Joe Louis Arena was a dump…but it was awesome

The Detroit Red Wings take the ice today for the final time at Joe Louis Arena, the last of the arenas/stadiums from a terrible era of design, that was based more on function rather than features or aesthetics.

And ugly, gray building built along the Detroit River, it had no windows, nothing that made it stand out from the outside, and the narrowest, most cramped walkways and bathrooms you’ve ever experienced.

To put it mildly, it was a dump. But it was an awesome dump.

I’m not a Red Wings fan by any stretch, but I always loved going to JLA for any event, it was a place where you went simply to watch things. And that’s what I cared about. Not giant scoreboards, WiFi, interactive fan exhibits that try to justify the price of your ticket, I was there to watching what was printed on the ticket.

Opening late in 1979, Joe Louis Arena was part of what people call “cookie cutter” stadiums, along the lines of Veteran’s Stadium in Philadelphia, Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh, and Riverfront Park in Cincinnati. They were all ugly, bland, and completely devoid of uniqueness until you entered the building.

JLA had very few luxury boxes, very little amenities outside of the food and drink stands, and replay and scoreboards that were basically there as decoration they were so old and outdated, but you were there for one reason: to watch whatever event you were there for.

Most times that was hockey. In the late 80s and early 90s, it might have been arena football, or maybe it was WWE and their multiple events that were there throughout the year.

While other places might have all those modern things that fans in this era need to enjoy an event for some reason, Joe Louis had something not every arena can claim: there was literally not a bad seat in the house.

I’ve sat everywhere in JLA, behind the nets in the lower bowl for a Blackhawks-Red Wings game, upper deck center for their home opener against the Anaheim Ducks, upper deck corner for a late-season game against the Wild, and on the floor 15 feet from the ring for the WWE Night of Champions pay-per-view.


No matter where I sat, I could see everything. Honestly, my favorite seats were that upper corner for the game against the Wild.

The lack of luxury boxes is what made JLA so great for regular fans, like me, and most of you reading this. Most arenas you were pushed up another 50-100 feet in the air by luxury boxes so millionaire fans and companies can wow their friends who really don’t care about games with their fancy seats.

Not at the Joe. Where any seat in the upper bowl had arguably better views than the people sitting down low that paid nearly twice as much to get it. It was an arena for the fans, from rich ones to those who could only afford to sit up top.

They didn’t sell out every game (no matter what the “official” attendance numbers were) but the fans were always loud, knowledgeable and into the game, no matter if the team was in first, seventh or last.

The ice was routinely mentioned among the best in the league, and the boards always made games more interesting. The arena had tons of quirks and interesting things that if you had been to more than a handful of games, you knew and understood.

And now with it closing, there isn’t a place left in sport like that. Every arena in the NHL is now at least somewhat modern, has giant replay boards, luxury suites that seem to extend to the sky and a bunch of crap that you really don’t need to go see a hockey game.

I’ll miss that, it was refreshing to kind of take a step back in time and just simply experience hockey.

After today, the Red Wings will move a couple miles up the road to Little Caesars Arena, where there will be a giant scoreboard, all sorts of crap to get you to spend more money, and luxury bowls that will put the fans that were the heart and soul of JLA up near the moon. Oh and it was paid for with a huge chunk of taxpayer dollars, despite the Ilitch family having more money than anyone.

Yeah, the new arena will be great and fancy and will bring in tons of events that Detroit would never have gotten because JLA was a hole, but it won’t be the same.

There won’t be the charm of walking into an arena and thinking, “Boy this place is a dump, but it is an awesome place to see a game.”




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