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Ghosts of Joe Louis Arena follow Red Wings to Little Caesars Arena

On my way to the new building, I stopped at the old one. Joe Louis Arena sat alone in the autumn sun. I entered easily and walked down the mostly empty corridors, stacked with chairs, crates of paper, old banners and posters. It looked like someone was moving out.

Correction: Had moved out.

“Come to gloat?” came a voice from the rafters.

“No,” I said. “Just reminisce.”

In a few hours, the Detroit Red Wings would take the ice against the Minnesota Wild at a gorgeous new arena less than three miles away, surrounded by restaurants, bars, retail shops, office buildings, even a plaza where folks without tickets could gather, European style, to watch events on a massive screen.

Outside the Joe there was only construction equipment, highway ramps, and concrete.

“Bet the players don’t have a nice close parking lot like they did here,” the voice said.
“Actually,” I said, “they park underneath the arena and come up through a private entrance.”

“Oh, yeah?” the voice said.

“Yeah,’’ I said. “Sorry.”

I walked to the locker rooms, at the end of the corridor. The visitor’s room was vacant, the lights off. I curled back to the Red Wings area. That door was locked. Shut up tight.

In years past, players would already be here, on the bikes, by their lockers, working out, getting extra ice time. Now, there was only locked doors and stacked chairs that covered half the names on the wall outside the entrance, the wall that commemorated the 1996-97 Stanley Cup-winning roster.

“Do they have a nice little players lounge like we have here?” the voice said. “And a room for the players’ wives halfway down the concourse?”

“Actually,” I said, “the new locker room is like its own hotel. It has lounges, food areas, cooks, couches, the family all gets to hang around in massive spaces. Ken Holland told me that he saw Luke Glendening there this morning around 8:30 and he said, ‘There’s no reason to go home.’ Holland also said he had two eggs over easy and some toast.”

“Oh, yeah?” the Joe voice said, glumly.

“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry.”

Formerly hallowed ground

I walked out to the Joe Louis ice. Or what used to be the Joe Louis ice. It was just floor now. I moved without slipping to the center ice – er, floor.

“They melted me,” the Joe voice said.

“I see that.”

“No skaters, no ice. No point.”

“I guess not.”

In years past, this was hallowed ground.  This frozen surface saw Stanley Cup champions, four in an 11-year run. You couldn’t get near it on opening night. But here it was now, covered with pallets and water bottles and mobile refrigerators and a Dippin’ Dots cart. I looked up to the rafters. That was the strangest view of all.

“They took ‘em all,” the voice said.

“Every banner?”

“Every banner. I’m just a metal skeleton now.”

In a few hours those banners would be unfurled at Little Caesars Arena. They would come down after a long, dazzling video on a 5,100 square-foot, center-hung scoreboard, a video that looked like an Imax movie, stunning color, amazing clarity. The Red Wings’ banners share the ceiling with banners from the Pistons, who begin their season in the new arena soon.

“Basketball and hockey in the same building?” the Joe said. “Hmmph. We did that already.”

It’s true. Back in 1984, the Pistons played a playoff game at the Joe, when the Silverdome, their normal home, was covered in dirt from a motorcross event. Still, the two franchises sharing a building – and banner space in the rafters – that is a novel idea.

“Bet those basketball players are gonna have a hard time fitting into the hockey locker room,” the voice said.

“Actually, they have their own locker room,” I said.

“Small?”

“Huge.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Sorry.”

Less sports arena, more destination

A few hours later, I was in LCA, waving through the sea of red sweaters, the Detroit fans boisterous, touristy, taking laps around the concourse before the season opening puck was dropped.

The new building was a sight. Spacious hallways, atrium glass, statues, an LED screen seemingly every three steps, even a massive video display that hangs on an angle and captures you as you walk towards it, then superimposes real Red Wings players skating around you, like the end of the ride in Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, where a ghost joins your cart.

It’s less a sports arena than a destination, a small indoor city that opens to the outside through bars and restaurants you can frequent even on non-game nights. The sound system is incredible. The seats are cherry red. Even the bathrooms have tile on the walls fit for a showroom, with, yes, LED screens so you won’t miss anything.

I asked Holland if he was at all nostalgic for the Joe.

“Well, on the one hand, Joe Louis Arena was home to some incredible players and incredible memories,” Holland said, “memories that you’ll carry for the rest of your life.

But on the other hand, when you come in here for the first time — “he began to laugh —  “you don’t really have a desire to go back.”

Go back? You can’t go back. Sports always has a next season, a new crop, a reigning champion facing new hungry challengers. It’s the nature of the beast. Teams don’t retire.

Only their buildings do.

And so, at 7:47 p.m., the first octopus landed on the new LCA ice, before Karen Newman had finished her national anthem, and as the new building gleamed in bright neon light, with images on the roof and projections on the floor, the old building sat off the Lodge freeway, empty and quiet, lit by moonlight, awash in memory.

Time marches on. I ran into Kris Draper, the former Wing, who helped design the new locker rooms at LCA. Despite the spacious opulence of the weight rooms, lounges, restaurants – even a separate practice ice rink down below – Draper had suggested an intimate locker room, ala the Joe, where players could look at one another and feel the team passion, the group desire to overcome and win.

And that’s what was done.

The heart of the Joe, transplanted to a new chest.

“Being around the guys, so you can see everybody, so you can still have a conversation with a teammate across the room, that’s the coolest part of being in a locker room,” Draper said. “It was important to keep that.”

I asked Draper, who is as dazzled by the new arena as the rest of us, if given a choice between coming to a gleaming new edifice or a rickety building steeped in tradition — like JLA — which he would prefer.

“Well, I know a lot of younger players will love this place. And I’m happy for all the guys who get to play here. Me, I would kind of choose the Joe. I was a blue-collar hockey player, wanted to grind, get out there, get dirty, so the Joe was perfect for me.”

I nodded and we both moved on. But I promised myself, on my way up the Lodge, that I would slow down and yell those words out the window.

On a night of the new place, it might make the old place feel good.

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