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Little Caesars Arena raises bar for future NHL venues

Red Wings' new facility has latest architecture, technology but feel of old building

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

DETROIT -- At its heart, it's a hockey rink. Amid the amenities and innovations, Little Caesars Arena, the spectacular new home of the Detroit Red Wings, is one of the best places to see a game in the NHL, if not the best.

Steep seats. Great sightlines. Stage lighting. Organ music. It has the latest architecture and technology, yet the feel of an old building.

The fans roared when Anthony Mantha and Dylan Larkin -- two of the Red Wings' young stars, key pieces of their future -- scored the first and second regular-season goals in Little Caesars Arena history on the power play 23 seconds apart in the second period Thursday.


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They roared some more when Henrik Zetterberg and Martin Frk scored in the third, and the Red Wings defeated the Minnesota Wild in the inaugural game 4-2.

"The atmosphere was awesome," Zetterberg said. "Obviously you see here the way the arena is built, it gets loud in here. It's fun to play."

Little Caesars Arena is also the new home of the Detroit Pistons, the lead concert venue in the area and the centerpiece of a 50-block development called The District Detroit, revitalizing an area connecting downtown to midtown.

It is more than an upgrade over Joe Louis Arena, the Red Wings' former home, and the Palace of Auburn Hills, the Pistons' former home. The designers took the best ideas from arenas across North America, added features never seen before and set a new standard.

Four-story brick buildings make up the exterior, and a clear roof covers the area between them and the bowl. That is the concourse. It's wide, full of natural light, an indoor city street. A metal skin wraps around the bowl and becomes a giant video screen thanks to 12 strategically placed projectors. An LED grid hangs from the ceiling, changing colors, creating special effects.

Video: MIN@DET: Ceremonial puck drop at Little Caesars Arena

Did we mention the seven clubs, the four restaurants, the historical displays, the artwork, the outdoor plaza, the beer garden, the practice facility, the 25,000-square-foot locker room and the 5,100-square-foot center-hung scoreboard? The place cost $863 million.

The challenge usually is to bring the fans out of their seats. Here, with so much to explore and so many places to hang out, the challenge might be to keep them in their seats. If there was a negative, it was that even though the crowd was announced at 19,515 and the seats were essentially full in the first period, some were empty in the second and third.

But the original purpose of Little Caesars Arena was to be the home of the Red Wings, and it was designed first and foremost for watching hockey.

The designers asked general manager Ken Holland for the most intimidating place to play in the NHL. He said Bell Centre, home of the Montreal Canadiens, because of the steep seats. They asked TV broadcasters Ken Daniels and Mickey Redmond for the best place to call a game. Both said Bell Centre, because of the media gondolas hanging over the seats close to the ice.

So the designers created a large lower bowl, two levels of suites stacked on top of that, an upper deck stacked on top of that and gondolas hanging over it all. They created entry portals that blocked outside light. They added the LED grid, which makes the ceiling seem lower than it really is. As open as the concourse is, the bowl is tight.

"It just feels like there's seats on top of seats," forward Justin Abdelkader said. "All you see is red everywhere."

"I think we got it," Redmond said. "We nailed it."

At the morning skate, former Red Wings teammates Tomas Holmstrom and Nicklas Lidstrom sat in the seats, taking pictures like fans, marveling. Lidstrom, a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame who played his entire 20-year career for the Red Wings at Joe Louis Arena, was asked what jumped out most. After the scoreboard, he said the seats.

"The stands are so much more steep," Lidstrom said. "It seems like the fans are closer."

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman took a tour in the afternoon with Chris Ilitch, son of Mike Ilitch, the Red Wings owner who died Feb. 10. Chris Ilitch, who runs the family business empire as president and CEO of Ilitch Holdings, took his father's vision and made it reality by spearheading this project. 

Bettman climbed to the last row.

"I'm going, 'This is a great seat and a great view,' " Commissioner Bettman said. "The intimacy of this building is incredible because it's hard for me to believe there are 20,000 seats for hockey here, but there are."

Video: MIN@DET: Zetterberg fires shot five-hole to take lead

The fans arrived early, hundreds lining a red carpet to greet the players in the plaza outside. They entered the concourse, dined at the restaurants, checked out the attractions, rode up the escalators, took it all in. Then they went to their seats for the show, and in the end, hockey was center stage. The addition of a real organ and live organist was a perfect finishing touch.

"It was awesome, to be honest," defenseman Mike Green said. "The energy was great. Obviously with the new building, it's just completely different than any other rink. It's got its own identity. … It feels a little more enclosed. They're kind of sitting right there."

They'll be there for years to come.

"The Ilitches said they wanted to build the best in the world," goaltender Jimmy Howard said, "and they did it."

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