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Keeping Joe Louis Arena humming along the whole time

Only five employees have been at the Joe from the beginning to the end

by Arthur J. Regner @ArthurJRegner /

DETROIT - When Joe Louis Arena shuts its doors for the last time, we will all be closing a chapter in our own personal history.

Whether it's a certain game, player, concert or event, our memory bank will never allow us to forget the Joe.

For Robert Bennane, Jerry Wawrzyniak, Al Sobotka, Jeffrey Gondek and Pamela Janiec, it will mark the end of their working relationship with the old barn, which spans the entire history of the building.

They are the five employees who have been at Joe Louis Arena for all 38 illustrious years.

As a matter of record, their association with Olympia Entertainment goes back further than the Joe itself.

Each member of the 'Devoted Five' has his or her own compelling back story of arriving at the doorsteps of Joe Louis and although their stories, backgrounds and jobs are diverse, they all share the same enthusiasm and love for the Joe and for their work.

Robert Bennane - 54 years of service

You would imagine if someone sticks with something for 54 years they would be passionate about the Red Wings and hockey. In Bob Bennane's case, you would be correct; he has a lifelong passion, but it is not Red Wings hockey.

"I was in the post office for 40 years just up on Fort Street," Bennane, 81, said. "I was stationed there and a friend of mine says, 'You ought to go down and get this part-time job with the Red Wings.' I thought, that's nice, so I go down there and applied and they put me to work when we were still at Olympia. I took it to go skiing."

A need to supplement his income to finance his skiing excursions may have led Bennane to apply with the Red Wings, but once he started working, he really enjoyed what he was doing.

"I started out as the runner, you're taking the merchandise upstairs and then before we left Olympia, I was a supervisor in the concessions department," Bennane said. "I've been in that capacity since I left the Olympia and all of Joe Louis.

"They don't have a lot of room upstairs (concourse), we have to get all the stuff up there by 5 o'clock when the colleagues get there to start the night for the show. "So, it's my job to get all of the merchandise out of the commissary at 5 o'clock to get the game started. The concessions people upstairs that manage the stands count it all to make sure it's all right."

Once the merchandise is delivered, Bennane, as the supervisor of the concessions department, makes sure the concession stands stay stocked and troubleshoots if a supervisor has forgotten to order a specific item.

Over the years the concessions have pretty much stayed the same, according to Bennane.

"We have two or three hot dogs, we have the kielbasa, the hot dogs and we have a chili dog and we have a hamburger thing, the Hockeytown Grill which is on the south side of the building," Bennane said. "We've added nachos, Cheli's Chili stand six or eight years ago, quite a few things, I would imagine.

"It's mostly the chips, hot dogs, the nachos, Cheli's Chili and on the east end the building we have East End Joe's Deli up there that makes all kinds of sandwiches, that was added in 12-15 years ago.

"They all get different merchandise and it all has to be pulled out and get it onto a cart, wagon or a truck and get it upstairs by 5 o'clock. It's quite a chore, making sure it's fully stocked and ready to go."

As much as he enjoyed what he was doing, when he turned 75, Bennane decided it was time to leave his position. He had just given up skiing and believed Father Time was catching up with him.

But he was coaxed into staying another year by his supervisor, George Kristy. One year turned into three and at 78, Bennane informed Kristy he was staying until the end of the Joe.

In these final months of the Joe, Bennane has been nostalgic and feels the four Stanley Cups that Detroit captured and all the shows are his most vivid memories, but his favorite memory of Joe Louis didn't involve a hockey player or a world class entertainer.

"Budd Lynch (legendary Red Wings announcer and broadcaster), Al Sobotka, me and a couple of other people had lunch just before Budd passed on. The man was a great fellow, Budd Lynch," Bennane said. "He was a very nice person to talk to and I understand he was a pretty good golfer. We had a really good time. That was one of the good memories."

Not such a fond memory is a concert where a Michigan native was the headliner.

