The Death of The Average Joe

My Canadian associate Donnie had been out of the country for three years, but when he came back he immediately showed me up by mentioning that he had just been inside Joe Louis Arena, which is currently being demolished. Since there is usually a 24-hour shelf life on his tips, I didn't hesitate to act. Even though I am in semi-retirement, and even though I had skipped out on visiting old Tiger Stadium during its demolition for sentimental reasons, and even though I was still mildly hungover from our bonfire the night before, I decided that this was worth lacing up the boots before access got more complicated.

I figured it was worth a shot, even though it had already been so thoroughly gutted that you could see the Detroit River right through it from two blocks away:

Opened in December of 1979, "The Joe" was named in honor of the legendary Detroit boxer Joe Louis. Though designed by Detroit's venerable architectural firm of Smith, Hinchman, & Grylls, we can't exactly say that it was their finest work. Nonetheless it has been made iconic as the home of the Detroit Red Wings hockey team, and for the other historic events that took place within its walls, but as far as stadiums go it was pretty average. You may recall an older post of mine where I screwed around on top of the distinctive, futuristic pedestrian "tubes" that connect the arena to its parking garage.

In light of the fact that the arena is going to be exactly the same age as me (40) when demolition is complete, I hardly think that euthanasia is justified quite yet. Luckily society deems me worthy to stick around a little longer, even if my bones aren't made of steel like the Joe's.

Speaking of average Joes, here goes Al Sobotka, probably the only zamboni driver the Joe has ever had:

According to, the 20,000-seat arena was one of the oldest in the NHL, and one of the few left in existence that didn't have a corporate name. Naturally, Mike Ilitch was bound to put an end to that, even if he had to burn the motherf**ker down. Ironically, he named his own organization (Olympia Entertainment) after the Red Wings' original home, the old Olympia Stadium on Grand River Avenue, which was demolished in 1987.

Mike Ilitch is the local billionaire who owns Little Caesar's Pizza, half of the Detroit sports teams, half of City Council, and is singlehandedly responsible for blighting or demolishing at least 25% of downtown Detroit over the course of several decades for his own personal real estate schemes.

By the way, for all you loud Mike Ilitch worshippers out there who think he was just a saint who put his own money on the line to singlehandedly "save Detroit when nobody else cared," let's not forget that three years after Joe Louis Arena was built (at a cost of $57 million to taxpayers) Ilitch bought the Red Wings (for a mere $8 million) and threatened to move the team out to Farmington Hills where he was building his Little Caesar's headquarters. It was Mayor Coleman Young who facilitated this extortion by entering the desperate city into a "sweetheart deal" to keep the Red Wings downtown by giving Ilitch complete operational control over the arena and parking structures, as well as capping his property taxes at $250,000 per year for 30 years (and other perks).

And let's not forget Mr. Emmet Moten, Mayor Young's economic development chief who "negotiated" the whole deal for the City of Detroit...who *mysteriously* became Mike Ilitch's vice president of development right after the Joe Louis deal was sealed. Ilitch has been blatantly pimping us taxpayers for 40 years and y'all bootlickers still want to idolize him—and then hate on those of us calling him out for doing it again with the new Pizzarena. Some people just love to be used, I guess.

Anyway, enough shade-throwing.

I'm sure many of you recognize this passageway as part of the journey from Congress Street to the pedestrian tube over the Lodge Expressway...considering the millions of people who regularly traversed this path, it is amazing to me to see it overgrown with weeds and currently serving as the campsite of a homeless person (whose clothing can be seen hung on the fence):

The crosswalk at West Jefferson Avenue is like a total ghost town scene:

The iconic stairs leading up to the "Gordie Howe Entrance" have already been wiped away forever. A forlorn depiction of the Red Wings' eleven Stanley Cup victories is still showing on the pedestrian overpass:

With its metallic skin peeled off, all passersby could glimpse inside the guts of the beast...a very bizarre change from the blank, windowless wall that once characterized this street.

