Joe Louis Arena: the Heart of Hockeytown

Playoff hockey is back in Detroit! I went to one of the last regular season games a couple of weeks ago, which of course meant heading over to Joe Louis Arena. I love the Joe, as there’s not a bad seat in the house. It’s certainly not the fanciest of stadiums – bland concrete is it’s main aesthetic – and it was once even voted the worst sports arena in the country by Maxim (not that we care about Maxim’s opinion). Many Detroiters admit it is a dump, but it’s our dump! However, we won’t be watching hockey games there much longer, as a new arena is slated to be built within the next few years. I’m interested to see the new arena, although I’m not thrilled about how it is being funded. And it will be sad to lose the Joe, as it witnessed the rebirth of the Red Wings. When the stadium was built, in 1979, the Wings were terrible, earning themselves the nickname of “Dead Wings.” In the 35 years since then, they’ve become one of the best teams in hockey, winning the Stanley Cup in 1997, 1998, 2002 and 2008. Detroit has earned the nickname Hockeytown thanks to the Wings’ many victories, and the Joe was a huge part of that. In honor of the last days of the arena, here’s five facts about its history:

  • Joe Louis Arena is one of only 3 NHL arenas without a corporate sponsor name, and the only one named after a person (the other two are Madison Square Garden and Nassau Veterans Memorial Colosium, home of the New York Rangers and Islanders, respectively).
  • Joe Louis, the famous boxer for whom the stadium was named, has an interesting story himself. He catapulted onto the national stage in 1935 after beating heavyweight champion Primo Carnera, and quickly became a champion in his own right. He wasn’t only known for boxing, however. He also became a patriotic figure during WWII. Near the beginning of the war, he participated in a charity bout benefiting the Navy Relief Society. He fought (and defeated) Bobby Baer, raising around $88,000 in the process. The next day, he enlisted in the Army – who then wanted him to do another charity bout, this time benefiting them. He quickly agreed. In an event leading up to the fight, Louis was quoted saying about the war and his enlistment “We gonna do our part, and we will win, because we are on God’s side.” The media, and the military, quickly latched on to the quote, and it was used in recruitment posters and other propaganda throughout the war. He served in a special services division and traveled around the states and overseas, mostly participating in exhibition fights for the troops and visiting hospitals. Although Louis never saw combat during the war, his role as troop entertainer and morale booster was still considered a significant contribution to the war effort.
Joe Louis recruitment poster (source)

Joe Louis recruitment poster (source)

  • Bruce Norris, who owned the team in the 1970s, seriously considered building a stadium out in Pontiac to replace the Wings’ former home, Olympia Stadium. Not wanting to lose another team to the suburbs (the Lions had already left the city for the Pontiac Silverdome, and the Pistons followed soon after), the city offered him a great deal on riverfront property if he stayed in the city. Thank goodness for that!

    Construction of Joe Louis Arena (source)

    Construction of Joe Louis Arena (source)


  • The Joe has hosted many non-hockey events over the years, including the 1980 Republican National Convention in which Ronald Reagan was nominated. I mainly bring this up so I can show this amusing picture, from the Walter Reuther Library at Wayne State University. It is clearly a posed portrait, taken either during the set up or tearing down of the event. I love the combination of the construction equipment in the background, the one random woman on the ice with balloons and that awesome 80s style.
  • Another non-hockey event: the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Yep, the one with the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan mess. Although the attack actually happened next door at Cobo Hall, the championship events took place on the ice at the Joe. Did you know that leading up the the event, the big news was that the International Skating Union had decided to allow skaters who had skated professionally to return to amateur status so that they could compete in the Olympics? Brian Boitano, 1988 gold medalist who had spent a few years on the professional circuit, returned to amateur competition at the event came in second place. Too bad his big comeback got overshadowed by the crazy event’s on the women’s side.

There’s your five facts about Joe Louis Arena! What do you think about the Joe? One of your favorite spots in the city or are you relieved it’s getting replaced?




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