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Wings have enjoyed great success at Joe Louis Arena

by John Kreiser

Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, which was completed in 1979, is the second-largest NHL stadium, with a capacity of 20,006.
Detroit calls itself "Hockeytown," but its arena is named after one of the great boxers of all time.

Joe Louis Arena, which was completed in 1979 at a cost of $57 million and is located on the banks of the Detroit River, is named after the former heavyweight champion who grew up in Detroit. That makes it one of a vanishing breed of sports facilities that's not named for a corporate sponsor.

"The Joe" opened in December 1979, with the Wings moving from the venerable Olympia into their new home Dec. 27 – they were beaten 3-2 by St. Louis before a Detroit-record crowd of 19,742.

"'The Old Red Barn,' as we used to call the Olympia Stadium, had its moments for sellout crowds and championship teams," said Budd Lynch, who's been part of the Wings' organization since 1949 and has served as their public address announcer since 1985.

He's seen more games at "The Joe" than anyone.

"The Norris family had the operation going, but the seating capacity was only about 13,000, like the old Montreal Forum,” Lynch said. "The time came for a change, and the mayor of Detroit at the time didn't want the Red Wings to go out to the (Pontiac) Silverdome – the Lions had gone out there, the Pistons had gone there and he didn't want to lose the Red Wings. He made a deal with Norris to find some land and built Joe Louis Arena."

A few weeks later, the new arena hosted the NHL All-Star Game, still one of the signature events in the building's history. Detroit fans – a then-record 21,002 of them – gave a 10-minute standing ovation to Gordie Howe, who had returned to the NHL with the Hartford Whalers eight years after retiring from the Wings and then moving to the World Hockey Association.

"To stage an All-Star Game in a new building was a real challenge," Lynch said. "When they brought the All-Star Game there, they had to bring Howe back. The crowd ovation when 'No. 9, Gordie Howe,' was announced was unbelievable. They cheered and cheered." 
On Nov. 22, 2006, the arena's West Entrance was named the "Gordie Howe Entrance" in honor of "Mr. Hockey.” A bronze statue of the greatest Wing of all time was placed inside the entrance.

Though it's one of the NHL's biggest buildings (with a capacity of 20,066, it's second only to Montreal's Bell Centre), Joe Louis Arena lacks a lot of the glitz many of the newer generations of buildings have. Lynch notes a couple of other distinguishing features.

"The building still has only one entrance," he said. "There's only one way in, at the Zamboni end. When the circus comes to town, they have to get in and out along with everyone else. Also, there's still no freight elevator – the TV crews have to arrive early to haul their equipment upstairs."

The Ilitch family, which bought the Wings from the Norris family in 1982, made a number of changes to what had been a somewhat austere building.

"They dressed it up with all kinds of food stands and pictures of all the old-timers, which was a good idea," Lynch said. "The Ilitches have spent a lot of money and had a lot of success through the years."

Though "The Joe” has hosted the usual array of ice shows and concerts, a smattering of basketball games and wrestling shows, even the 1980 Republican National Convention, it is first and foremost a hockey building. Besides the Wings, the arena has hosted three NCAA Frozen Fours and is the site of the annual Great Lakes Invitational, one of college hockey's biggest in-season tournaments, and the Central Collegiate Hockey Association championships.

But the Red Wings are the biggest draw, and after struggling in their first few years at their new home, they've enjoyed tremendous success since the early 1990s. In 1995, they made their first trip to the Stanley Cup Final since 1966; two years later, the Steve Yzerman-led Wings ended a 42-year drought by completing a sweep of the Philadelphia Flyers at home for their first championship since 1955.

For a lot of fans, it was a blending of eras in Detroit hockey.

"It was great to see the emotions put on by fans in their 60s and 70s who knew the Abel-Lindsay-Howe group but also got to know the Yzerman group," Lynch said of many of the fans in the building that night.

The Wings repeated the next year by sweeping Washington, and added a third Cup four years later with a five-game victory over Carolina – again winning the championship in front of their home fans. The team's success has helped fill the building and create the Hockeytown atmosphere that has pervaded the city for years.

"The Ilitches, Jim Devellano, Kenny Holland, Jim Nill – they've all worked hard to make it Hockeytown," Lynch said. "They've done a great job, and the fans have turned out."
Like Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, which is on its last legs, Joe Louis Arena soon could be replaced. Despite the money the Ilitches have put into the building, it lacks many of the modern amenities of 21st-century facilities.

"The rumor is that someday there will be another building," Lynch said. "You never know. The rumor keeps popping up, and the Ilitches have property in Detroit, but nobody knows for sure. To improve the present building would be difficult. But there's been a lot of success here."

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