And here is the approach to the Gordie Howe Entrance from the People Mover station...again, a pathway that we remember as always being utterly packed with people, now completely devoid of life:

The entrance was guarded by this formidable yellow beast, its razor-sharp hydraulic beak snapping at me hungrily as we eyed each other and squared off. I channeled the ghost of Gordie Howe, then faked and ran between its legs, utilizing the big five-hole to gain access into the sacred shrine of Detroit hockey.

Well, this is last glimpse:

Below follows a list of the most historic moments that played out within this hallowed hall...

February 5, 1980
The two greatest hockey players of all time, old Gordie Howe and young Wayne Gretzky, played against each other in the first NHL All-Star Game to be held at the new Joe Louis Arena—and it was Howe's last.

February 17, 1980
According to, the first concert at The Joe was Rush and Max Webster. A look down that website's master list shows that plenty of the most famous musicians have performed here over the decades.

March 2, 1980
Detroit's iconic Kronk Gym took the boxing world by storm with a run of decisive underdog victories at Joe Louis Arena. The Detroit Free Press recounted the night that three Kronk boxers made history in this building. Hilmer Kenty took the world lightweight championship by knocking out Ernesto Espana, middleweight Mickey Goodwin knocked out Leo Saenz, and crowd favorite Tommy Hearns won a welterweight title by knocking out Angel Espada...the impact of all three of those huge upset victories occurring in one night in their hometown was what put Kronk on the map.

Kenty, Goodwin, and Hearns were then considered underdogs who were going up against the world's greatest boxers, and even the hometown crowd at Joe Louis Arena expected them to take a beating. But when the Motor City fists came out flying and decimated the reigning champions so completely, it went down as one of those rare moments in history where downtrodden Detroit showed the world what power it still had left in it. Even Joe Louis himself was in attendance. Sugar Ray Leonard (who had also once trained at Kronk) was slated to fight Hearns, but didn't show. If he had, there was a good chance that two world championships would have gone to Kronk fighters that night. Kronk founder and manager Emanuel Steward was quoted as saying that Detroit had officially burst its way into the big leagues of boxing—"It's the Mecca of boxing right now, I'd say."

I explored the legendary (and also recently demolished) Kronk Gym in an older post.

August 2, 1980
Kronk Gym’s young and undefeated Tommy "The Hitman" Hearns returned to the Joe to trounce Pipino Cuevas, who had been World Boxing Association welterweight champion since 1976. Hearns KO'd Cuevas in just two rounds to capture his title.

July 16, 1980
The Republican National Convention took place here at Joe Louis for several days—ironically, in one of America's most steadfastly Democratic cities. According to the Detroit Free Press, the events that played out at the convention "changed the course of U.S. politics for at least three decades." Ronald Reagan was trailing President Carter in the polls, and to bolster his ticket he decided to try and get Michigan's own former President Gerald Ford to be his running mate.

"A former president running to be vice president? It was the biggest story at a convention in eons." The negotiations with Ford failed however, and George H.W. Bush was selected as Reagan's running mate instead, setting up what would become the Bush political dynasty, as well as the dawn of the "Reagan Era." On the final night of the convention the three men stood on stage, and Reagan bashed Carter's economic policy, declaring,
We must overcome something the present administration has cooked up: a new and altogether indigestible economic stew, one part inflation, one part high unemployment, one part recession, one part runaway taxes, one-party deficit spending and seasoned by an energy crisis. It’s an economic stew that has turned the national stomach... 
For those who have abandoned hope, we’ll restore hope and we’ll welcome them into a great national crusade to make America great again!
It was the first time those now-infamous last four words were spoken, and Reagan went on to beat Carter in a landslide.

November 4, 1984
When Prince had the number-one movie in the country (“Purple Rain”), the number-one album in the country (“Purple Rain”), and the number-one single in the country (“Purple Rain”), he opened his Purple Rain Tour here at the Joe. Regarding Detroit as a second home, the legendary performer rewarded his fans with the tour debut by playing seven sold-out shows here in nine nights. The tour generated so much interest that "nearly 300 reporters, including delegations from Europe, Japan and Australia, and enough photographers to fill the two penalty boxes" were here to cover it.

