Joe Louis Arena

Farewell to the Joe

It’s been a small, but long-standing regret that I never made it to Joe Louis Arena. Right now it feels like a much larger one. In 2017 the Red Wings will play their final game at the Joe before moving on to greener, more modern pastures. 

For the 2017-2018 season Little Caesars Arena will open, part of Detroit’s efforts to revitalize the downtown core. With the Tigers, Lions, Wings, and Pistons (who will also move into the new arena, from suburban Auburn Hills) now all within a few blocks of each other, the inner city has become Detroit’s vibrant entertainment nucleus and, therefore, a destination. This is a good thing, of course. The infamous fall of Detroit was perhaps the expected cost of refusing to let go of the American Dream, but the city is still full of amazing history, art, and life. It’s due for and deserves a comeback.

For those of us who gravitate towards old-school soul, however, the loss of the Joe is a big one. Though not the most beautiful building in the world, the Red Wings’ long-standing home is hockey. No frills, all character. Most who learned to skate as a child can remember the rugged build of their local rink and its unique features. The Joe — with its boxy shape, limited facilities, and lack of windows — is like a small-town rink, but with an NHL-level seating capacity.

Opened in 1979, Joe Louis Arena replaced the Olympia, an imposing fieldhouse ruled by Gordie Howe. The steady, futuristic advancements of architectural design are evident when you look at the Red Wings’ three homes. We’ve seen the move from Romanesque terra cotta to 1970s concrete modernism to glass and steel open concept. For whatever reason hockey, unlike baseball, has not fully embraced the ‘retro’ look when it comes to new stadia. PNC Park and Camden Yards are two ballparks that combine modern amenities and a classic look. Walk through the gates of either and baseball’s traditions come calling back. Most new NHL constructions tend to look like spaceships.

Compared to the recently built Rogers Place in Edmonton and T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, which are about as futuristic as can be, the Wings’ new home is actually a bit of a throwback. The stadium bowl sits within a boxy facade with some brickwork and connects overtop with horizontal steel beams and glass. From street level it could classify as retro. But then there’s the name. “Little Caesars Arena,” a blinding example of the corporate world’s ever-growing involvement in sports.

Joe Louis is a boxing legend, someone who perfectly symbolizes the working-class strength and endurance of Detroit. World heavyweight champion from 1937 to 1949, Louis is seen as one of the first African-Americans to achieve widespread notoriety and acclaim in the United States. He lost only three times in 69 bouts, served in the military, and, being an avid golfer, was also the first African-American to take part in a PGA tour. His name is the perfect match for the city and that stadium.

Many, including myself, feel that “Gordie Howe Arena” would be the best choice for the new building, another ode to a figure legendary in Detroit and across North America. The Wings may put “Hockeytown” at centre ice, but Mr. Hockey put the Wings on the map. And, like Louis, Howe was a tough individual that reflected the city’s image. The Red Wings are an Original Six franchise with an amazing history and deserve to be represented well by their own building.

Still, it will be hard to replace the Joe, no matter the name of the new arena. Joe Louis Arena, cramped and dim, is a product of a different time, when the NHL was not that far off from the everyday charm of low-level hockey. It was never meant to be beautiful building, and yet it was for that very reason. So long, Joe.

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