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Little Caesars Arena blends tradition with innovation

Red Wings Alumni awed by Detroit's majestic new rink

by Arthur J. Regner @ArthurJRegner /

DETROIT -- During the Farewell to the Joe festivities last weekend, a group of Detroit Red Wings alumni took a step into the future.

On Sunday morning, hours before the final curtain was about to be drawn on Joe Louis Arena, more than two dozen Wings alumni along with some family members took a tour of Little Caesars Arena, currently under construction.

Many of these former Wings experienced the best moments of their careers at the Joe and if they were melancholy about the pending swan song of the old barn, it was soon erased by how blown away they were by the team's future home.

"It's very impressive; it's very impressive to see everything," Wings legend Nick Lidstrom said. "Everything seems to be so thought out too, they thought of everything in this building.

"It will be a great setup for the players in the locker room, the lounge, the practice rink and the big main building as well, so it will be a perfect fit for the players."

Lidstrom wasn't alone in his praise of Little Caesars Arena.

The extensive tour showcased the entire building from top to bottom and culminated with a group photo taken at the future spot of center ice.

"I think it's going to be really loud for a visiting goalie coming in here; it's going to be ridiculously loud," former Wings goalie Manny Legace said. "It looks awesome - everything goes straight up; they did it right. It's going to be a fun building to play in.

"If you look at all the new buildings now, everything is just spread out, it goes away, it goes away from the game. They're building straight up from the ice, it goes right up in a hurry and it's steep and you're right on top of it. There is not going to be a bad seat in this place."

Legace's observation is spot on.

Though it still has more than five months of construction left before it's completed, Little Caesars Arena is beginning to take shape and it's apparent that the building's intent is to pay a little homage to the Wings' two previous homes, Joe Louis Arena and Olympia Stadium.

From the red brick on the exterior of the building, which conjures up the image of 'The Old Red Barn' of Olympia to the rink's interior, which was designed to capture the noise level of the Joe, Little Caesars Arena will be keen on tradition.

"Somewhat intentional," said Alicia Washeleski, the project director for Little Caesars Arena who works for Plante Moran CRESA, on incorporating some of the old with the new. "You look especially at the north side and the west side on the piazza (square or marketplace), you'll see much more details that kind of harkens back to Olympia, some little detailing in the vents that are at the top all come from Olympia."

Washeleski revealed it was the noise level at the Joe that the planners really wanted to replicate and try to make the rink even louder.

As soon as you hit the main ice surface you immediately see the stands go up, not out, which will allow the sound to be contained inside the arena.

"That's what I noticed when you're sitting right in the middle of the rink, it seems that everybody is on top of you," former Wings defenseman Steve Duchesne said. "It's going to be fantastic for the sound and the lights. I can't wait to see a game. It has to be loud; the fans are so loud here."

"There was a lot of benchmarking done in the design of this," Washeleski said. "They went out to every other NHL stadium, new or old, did interviews of what's good, what's bad, what works well and tried to take the best parts of everything and put it in here, so you'll see that."

As the players toured the new arena, they were impressed with the extras that will be provided to the players.

"Walking through the dressing room, seeing all the amenities they have now. The wives room, the practice rink," Legace said. "We used to have to get dressed at the Joe, get in our cars and drive over to City Rink and practice, get back in our cars. It was kind of funny seeing a bunch of guys driving around with hockey helmets on and hockey gear and now they just get to walk right out the other side of their dressing room and they're right out on the ice."

"I thought it was going to be bigger, no I'm just kidding," Duchesne joked. "It's beautiful, so gorgeous, the locker room, 20,000 square feet, so the boys are spoiled. Hopefully this will help win a lot of games."

Construction has been right on schedule, with the only real time-consuming alterations to the building being to accommodate the Detroit Pistons.

"Sixty-two door frames had to go from seven-foot tall to eight-foot tall because you have the height of the NBA players coming in and at seven-foot some of them had to duck," said Chris Becker, senior project manager on the job for Plante Moran CRESA. "From how they get into the building all the way back to their locker room, they had to increase the door size.

"They had to redo the locker rooms where the Pistons are going; they had to redo the locker room of the visiting NBA teams.

"There is a bunker suite for Mr. Gores (Pistons owner Tom Gores) and a few other areas where they used to have storage, they had to build new places for storage."