January 6, 1994
The U.S. Figure Skating Championships was held at The Joe. While leaving practice at nearby Cobo Arena, skating super-star Nancy Kerrigan was attacked with a club to her knee. The assault was orchestrated by a rival skater, Tonya Harding, who wanted to get her out of the way and figured that having the beating occur in Detroit would make it seem inconspicuous. It worked, for a second; the whole world was soon talking about the incident—and joking at the apparent illustration of how easy it is to get clubbed in even inspired a lyric in a Weird Al song. When the movie The Crow came out a few months later, it kept Detroit's sad state of affairs in the limelight even longer.

March 26, 1997
The royal rumble between the Detroit Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche, the defending champs—and our current nemesis. It was one of the most historic brawls in the at least 100 years since hockey was invented. Long story short it was the moment of payback for a dirty hit earlier in the season that seriously injured one of our players. It was also the moment when the Wings showed the league that from then on, bullying Detroit wasn't gonna fly anymore. Old-time hockey was back.

I barely recall whether any hockey was actually played that night, because once the first punch was thrown, utter pandemonium erupted on the ice, in the entire arena, and in my buddy James's basement as he and I flew out of our seats to begin shouting maniacally at the TV and swinging our fists around, flailing into furniture and each other like lunatics, as if we were right there in the action. His mother upstairs was scared sh*tless. One fight turned into two, then four, then everyone on the ice was brawling. Everywhere the TV cameras panned, it was complete mayhem of flying fists, splattering blood, and torn equipment.

Even the two goalies had come out of their nets to pummel each other to the insane screams of berserk spectators and the fireworks of ten thousand camera flashbulbs going at once. It was practically Pentecostal. When the furor finally died down there was a lake of blood on the rink, and several overturned couch cushions in our basement TV room, but it was perhaps the most cathartic moment of my suburban adolescence...we were ecstatic for a week straight. The fisticuffs continued throughout the rest of the game—even though we did win, on a beautiful goal from my favorite guy, Darren McCarty, the enforcer who started the most important of the many beatdowns.

I was months away from graduating high school, and James and I had been riveted to the TV for the whole season. We had been waiting our whole lives to see our trampled team win, and this year it looked like it might actually happen. For me nothing could ever top this hockey season, which culminated in Detroit's first Stanley Cup championship in my lifetime—and nothing ever did. In fact, I stopped paying attention to sports entirely soon afterward. Nothing could impress me anymore.

June 7, 1997
The Red Wings won their first Stanley Cup in 42 years. Sure, they went on to become one of the most invincible dynasties in the history of sports, earning Detroit the name of Hockeytown (and making Mike Ilitch very rich), but for me nothing would ever top 1997.

June 14, 2016
Gordie Howe, aka "Mr. Hockey," lay in state at Joe Louis Arena after his death, while 15,000 fans came here to view his casket.

The Detroit Historical Society says that the 2006 WNBA Finals championship game was hosted here at the Joe (and won by the Detroit Shock), as well as Detroit Rockers soccer games, World Wrestling Entertainment events, plenty of concerts, and three NCAA Frozen Four college hockey finals. During the 1984-85 NBA season the Detroit Pistons even played here when the roof of the Silverdome unexpectedly deflated.

Some sort of first aid station or something:

I am sorry to report that the stairwells were blocked off, meaning I was going to be stuck exploring just the ground level for now. Like I said I was a little hung over, so I wasn't feeling up to any of my usual acrobatic antics to get upstairs. Maybe I will manage to make a return trip at night (stay tuned).

Well Joe, it was a good run...time to go onto the scrap heap of history like old Tiger Stadium.

Since I have sworn off corporate sports and since I am boycotting all things Ilitch, I will not be going to see any events at the new Pizzarena. So this is more than just a regular "good-bye," it's permanent. Just memories of the good-old days, now.

The other hockey arena skeleton I've explored and written about:
Kimball Arena

"3 Up, 3 Down; Hearns' KO Leads Kronk," Detroit Free Press, March 3, 1980, p. 41

1 comment:

  1. Wow. I remember watching the pile drivers pounding the supports on while waiting for the Bob-lo Boat. My first concert was there Def Leppard and Krokus. Great article.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.