley Cup banners only.
The center-hung scoreboard will be the largest in the NHL by viewable area: 5,100 square feet.
But it isn't just big. It's big for everybody.
Some scoreboards are huge over the length of the ice but small on the ends, so those seated along the side boards get a great view and those at the end boards get a secondary one.
This scoreboard is square, each side 28 feet high by 43-1/2 feet wide, and seamless. Each side can display one image or divide into sections with video, stats and graphics, or the whole thing can show video in 360 degrees. In high definition, of course.
"One of the things Chris Ilitch said was, 'I don't want anybody sitting in the end zone to feel like they're less of a fan than the guy sitting on the sidelines,'" Wilson said.
For those seated low, there are four under-mount displays, each more than 7 feet high by 9-1/2 feet wide. All together, the center-hung scoreboard has about 11 million LEDs, an upgrade over the small, standard-def scoreboard at the Joe.
In the design stage, Red Wings general manager Ken Holland was asked to name the most intimidating place to play in the NHL. Broadcasters Ken Daniels and Mickey Redmond were asked to name the best place to call a game in the League. Each said Montreal.
So the bowl at Little Caesars Arena is patterned after the bowl at Bell Centre, with a steep pitch to the 20,000-some seats and gondolas hanging overhead.
"That was sort of the inspiration, because it felt like hockey," Wilson said. "This was going to be a hockey arena. Now, the nice thing is, if you've got great sightlines for hockey, you also have great sightlines for concerts and you have great sightlines for basketball, because it's all about, 'How close can I get you? Whether you're in the first level, second level, third level, how can I get you to feel like you're part of this action?'"
The architects were able to do it while adding more legroom, 3 or 4 inches more than at Joe Louis Arena, and a cutting-edge technology: cup holders.
"As big as it is, it doesn't lose that feeling that the fans are right there," Draper said. "There's not a bad seat in the house."
6. Locker room
The Red Wings have the largest locker room in the NHL: 25,000 square feet. That's more than 19,000 square feet more than they had at Joe Louis Arena, where their off-ice workouts spilled into the hallways and the equipment manager had to store things in the fifth-floor attic.
"I'm, like, super jealous," Draper said.
They have doctor's and dentist's offices. They have dining, fitness, laundry and equipment facilities. They have a sauna, steamer, hot tub, cold tub and therapy pool with an underwater treadmill. They have a lounge.
All first class. All decorated to honor the Red Wings history and tradition.
"You walk into the players' lounge," Draper said, "and it's like …"
"That might be as big as our whole dressing room [at Joe Louis Arena]," he continued. "It's like, 'Well, yeah, this'll work.'"
7. Family lounge
The players' families have it good too. They have their own lounge with fireplaces and televisions, places for mothers to take babies for privacy, and places for children to play. Yes, places, plural. There are different places for children based on age groups. And they're behind glass. Mothers can relax, have something to eat and have a conversation without losing sight of their little ones.
The families have their own lockers, so they can put away belongings when they go out to their seats.
All of this could be a competitive advantage.
"Let's just say Joe Louis Arena wasn't a recruiting tool back in the day," Draper said with a laugh.
8. Practice facility
The fitness room and the family lounge look onto an attached practice rink. The Red Wings once had to find ice elsewhere when their home rink was being used for another event; now they can dress in the same room and just walk over to the other sheet.
But the attached practice rink, painted red with a big Red Wings logo and 11 Stanley Cup banners, isn't just for the Red Wings. It's also for Little Caesars amateur hockey, which will have four dressing rooms, a fitness room, a weight room and more.
"The Little Caesars players, their dressing room rivals the old Joe Louis dressing room," said Draper, whose son Kienan plays for Little Caesars U15. "That's how nice it is. I'm sending Snapchats to my son, and he's just like, 'I'm so excited. I can't wait.'"
Little Caesars amateur hockey has its own family lounge too, so parents and siblings who spend so much time at the rink will have a place to work and play during games and practices.
"I had a couple of the dads with me, and they're just like, 'This is for us?'" Draper said.
The Joe was spartan, all cement and cinderblock. It lacked some of the basics and many of the amenities expected in modern arenas, let alone fine materials and finishing touches.
Little Caesars Arena is at the other extreme.
"The quality of this building is extraordinary," Wilson. "I've not seen another building like it."
There are sealed loading docks instead of a one big garage door, so when trucks arrive with deliveries, all the cold or hot air from outside won't rush in. There are tile floors in the concourse. There are men's bathrooms without long troughs.
"The bathrooms are beautiful," Sobotka said. "I think the bathrooms are nicer than a lot of people's homes."
Olympia Entertainment hired a curator whose full-time job was to connect Little Caesars Arena to the past. He did more than bring over the statues of Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Alex Delvecchio from the Joe.
Neon letters spell "OLYMPIA" inside the Via concourse, vertically on brick with a wire running down to connect them, just like at the old barn. The "O" is a replica, because the original's whereabouts are unknown. But the rest are the actual letters that once hung outside Olympia Stadium (and once sat in storage at the Joe and other places), restored to their former glory.
There are pictures of Red Wings greats like Howe and Steve Yzerman, Pistons greats like Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, and Detroit entertainment icons like Aretha Franklin and Eminem.
A piece of the Red Wings bench was cut out at the Joe and brought over; fans can sit on it and take pictures. There's a touchscreen on which fans can pull up video highlights. There's much, much more.
"There's all this stuff," Wilson said. "That's why we keep telling everybody. You can come 10 times, and you won't see it all."
The plan is for it all to keep changing over time, so the experience remains fresh.
"I've referred to it as an 'arena of discovery,' because I think when you come and you go around a corner you're going to see something that you haven't seen before, or you're going to see something that takes you back to a memory that makes you smile just a little bit," Wilson said. "And next time you come out, you're going to find something else."
Lead photo courtesy of Dan Mannes/Detroit Red Wings