"Madonna was a toughie," Bennane said. "Madonna's show three or four years back, she didn't come on until about 10:30 and she had to get off early. She held up the whole crowd, she was supposed to go on at 9 and she went on an hour and a half later.

"I'll remember that show for sure because we didn't get out of here until late that evening. That Madonna! I heard she did the same thing down in Florida too; she didn't go on until late. I guess in that business she can do anything."

Bennane's future plans are somewhat up in the air, but he's game for anything.

"It will be sad to see them go (the Red Wings) but I may be going with them, you never know," he chuckled.

Jerry Wawrzyniak - 47 years of service

It is the simple pleasures in life that Jerry Wawrzyniak appreciates.

He is a man that enjoys going to work, doing a good job and interacting with his co-workers, which he has been doing for 47 years at Olympia Entertainment.

"Actually, I didn't even know that we had a hockey team until I started working down at the Olympia," Wawrzyniak said. "I started working in 1970 and I was selling popcorn, sold pop and ice cream and then I worked my way up to programs and then they gave up on the programs in 2008, so I became a stand runner and then started working on a cleaning crew here."

While he was working in the balcony at Olympia, he became an avid Wings fan and has enjoyed every one of his jobs.

He has held full and part-time positions over the years.

His most memorable memory of working at the Joe was when he was selling programs.

"We ran out of programs that we sold for the first Stanley Cup," said Wawrzyniak. "Every time we sold out they would have to order some more books up (to the concession stand) and as soon they brought them up they were gone. We kept on ordering for more books to be brought up, until they told us there's no more."

Fans were not very understanding about the concession stand running out of programs, but Wawrzyniak just shrugs his shoulders and shakes his head because he realizes once something is sold out, it stays sold out.

A typical work day for Wawrzyniak depends on the schedule for the arena. Last Saturday (April 1) began earlier than usual for him and his crew.

"We had to come in early because they had something going on the night before, so we cleaned the stands that were open the night before," Wawrzyniak said. "Once we were done, I waited a couple of hours and then I started my other job as a stand runner. I take care of the food stands up here (on the concourse)."

Wawrzyniak is shy by nature and tends to stay to himself while he is working, but he does have a bit of ritual with some of the Red Wings players.

It began with Gordie Howe and continues with Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall and Drew Miller.

"I say hi and they say hi back to me; sometimes they say hi first and I say hi back," Wawrzyniak said.

It may not sound like much of an interaction, but for Wawrzyniak, just a common man, to have even a brief moment with a Wings player is something that makes his day.

He really doesn't have a favorite concert or show as they all pretty much sound the same to him, but when pressed, he mentions KISS and Bob Seger and he definitely remembers the lingering smell the circus left after their run had ended, although he is not sure if it was at the Olympia or the Joe.

Detroit winning four Stanley Cups is what he'll remember most about the Joe, but there are other things he'll take away that are also terrific memories.

"The way the building is built, the people that I work with, watching Al (Sobotka) doing the ice, the players and the things that have come into the building here," Wawrzyniak said. "We used to have Arena Football that came in here, the Detroit Drive and we had the Detroit Rockers and then we had other stuff starting to come in here, we had the Junior Wings, they were first called the Detroit Ambassadors."

When he walks out of the Joe for the last time, he knows he'll be sad, but he was also sad when he walked out of the Olympia for the last time.

"At first I did miss the Olympia, but after being here for so many years I got used to it," Wawrzyniak said. "It's a nice place (Joe Louis) and it's going to be hard if we do go to the brand new arena, I'll be so used to this building. I hope I get used to that building."

Al Sobotka - 46 years of service

Everybody knows Al Sobotka or at least we think we do.

Sobotka is the Joe's Zamboni driver turned octopi twirler, a master barbecuer and a significant part of Red Wings folklore.

But there's another part to the Sobotka tale.

"I was in high school, going to Denby. Unfortunately, because of some hard times I needed a job and that's where I ended up working, midnights at Olympia Stadium," Sobotka said. "It was summer of '71, July. I was a junior. I was 17. I got hired on July 23, I actually I got hired by Gordie Howe's brother Vern; he was the superintendent of the building back then."