Becker says that Little Caesars Arena is on the cutting edge when it comes to innovation.

"The tension grid and the lights above the main playing surface, no other arena has it in the United States - for all we know, in the world. It is something that is brand new to this type of an arena," Becker said. "They have a freight elevator in here that is 15' by 20'; you can drive a car into it and take it places (inside the arena). That's all innovation.

"They want the newest, the best things in the arena and there's a number of things like that. Take the practice ice being underneath the new plaza out there; there are only a few arenas in the United States that have two sheets of ice.

"So that's part of the innovation that they want here, they want to make it the best, they want to make it the newest, the most up-to-date. It's really nice."

Several of the Red Wings alumni agreed with Becker's assessment that once it's completed, Little Caesars Arena will be the standalone arena in not only the NHL, but in the world of sports.

"Right at the top," is how Gerard Gallant, former Wing and coach of the Vegas Golden Knights, responded when asked to rate Little Caesars Arena. "They went around and looked at the other buildings and took the best of the other buildings so you know it's going to be gorgeous.

"We just looked at the locker room and all the new stuff that they are going to have for that club. I think their players and their staff are going to be so excited to get in that building.

"The fans are going to be right around the players. There's going to be a glassed-in area where players from both teams will walk by them. Again, I just think it's going to be gorgeous."

Some fans may be a bit confused about the configuration of the new place. There is a perception that it is an open arena where fans can walk around and see the action.

"It's not true at all, there's a few clubs (concession stands) at each end that you'll be able to see the ice, but for the most part they have removed the view directly onto the ice from the clubs," Washeleski said. "They want people to go get their drinks, get their food and get back in their seats; they want it to be a wall of red (inside the arena).

"Now you have the surrounding buildings, there will be restaurants and all on the first floor with offices above it. Again, the idea is that people will be able to actually flow in and out of that while there is an event going on.

"People from the outside, they can't get to the bowl themselves but they could be sitting there and kind of be part of the atmosphere."

Becker says that fans may be forgetting that the Little Caesars Arena is a closed-in place, because the bowl is surrounded by buildings and an atrium.

"Part of that is you have concerts in here where you want it all dark and in hockey and basketball you don't want light coming in from other sources," said Becker. "You can't walk around like Comerica and see the game from walking all around. You've got to go to your seat.

"It is part of what they really designed for because they want people in their seats, but you also don't want that light coming in at concerts and other events that you have where you want darkness inside of the arena space."

Once Little Caesars Arena is completed, Washeleski and Becker will have mixed emotions; they each have grown so close to the entire process, but they are extremely proud of the building and they believe the fan experience will be second to none.

"The whole District Detroit and everything that is going on down here, it's going to be cool. If you don't have seat, you can come down here and be part of the atmosphere. It is going to be a very different feel," Washeleski said. "You only go to Joe Louis because you have a seat, now you're going to be able to come down here with all the restaurants and bars and all that is surrounding the area, it's going to be a different feel going to the game. It's going to be much more of a party atmosphere is the hope."

Becker is in complete agreement with Washeleski.

When fans walk into the arena for the first time they'll be stunned. It will be unlike anything they've ever experienced before in a sports venue.

"It's such an upgrade from Joe Louis. You have stairwells and elevators at the four main entrances coming off the street. You don't have to go up to go down," Becker said. "You walk in and you walk down to your seat or you take an elevator up, you don't have to take stairs everywhere.

"You have so much more access, there are so many more restrooms. You don't have to wait in those crazy, long lines that you had at the Joe. No troughs, and not only that, on the premium levels you have a drink rail in their bathrooms.

"In the stalls for the ladies and for the guys there is a drink rail. You can go up to the urinal and set your beer down instead of holding it in your mouth or however you had to hold it.

"That's all part of the innovation and then you take how close the fan is to the playing surface like the Joe has it. It will be loud, it will verberate, and it will be such a great experience."

Several of the Red Wings alumni expressed a desire to come out of retirement so they could play at Little Caesars Arena.

However, a former Wing, whom many believe could still play, was not compelled to change his mind.

"I would have loved to play in this building," Lidstrom said, "but I know my time has come by."

Last Sunday we said farewell to our old friend Joe Louis Arena and in a few short months we will say hello to Little Caesars Arena, which will begin another epic journey for players, fans and the city of Detroit.  

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