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Red Wings set for last home opener at Joe Louis Arena

Memories abound in Detroit which moves to new rink next season

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

To feel the essence of Joe Louis Arena, step into the hallway outside the Detroit Red Wings dressing room. Study the plain wooden plaques representing each team since owner Mike Ilitch bought the franchise in 1982, almost every team since the Joe opened in 1979.

Each is screwed into the cinderblock and features the Winged Wheel logo, the words "Detroit Red Wings," the years of the season, and the names of the executives, coaches, players and trainers. The bottom line is the record.

All the plaques since 1990-91 honor a team that made the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Four plaques honor teams that won the Cup, including two that clinched it at the Joe and paraded it on Detroit ice. The 2011-12 plaque honors the team that won an NHL-record 23 straight home games.

It isn't about aesthetics or amenities. It's about people and players and winning.

"From a player's perspective, it's a great arena to play in," Red Wings legend Steve Yzerman, whose No. 19 hangs in the rafters, once said. "It's a simple arena. It's got a good atmosphere."

Enjoy it while it lasts. The Red Wings play their final home opener when they host the Ottawa Senators on Monday (7:30 p.m. ET; FS-D, RDSI, TSN5, NHL.TV). Forty-one more games, a little more if they extend their playoff streak to 26 seasons, and then they move into their new home: Little Caesars Arena.

Little Caesars Arena will be everything Joe Louis Arena is not, for better and for worse. It will be first class, state of the art, at the heart of what the Ilitch family plans to be a thriving residential and commercial area known as "The District Detroit." But it will not be the simple arena where we witnessed so much history.

The Red Wings are building a new arena because of many of the things that make Joe Louis Arena the Joe. It is a Spartan gray box of siding and cinderblock down by the Detroit River, surrounded by cracked concrete. It has three windows, and they're portholes cut into metal doors on the ground floor. It has smelly stairwells and crowded concourses. The out-of-town scoreboards have been broken for years, covered by banner ads, and the main scoreboard screens are small and in standard definition.

But the Joe has character and gives the Red Wings an old-school home-ice advantage. It is one of the last unique rinks left when so many new ones are essentially the same. It's named for a boxer, not a bank. There are suites, but all on the top level, keeping high society up high. The seats are red vinyl, worn from years of use, but the fans don't come for comfort and often stay on the edges. The sightlines are good. For big games, the volume is full blast.

"It's not a big show around it," Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg once said. "You come in and watch hockey."

The end boards are the last in the NHL still made of actual wood. Beneath an eighth of an inch of white plastic, there is three quarters of an inch of plywood and another half-inch of plywood painted red, supported by a steel frame. It makes the end boards the bounciest in the League. When Nicklas Lidstrom played defense in Detroit, if he couldn't find a shooting lane, he often would miss the net on purpose, knowing the puck would ricochet into a scoring area.

In the end, what matters most is that this is where Yzerman played his entire career. This is where Lidstrom played his entire career. This is where so many other greats passed through, from Sergei Fedorov to Brendan Shanahan to Chris Chelios to Dominik Hasek to … well, a (red) wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame. This is where the Grind Line became beloved, where the Red Wings battled the archrival Colorado Avalanche, where the Red Wings ended a 42-year Stanley Cup drought, where the Red Wings became the class of the NHL, where an entire generation of Detroiters has grown up never knowing a season without the playoffs.

"I don't think there's any way to just bring the culture and the history from this building and just move the banners and start something there," Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall once said. "I don't think it works like that. There's something special about this rink."

Well, yes and no. The Red Wings moved on from Olympia Stadium, their home from 1927 to 1979, the home of seven Stanley Cup championship teams and so many greats from Gordie Howe on down, and started something at the Joe. They moved the banners, and then they added more. They will honor their history at Little Caesars Arena as they did at the Joe; their challenge will be to create a new history as they did at the Joe.

Let's remember a year from now, when we're marveling at the shiny new bells and whistles of Little Caesars Arena, that stuff like windows and wide concourses and high-def screens are nice but aren't what make a rink special. It isn't the big show around it; it's the big show in it.

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