His job was a little bit of everything at the beginning of what would turn out to be a long and fulfilling career.

"Sweeping, mopping, doing changeovers, general maintenance, different events from wrestling to roller derby to some concerts, ice shows, all similar events to what we have here," Sobotka recalls. "Fact, that whole summer the Jackson Five played there, 1971, I believe it was.

"They came in to do a concert. I remember the whole family walking in to backstage, it was kind of hilarious. But they were all nice."  

After being on the midnight shift for almost two years, Sobotka worked his way up to the day shift, where he started to learn every facet of the ice and he became acquainted with the Zamboni.

"I was starting to learn to drive the Zamboni slowly," Sobotka said. "Back then it was kind of tight (the Zamboni drivers), the guys that drove it, maybe they're going to say the same thing about me, I just like doing it myself for that reason. But I did learn and that's where I am now."

His source of pride is the ice at Joe Louis, which is considered one of the best surfaces in the NHL. It is Sobotka's baby, but he'd be the first to tell you that maintaining the ice surface is a team effort.

"You have to give a lot of credit to our engineers here, they're the ones that try to control the temperature the best way they can with what we have here," said Sobotka. "They do a fabulous job on running the air, whatever it takes. "There's an art (Zamboni driving) to doing the ice itself by the amount you cut and the speed you drive, how much water you lay down. All those little things matter out there when you're doing the ice."

Perhaps the most difficult aspect to comprehend about the ice at the Joe is that it's only an inch thick and it is usually covered - not taken out - when other events move into Joe Louis.

When the ice is taken out, it's shaved down by the Zamboni to the cement surface underneath the ice.

The ice is taken out maybe twice a year during the Wings season and when it's put back in, it's a delicate process, including repainting the ice.

"Everything is hand-painted each time. The way the process goes is you freeze the floor, you take the fire hose out, you seal the floor with a couple layers, kind of levels the floor off," Sobotka said. "Then we usually put four layers of white paint with a fire hose. Then you seal that again, put a little water on it and then you start laying out all your stencils for the logos for Hockeytown, for lines, everything. Everything is hand-painted on this ice surface.

"Then you put more water on, which usually is about another 12 hours of flooding, we call it, with the fire hose. From the time we put the first flood on, usually 24 hours you can go and then skate on it."

As notable as the ice surface is, Sobotka will always be known for twirling an octopus over his head when a hyped-up Red Wings fan tosses it onto the ice, usually just before and during timeouts of a playoff game.

It has become a rite of passage to many fans, but as with most traditions, it was unplanned and began rather innocently.

"I don't know what happened. Never imagined it, never," Sobotka said about what turned into an international phenomenon. "I never figured it would go so far. It was around early '90s, I believe it was the half lockout year when we did go to the finals and that's when the octopus really took off and everybody just loved it, from the NHL to our ownership.

"I was kind of encouraged by people to do some of this. Because it was good. You see 20,000 people stand up and cheer for me, I don't know. I mean, I'm ecstatic about it and very grateful for the publicity.

"Everybody thinks I'm getting paid for it. No, I'm not. I might be the Red Wing mascot, I guess, since we don't have one. I took over for Mo Cheese and the Winger a long time ago. I think I'm better than both of them."

Sobotka has many hockey memories about the Joe, including Gordie Howe's return for the All-Star game, the Wings' first Stanley Cup in 1997, countless relationships with players, coaches and fans, but he also has many recollections about the other events at Joe Louis and one involves his beloved Zamboni.

"The Drive was a big draw here, the soccer, the lacrosse," said Sobotka. "We used to have the WWE wrestling when I gave Stone Cold a little lesson on how to drive the Zamboni.

"That was pretty comical. But he did a good job. The space that he had to go through, it was unreal, how he got through it, didn't tear anything down, a few little items. Yeah, the wrestling, they give a lot of love to Joe Louis Arena, the WWE people love this place.

