History hangs from the rafters of Joe Louis Arena, which is in its final year as the no-frills home of the Detroit Red Wings after nearly 40 years.
DETROIT — The entrance says everything.
From any direction, Joe Louis Arena is surrounded mostly by concrete. It is exactly 36 steps to reach the Gordie Howe entrance from street level, and for most of the winter, rock salt grates beneath your steps on the way. Scalpers peddle their extra tickets with frozen breath, and fans huddle waiting for the doors to swing open with thousands of jerseys that nod to the past: Howe, Lindsay, Yzerman, Lidstrom, Datsyuk, Sawchuk.
The people are not here for amenities. And that’s a good thing, because the home of the Detroit Red Wings offers none of them.
They arrive from all corners of Michigan — and from Ontario and Indiana and Ohio — not for the building’s unremarkable features, but for the game inside.
Nothing more, nothing less.
“It’s not a big show around it,” Red Wings captain Henrik Zetterberg has said. “You come in and watch hockey.”
Since 1979, Joe Louis Arena has existed as a throwback to a mostly bygone time when fans watched sporting events without the hint of luxury. There is no giant videoboard that seems more high-definition than real life. The seats are small. The in-arena music selection has been more or less the same since 1995.
The building has a permanent, unmistakeable aroma. No matter the event or time of year, it always smells like an ice rink held a giant kegger that got out of hand exactly six days ago, and nobody bothered to clean after the mayhem.
Joe Louis Arena is not around to charm anyone, and many of its visitors have found that downright charming.
“The simplicity of the building is what was great about it,” former Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman said on his final trip to Joe Louis Arena last week.
Yzerman, now the general manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, knows perhaps better than anyone. He played his entire Hall of Fame career for Detroit, winning three Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe Trophy along the way.
The Joe was home the entire time, and it remains the same as ever. The ice still is among the best surfaces in the hockey world, and it plays fast. The boards are notoriously springy. The fans are loud, and they know the game, though strangely enough, they have not seemed to agree with a single call against the Red Wings in 38 years.
The building is both loved and hated.
But there is no denying its atmosphere.
“All the things that are important to a player, this building had,” Yzerman said.
Joe Louis Arena’s iconic weight will be difficult to replicate. Ronald Reagan accepted the Republican nomination for president there. Gordie Howe earned a four-minute-long ovation there in his last NHL All-Star Game, in 1980, and The Joe held a massive public service full of well-wishers after Howe died in 2016.
Future Red Wings star Brendan Shanahan — and future Wings adversary Joe Sakic — were drafted there in 1987. The 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, infamous for the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, happened there.
The Joe has been a concert and show staple for decades, and no hockey arena has played host to more important games in the past 25 years.
Yzerman blasted a no-freaking-way, double-overtime slapshot over Jon Casey’s right shoulder there in the 1996 playoffs, then lifted Detroit’s first Stanley Cup in 42 years at The Joe the next summer.
Darren McCarty pummeled Claude Lemieux in a legendary brawl there in 1997, and every Red Wings fan will happily tell you: A. Where they were when it happened, and B. That Lemieux deserved every single last punch.
Fans packed the building in 1998 to watch the Red Wings, who were playing the Capitals in Washington, win a repeat Stanley Cup on the arena Jumbotron.
Big Ten and Central Collegiate Hockey Association tournaments, Great Lakes Invitationals, and even Horizon League basketball titles were decided there. The Pittsburgh Penguins won one of the best Game 7s in sports history at The Joe in 2009.
Of the past 21 Stanley Cup champions, four came from Detroit and another six from teams who had no choice but to go through the Red Wings in the playoffs. An additional three conference champions had to play there on the way to the Cup Final.
That is not lost on players of all generations, including and especially players from Detroit’s rival teams in the league.
“It’s always one of those rinks you go into, and it’s just fun, from the morning skate all the way to the game,” Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane said earlier this season. “You always make sure you go out on the bench to take it all in. This is one of my favorite rinks in the league.”
Of course, the term “dump” regularly has been applied to Joe Louis Arena, and not unfairly. The old barn is not to everyone’s liking.
The concourse is narrow and almost always crammed full of people, and the line for the bathrooms is permanently set to “outdoor music festival.” (And because it’s almost gone, a critical secret: the elevated bathrooms always move faster than their on-ground counterparts.)
There are few dining options beyond traditional stadium food, and the best bet might just be to pay double for an in-house Little Caesars pizza.
To say the arena has a press box is at least a little generous — the arena’s press area is actually a hallway atop the second level. But there is both Tim Hortons coffee and a never-ending supply of stale popcorn served out of giant plastic bags, making it the finest press hallway in all of hockey.
The locker rooms are small and cramped, and it’s hard to believe the Red Wings’ weight room — which pales in comparison to most colleges, many high schools, and perhaps your local YMCA — actually serves professional athletes.
And those boards. They’re nightmarish for many opponents, every bit the advantage for Detroit as Fenway Park’s Green Monster is for the Boston Red Sox. Minnesota Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk was the latest victim, struggling all afternoon to read the puck’s bounces on his last trip here.
Former Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom was the unquestioned snake-charmer of the boards, using their ricochet powers for untold assists on home ice. The way the puck plays at The Joe is not like anywhere else.
“It’s probably double the liveliness than anywhere else in the league,” New York Islanders coach Doug Weight, himself a former player, said earlier this year.
The Red Wings will move to a new building called Little Caesars Arena after this season, and Joe Louis Arena eventually will be demolished and its site redeveloped.
It will be nice and new and memorable.
It also will not be the same.
“I don’t think there’s any way to just bring the culture and the history from this building and just move the banners and start something there,” longtime Red Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said, according to NHL.com. “I don’t think it works like that. There’s something special about this rink.”
The people who visited will tell stories about Joe Louis Arena after it is gone because they sensed they were part of something; it’s just a dingy venue, but it became a living, breathing part of people’s lives.
Joe Louis Arena is not the type of friend you bring to a black-tie fund-raiser. It is the friend who is up for a few beers on a weeknight, the type who keeps his rancid hockey equipment in the trunk of his car in case of drop-ins, and the type whose presence is always realized by absence.
The building is galaxies away from perfect, but perfection has never been its aim.
It existed to entertain but never to cater, to be functional but never lavish. The games always were its beating heart.
Nobody bought a ticket to Joe Louis Arena for frills. They bought them for memories.
In that department, The Joe never failed to deliver.
Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman raises the Stanley Cup on June 19, 1998, during a victory rally at The Joe. He won three Stanley Cups during his Hall of Fame career in Detroit. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Ronald Reagan talks at the Republican National Convention in Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena on July 17, 1980. He accepted the Republican nomination for president there. ASSOCIATED PRESS
Tonya Harding, left, and Nancy Kerrigan pose during the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Joe Louis Arena, which are remembered for an attack on Kerrigan’s knee. ASSOCIATED PRESS