A lot of Colorado Avalanche fans might toast a glass of champagne when Joe Louis Arena is reduced to rubble soon. Some of the Avs’ worst memories happened at “The Joe”, including the March 26, 1997, game in which the Detroit Red Wings exacted revenge on Claude Lemieux. Then there was the infamous “Meltdown in Motown”, when the Avs lost 7-0 in Game 7 of the 2002 Western Conference finals.
There is probably more than one longtime Avs fan who might enjoy pushing the button on the first mechanical wrecking ball to hit the place.
Myself, I might get a tear or two in the eyes when I walk out of The Joe for the last time Saturday, along with the rest of the Avalanche. For me, Joe Louis Arena is full of some of my life’s best memories, and very few of them have to do with any of the great, great games the Avs and Red Wings played in the heyday of the wondrous rivalry between the teams. Yes, the hockey on the ice was special, but Joe Louis Arena was a special place to me for other reasons and I’m really going to miss it.
The Joe was the first building I ever worked in as a full-time, staff writer for a major newspaper. It was at the 1995 Stanley Cup Finals between Detroit and the New Jersey Devils. I still remember everything about that first day, June 6, 1995. A flight to Detroit, with a stop in Cleveland. A prop plane from Cleveland to Detroit, which made me terrified but was something I knew I’d have to overcome if I ever wanted to stick around doing this job.
Deplaning in Detroit, where it was something like 100 degrees that day with 100 percent humidity. Sharing a cab to the Crowne Plaza Pontchartrain hotel with Hartford Courant NHL writer Jeff Jacobs, who immediately asked the driver to crank up the AC (just a couple months later, Jacobs would be offered the job as NHL columnist at my paper, but he turned it down. Terry Frei was hired soon after).
Walking from the Pontchartrain to The Joe, about a half-mile trek, took you through Cobo Hall. I couldn’t believe I was actually in Cobo Hall, the site where my favorite band as a kid, Kiss, performed much of their famous Alive! album.
But then I came upon The Joe for the first time. It was a massive concrete structure, and I was just awed by its size. I walked to a part of the arena, a restaurant-club-VIP kind of place on the ice level, where a media day of sorts was taking place, with players and coaches from the Devils and Wings available to talk to at various tables. A press conference with Scotty Bowman soon took place, and as shy as I still was at the time, I remember I asked him a question and all the while kept thinking, “Scotty Bowman is actually talking to me. This can’t be real.”
I remember walking out the back exit of The Joe when it was all over and seeing Devils coach Jacques Lemaire, along with his assistant coaches, standing by the adjacent Detroit River, looking out at the water and, overhearing them a little, strategizing about how to beat the Wings.
That brainstorming session worked, as the Devils swept the Wings. There would be no return trip to Detroit for a Game 5.
Little did I know how many other even more memorable encounters at The Joe would soon be coming my and anybody else connected professionally to the Avalanche, Red Wings and NHL’s way.
We all remember the great games between the teams. It was part of the best rivalry not only in the NHL, but in all of pro sports. In fact, I wrote a book about it all called “Blood Feud”, which I promise will be the only book plug I make the rest of this column. I’ll write more about some of those memories this weekend from Detroit, where I’ll cover Saturday’s Avs-Wings game for BSN.
I’ll post pictures and videos from The Joe, give a kind of travelogue from the day, but let me finish up with a few more of the vivid memories I’ll always have of just The Joe itself.
- The nice, matronly woman who signed people in for the media pre-game meal. She always said the same thing, every time: “If you’d kindly write your name and affiliation, please.” The meal always, but always, featured boxes of Little Caesar’s pizza, and why not? The owner of the Red Wings, Mike Ilitch, made his fortune founding the pizza chain, and I always had a few slices along with the main entree, and this is why I gained about five pounds every trip to The Joe.
- The elevators took forever to come to the main floor, so usually I and most other media people hoofed it up several flights of stairs to the press box up top. Every year, as I got older and “less toned” physically, that trek became tougher.
- Meeting the late Budd Lynch, a genuine hero from World War II (who fought for the Allies for his native Canada). Budd was the public address announcer for many years at The Joe, and his big, booming voice gave the place that much better of an atmosphere. He lost an arm in the war, but that never stopped him from living a full, rich life which he detailed in a fine book that I remain grateful he signed for me.
- I never saw Mike Ilitch much, but one time I was waiting on the elevator with him and his wife, and I introduced myself, saying I covered the Avalanche. I half-expected a snarl in return, but he couldn’t have been nicer. He said he read my stories and that I did a good job, and I was on Cloud Nine from that. The NHL, Detroit and the world are poorer with his passing. He did a lot for his community.
- Seeing the gigantic, smiling image of Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe, on a banner outside the main entrance. It’s a great picture, and it just reminded you, every time, of how much great history the Red Wings have. We’re all poorer from his passing too.
- The Octopi, of course. Before every playoff game, someone tossed one of the dead, foul-smelling animals to the ice. Arena manager Al Slobotka would always run out, pick it up and swirl it over his head. But you knew that already probably. You could always smell those octopi, somehow, near the Zamboni entrance.
- When Sergei Fedorov was married briefly to Anna Kournikova, she would often be waiting for him outside the dressing rooms. The home and visitors’ rooms are fairly close to each other, so visiting players often run right into Wings players after a game on their way out (during the heated days of the rivalry, many cross words and looks were exchanged and there were extra security on hand in case anything developed). As cool as Avs players would try to be, their necks would always crane when Kournikova was around.
- I don’t know why, but the ice always seemed to me to be about twice the size of any other rink. But it wasn’t. It was the same 200’-by-85’ as anywhere else. Maybe it was an optical illusion, but it just seemed huge from the press box.
- This is meant as a compliment, not a knock, but The Joe had a unique smell to it. Most older places do, right? It’s impossible to verbalize, but once you’re inside you realize it: There’s that smell of The Joe. I’ll experience that and everything else about Joe Louis Arena one last time on Saturday.
If some Avs fans bid “good riddance” to The Joe, fair enough. But not me. I’ll be saying goodbye to an old friend.