"The 1980 Republican convention was phenomenal here, a lot of work. All the concerts that came through, from Prince to Seger to Kid Rock to you name it, a lot of favorites. I can't just say one."

Soon Sobotka will be shutting off the lights and locking the doors at Joe Louis Arena for the final time.

He will be full of emotion, but he knows he has a job waiting for him at Little Caesars Arena.  

"The reflection on this building, yeah, I'm going to miss a lot of it, no doubt about it. Just the closeness. The new building will take a lot of getting used to, just like when we came over from Olympia to here," Sobotka said. "As far as I'm concerned, it's still a great old building. I don't care what people say about calling it a dump or anything. This place is fabulous to me.

"I never expected to last 46 seasons. I'm glad I didn't pursue some other opportunities. I'm glad I stayed here. It's steady work, a lot of work. It involves a lot here but we also have some fun, too.

"I have no regrets on anything that I've done at all. There's nothing you can do about it. I just keep working. That's what I'm here for.

Jeffrey Gondek - 39 years of service

George Gondek had a plan for his son, Jeffrey.  

An employee of Olympia Entertainment for close to twenty years, George saw a job opportunity for his son, a lifelong Red Wings fan, and he encouraged Jeff to apply for any position with Olympia, especially with a new arena on the horizon.

"I originally hired in with Goldman Advertising at Cobo Hall as just a grunt laborer, knowing that was the year before they were building the stadium (Joe Louis Arena) and my dad just said, 'Get your foot in the door, get into the union and hopefully you'll get in at the Joe,' and that's how it worked," Jeff Gondek said.

"I had about 18 months of seniority before they opened this place. I applied for merchandising, which is where I've been since day one. I enjoy dealing with customers and selling stuff that people are passionate about, Red Wing jerseys are easy to sell to Red Wing fans, right? It's kind of a no-brainer job and I enjoy it.

"My dad also worked down here, so we got to work together. That was kind of huge. I'd pick him up and we'd drive together, it was good quality time, father and son."

Today, Gondek works in the pro shop, selling mostly high-end items such as Wings jerseys and collectables, but he had to pay his dues along the way. He just wasn't handed the keys to the pro shop.

"I didn't get this pro shop job till after developing. I had to take the discount stand first, you had to work your way up type of thing," Gondek said.

Working the discount stand, he came across mostly merchandise that didn't capture the imagination of the fans. Gondek quickly learned what they liked.

When asked what item looked like a good idea on paper but just didn't connect with the fans, he replies without hesitation.

"Rabbit's feet, buttons with a little chain on them with a rabbit's foot - Go Wings! It sounded like a great idea because rabbit's feet are a good luck symbol, what a bust," Gondek said. "I think we tried to get two dollars for them at the start and then we were selling them for a quarter off a table on the corner here at the end just trying to get rid of them.

"We kept it pretty simple back then; it was just a T-shirt, a jersey and a pennant. Then we had pucks for every team, which was huge. It's something we don't do anymore.

"You can't come in and buy any other team's paraphernalia of any kind, but back then you just wanted people to buy stuff so you could get a St. Louis puck and a pennant and things like that."

As people who made the move over from the Olympia began to retire, Gondek saw the chance to move up the ranks and he soon waved goodbye to the discount table.

"It goes by seniority, so as people from Olympia left, my seniority allowed me to get into an actual permanent stand and five of us as a family kind of took over the west portable stand and worked every third game," Gondek said. "They only needed two people in a stand at a time and we sold pretty much everything then and now it's starting to get a little bit bigger, we're getting into the '80s and Stevie's (Yzerman) here and we're winning a little bit."

Gondek was living a dream. He was spending time with his dad, watching the Red Wings play and making a little cash because whether the Wings were playing well or not, their fans couldn't get enough Wings stuff.

While he was working at the west portable stand, Gondek had an epiphany.

"I decided that my passion was more about watching games than selling merchandise and due to seniority, a position opened up and I moved to programs and in programs you only sell through the first period," Gondek revealed. "You cash out, so guess what? Here I am back again on the wall (standing room) for every second and third period, how cool is that!

