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End of an Era: Wild, NHL Say Goodbye to 'The Joe'

Overflowing with history, Joe Louis Arena is in its final days before Wings move across town

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers /

Wild Says Goodbye to The Joe

End of an Era: Wild, NHL Say Goodbye to The Joe

Jonas Brodin, Andrew Brunette and Scott Stevens share stories about Joe Louis Arena as its final season comes to a close

  • 02:01 •

DETROIT -- On the western banks of the Detroit River, a few hundred yards from the shores of Canada, sits one of the NHL's oldest arenas.

If you've never seen Joe Louis Arena in person, you better get here quick -- the building will be reduced to rubble later this year, a few weeks after the Detroit Red Wings, its main tenant, move across town to the sparkling Little Caesars Arena.

The Minnesota Wild was one of the final five opponents to play at "The Joe," the unassuming gray barn that looks almost the same today as it did when it opened in 1979.

'A good gig'

For Brian Murphy, walking into Joe Louis is still something to be cherished. Watching a game next to him at this arena is akin to getting a tour of The Louvre from Picasso himself.

Murphy, now a columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press, once covered the Wild regularly as a beat writer during the franchise's early years. Before relocating to the Twin Cities, Murphy wrote for his hometown paper, the Detroit Free Press, working the cops beat in what was once one of the nation's most violent cities. 

As most journalists tend to be after two-plus decades in the business, Murphy has developed a cynicism hardened over years of clichés and on-field meltdowns. Still, he smiles like a little kid on Christmas morning when he talks about Joe Louis Arena.

"I saw so many games here. I fell for the game here," Murphy said. "My dad took me here when [the Red Wings] were terrible and good seats were always available. Just good memories of seeing guys that weren't that great. I saw Steve Yzerman debut in 1983. I didn't know what he was going to become."

One of Murphy's favorite stories to tell is the time he worked as an usher at the arena, patrolling Section 211 for an entire season. In an ironic twist, the section Murphy worked is now directly in front of the press box, the perch from where he now watches games at the arena.

A student at Wayne State University at the time, Murphy couldn't believe they were actually paying him $20 to watch hockey -- and occasionally watch the folks in his section.

"That's back when $20 was worth something," Murphy says with a laugh. "I had to do no work and watch free hockey. It was a good gig."

'State of the art'

During their heyday, opponents knew they were in for a battle when they came to Joe Louis Arena. 

Eliminated from postseason contention earlier this month, the Red Wings will snap a streak of 25 consecutive seasons in the playoffs. During their time in the building, Detroit has won the Stanley Cup on four occasions and played for the championship two other times. The Red Wings have won 16 division championships over that span, which will make moving the plethora of banners in the arena's rafters across time a tedious job.


Nobody knows that better than Wild assistant coach Scott Stevens, who played 22 seasons in the NHL and captained the New Jersey Devils to a Stanley Cup win over the Red Wings in 1995.

"They were always one of the better teams to play against, so it was a fun place to come play hockey, in Detroit, with all of the history here," Stevens said. 

Stevens' first experience in Joe Louis came in 1980, when he was a 15-year-old attending the NHL All-Star Game. The building was still shiny then, and save for a coat of paint or two, it still hasn't changed much.

"It was a pretty awesome feeling," Stevens said. "It was brand new, state of the art, probably the nicest arena at the time. But time flies by and it's time for a new rink."

Stevens, who has a deep appreciation for the history of the sport, said the Wings' status as an Original Six franchise always makes the stop special. While the old Detroit Olympia -- Joe Louis' predecessor -- was always the rink compared to the Boston Gardens, the Chicago Stadiums and the Montreal Forums, The Joe was a part of the next era of buildings around the league.

When the Red Wings moved in, they were one of the worst teams in the NHL. But within a decade, Detroit began winning division titles and competing for Stanley Cups, which made a ticket at Joe Louis Arena difficult to come by.

It made the feat accomplished by Stevens' Devils, who marched into the Motor City and won Games 1 and 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, all the more memorable.

"They felt confident they could beat us, but we were a pretty determined team," Stevens said. "We played very well, won two here, won two at home and won four straight, something that's not easy to do in the Stanley Cup Final."

A 'unique experience'

The only current Wild player to make his NHL debut at Joe Louis is defenseman Jonas Brodin, who played his first game there on Jan. 25, 2013. 

"My dream came true," Brodin said. "In that building, there's a lot of history there. Especially for me, coming from Sweden, we had a lot of Swedish guys who played there."

Among the legendary Swedes who played their home games at Joe Louis was defenseman Niklas Lidstrom, perhaps the greatest Swedish player of all time and someone Brodin admired as a kid.

"A lot of guys [I grew up with] had Detroit as their favorite team," Brodin said. "It was a pretty cool experience."

Andrew Brunette, the Wild's hockey operations advisor, didn't debut in Detroit, but he played plenty of games there over the course of his career.

In the early days of the Wild franchise, when Detroit was tearing up some of the best teams in the NHL, trips into the building were often rough ones. 

With the overtime loss Sunday, Minnesota's final record at the rink is 8-17-3, with much of that damage being done in the Wild's first few campaigns.

"Unfortunately, I don't have many good memories," Brunette said. "They were such a good team. We barely had the puck."

Despite its outdated confines, cramped spaces and, perhaps most notably, its funny smells, one thing is certain: There aren't any other buildings like Joe Louis Arena -- and there likely never will be again.

"The building had its quirks: The boards are really lively, the fans are right on top of you, the dressing room used to be really cramped," Brunette said. "There's a lot of memories from playing in there, but so many of the times, you're on the [losing] end of the stick there.

"[But] the atmosphere in the building, the love and passion of the fans and the hockey team ... being on the same ice as some of the all-time greats ... It was a pretty unique experience."

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