"Instead of spending $50 for a ticket, I'm making $50 (from selling programs), so I'm a hundred dollars ahead is the way I looked at it."

Unfortunately, the Red Wings stopped selling programs in 2008, so Gondek had to find another job.

"So I decided that the no-brainer job was to start working in the pro shop because no matter what, people are going to come in and buy a jersey. That's the easiest sale in the place," Gondek said.

Soon an authentics store was opened and Gondek, a self-professed memorabilia geek, was overjoyed. He thought, "This is me. I can relate to these customers."

Similar to Al Sobotka, Gondek has many hockey memories at the Joe.

Obviously, his all-time favorite moment is witnessing Steve Yzerman hoisting the Stanley Cup for the first time in 42 years.

It was something that Gondek was hoping to see, but at times seeds of doubt crept into his otherwise optimistic mind.   

He also has many memories of the fans, not just hockey fans.

Gondek has sold merchandise during hockey games, concerts and wrestling events and he doesn't hesitate to rate the different fan bases.

"The hockey crowd is the upper echelon of the three, it's not even close. You can hand them a jersey and go wait on another person, knowing that they're not going to walk off with that jersey," Gondek said. "Your rock-n-rollers, you have to work them pretty fast, work them pretty hard, you have to be cautious of them walking away on you, but your wrestling crowd is just hard to explain.

"They'll spend their last 20 bucks on a wrestling souvenir, knowing that they don't even have enough money to probably get to work tomorrow morning gas-wise for their pick-up truck, but they are going to buy that souvenir. Those are your die-hard fans.

"When we work wrestling, we sell everything. They bring it in and they take nothing back with them, we sell it all that day. On the way out they're mad at us because we run out of things. 'You still got the belts?' No, we've been sold out for three hours."

Out of all the interactions that Gondek has experienced with customers, there is one that he still thinks about and leaves him flabbergasted.

"The one thing that blows me away the most is we use to sell a Stone Cold Steve Austin 'F Finger.' A big, old foam finger," Gondek said. "This guy walks in with his four kids and says, 'Give me four of those foam fingers,' and they're like 10-12-year-old kids and they're $15 apiece - 'here's sixty dollars, sir, here's your three twenties' and he walks away with his kids and four F Fingers."

Gondek has had a full career and a lifetime of memories while being employed at Joe Louis.

Though he is looking forward to being at Little Caesars Arena, he knows that his eyes will become watery when he walks out of the Joe for the very last time.

"It's definitely going to be emotional, for sure. Just so many great memories here that I'll take with me. It's inevitable to move on. But walking out for the last time you bet I'm going to be shedding tears," Gondek said. "I shed tears for Mr. I's moment of silence, I didn't work that game. Being a fan and taking it all in, I was thinking that it's not going to be easy (saying farewell to the Joe). It's going to be difficult.

"The main thing was the camaraderie with my dad, that was the hugest thing, the father-son connection."

Pamela Janiec - 39 years of service

Imagine being a 15-year-old teenager and as you are sitting in class, out of the blue an opportunity to work for the Red Wings and Olympia Entertainment falls into your lap.

Welcome to the world of Pam Janiec.

Since her high school days, Janiec has worked for Olympia Entertainment and truly feels that it's part of her extended family.

"It was Olympia Stadium Corporation at that time, I was 15 sitting in school and they made an announcement they were hiring at Olympia, so of course I went for an interview and I did not get it," Janiec said. "I didn't get the first job but within a week, they had called me and offered me a position at the offices at Olympia as a switchboard operator, so I was a switchboard operator until 1978 when I graduated from high school."

After graduation, Janiec was offered a similar position at Cobo, where she stayed until Joe Louis Arena opened.

She was part of the ticket department and as a young lady fresh out of high school, she enthusiastically approached her job and absorbed everything that came her way.   

Once the move was made to Joe Louis, the door of opportunity swung open for Janiec and she walked right through it.

"I still was with ticket information at that time," Janiec recalled about her early days at the Joe. "I helped install the very first telephone system here, which was the Dimension 800. I was the person who was handing out the telephone numbers. I purchased the first fax machine we ever had here, which was a thermal paper fax machine.

"There are so many different things. I did go into the switchboard and then I started to wander into being the receptionist for a half of the day and finally I was asked to come in and join the purchasing department.

"So, I worked purchasing half a day, accounts payable the other half, kind of left the switchboard behind, stayed in the purchasing department for many years until they created office services for me."

During her stay in the purchasing department, Janiec became aware of the needs of every department associated with the Olympia Entertainment operation.

"I love the purchasing part of it, to go in and try and find the best product for our company. At that time we were still on typewriters, we didn't have computers," Janiec said. "So I had to hand write every P.O. (purchase order) or type every P.O. out for every department in this building.

"I really grew at that time just to see how the company runs. How it starts from the beginning from the purchasing to the payment part of it. It has just been very exciting."

Janiec's mother passed away and a friend invited her on a small vacation to New Orleans. On their way back, they were in a serious car accident that kept Janiec out a year.

A few weeks before she was to return to work, she was taken out to lunch because they wanted to know where she wanted to go, what her next step within the company would be.

"The company was right there with me (during her recovery), sending me lunches and my family dinners, flowers and visits and just dropping in to see if I was good," Janiec said. "Then I came back and that's when office services was created, kind of starting back to where I started when we were doing the switchboard. We were also taking care of mail.

"Right now I'm still in office services. I enjoy every single moment every single day. It's different every day from the concerts coming in to helping Paul Boyer with his equipment, getting his stuff in and out of here.

"I also do all of the office services, help with the copiers, help with the recycling, help taking care of the vending machines, just different things. I help with a lot of different things to help the colleagues be a little less stressed and not to worry about how they're going to mail something or how they're going to get something delivered, I do that for them."

But what really stands out about Janiec is her sincere appreciation for her colleagues, Joe Louis Arena and Olympia Entertainment.

"When I joined Olympia, the arms were always open towards me; they have been nothing but very kind to me through my whole life," Janiec said. "When my parents died, they were right there beside me. My father died first, they gave me money towards his funeral.

"This place, even though it was Bruce Norris the first couple of years I worked, and then Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch came in and they were the same way. Just very caring, open to listening to anything I might have had to say.

"I don't know, but I just knew this was the place where I would be for the rest of my life from the get-go.

"We had a lot of fun from the beginning. Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch were here quite a bit when they first purchased the Red Wings. Mrs. Ilitch was the accounting girl and I worked in accounting at that time. It's just been awesome. The time went by so fast. I cannot believe that I walked in here as a 15-year-old and I'm now 57."

Janiec has experienced so much during her career at Joe Louis; her memories reflect the whole spectrum of the grand old barn's history.

"I'd say that the '96-97 team is probably my favorite team ever," Janiec said. "That is probably my best memory ever. To see that Stanley Cup for the first time and the Ilitch family allowed us to touch it and to hold it over our heads and take pictures and celebrate with the Red Wings. I wasn't sure I'd ever see a Stanley Cup win and then boom, boom, boom, here they all come. It was just amazing.

"When they gave us our Stanley Cup rings, that was one of the most happiest times, I just never thought I'd have a Stanley Cup ring, who knew they'd buy all of us a Stanley Cup ring? It was amazing, just amazing! There have been many, many moments but that first Stanley Cup was my wow moment."

As the time approaches for Janiec to say her last farewell to Joe Louis Arena, she's more grateful to the building than melancholy and she has a message for the fans.   

"It has been my pleasure working here my whole life. I have met most of my best friends here, my lifelong friends," Janiec said. "This is a great building for hockey. I just hope they (the fans) think kindly of us, we've been here a long time and we've done the best we could and I hope they've enjoyed their stay with us.

"I hope they come with us to the Little Caesars Arena."

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