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Joe Louis Arena’s Final Act



If you’re going to name your arena after Little Caesars pizza, then you really have to love topping out. No, we’re not talking about pepperoni and sausage. When the topping out ceremony comes to your construction project, it means the final beam has been put into place at the top of the structure – an enormous milestone on the road to ultimate completion.

For the Detroit Red Wings, last Thursday’s topping out ceremony moved the team from the red line to the blue line in its goal of having Little Caesars Arena to call their new home starting in the 2017-18 season. But as one set of arena doors prepares to open in 14 months, a venerable barn prepares for its final season as a hallowed home for hockey.

Since 1979, the Red Wings have called Joe Louis Arena home, winning four Stanley Cups and cleaning countless thousands of pounds of octopus off its ice surface over its first 36 years. Only Madison Square Garden in New York has hosted an NHL team longer than Joe Louis, and joins the Garden as one of two arenas not to take a corporate sponsors’ name.

It takes its name from Joe Louis, one of the greatest heavyweight fighters in American sports history, who grew up in Detroit, and for whom its sports teams have often resembled, relying on toughness and the willingness to fight to bring championships to the Motor City.

When it was completed in late 1979, the arena cost a mere $57 million. Ironically, though the building would become synonymous with the NHL Red Wings, the first event ever held at Joe Louis was a college basketball game between Michigan and the University of Detroit on Dec. 12.

Two weeks later, the Red Wings hosted the Blues in its inaugural game in the new building, and the Red Wings fans’ postseason tradition of throwing dead octopus onto the ice, which began during the 1952 playoffs, made a rare regular-season appearance to christen the new arena.

Six weeks later, Joe Louis hosted the NHL All-Star Game, drawing a then-record crowd of 21,002. Not long after the All-Star Game, another milestone event with Canadian overtones took place, as Rush became Joe Louis Arena’s first rock concert.

Before its first year of existence was over, the arena took its place in political history as the site of the 1980 Republican National Convention, where Ronald Reagan received his first nomination for President.

It would be nearly 15 years before the Red Wings would rise to power in the NHL, making Joe Louis Arena one of the most feared home-ice advantages in the league. In fact, before the Red Wings reached the Stanley Cup Finals in 1995, the most memorable postseason moment in Joe Louis’ history came courtesy Isiah Thomas and the Pistons in 1984.

The Pistons, too, were still a few years away from their dynastic run to back-to-back NBA championships in their new arena in Auburn Hills. Before the Palace, the Pistons played their home games at the Silverdome, but when facing the New York Knicks in the first round of the 1984 playoffs, a scheduling conflict forced the decisive Game 5 to be played at Joe Louis Arena.

Playing in stifling hot conditions usually reserved for the Boston Garden, Thomas turned Joe Louis into the scene of one of the greatest individual performances in NBA playoff history, scoring 16 points in the final 94 seconds of regulation to force Bernard King and the Knicks into overtime, where New York eventually won.

The victory was a turning point for the Pistons, who would play 15 games at Joe Louis the next season after the Silverdome’s roof collapsed during a snowstorm. And the Pistons would again draw postseason inspiration for playing at Joe Louis, forcing the defending champion Boston Celtics to six games in the conference semifinals with home victories in Games 4 and 5, igniting a rivalry that would come to define the rugged Eastern Conference as the 1980s progressed.

But no rivalry could touch the 1994 drama of Tonya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan, and it was Joe Louis Arena – and more specifically, Cobo Arena next door – that would become Ground Zero for figure skating’s greatest controversy.

Joe Louis Arena was awarded the 1994 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, and the adjoining Cobo Arena was used as the practice facility as the skaters prepared for the 1994 Winter Games. It was during one of those practice sessions, on Jan. 6, when Kerrigan was struck on the right knee with a metal club by an unknown assailant.

As the world would soon learn, it was the camp of Kerrigan’s skating rival, Harding, who had planned and executed the attack, made forever iconic by Kerrigan’s screams of “WHY?!?” in the Cobo Arena hallway after being struck.

Joe Louis would later be the site of a WNBA championship when the Detroit Shock were forced out of the Palace in 2006 because of a Mariah Carey concert, and the home of four Arena Football League championship games, as the Detroit Drive won four titles between 1988-93.

But, ultimately, Joe Louis Arena is the home – for one more season, anyway – of the Red Wings, who appeared in six Stanley Cup Finals between 1995-09 and won four of them, going back-to-back behind Steve Yzerman in 1997-98 and winning again in 2002 and ’08. Fans can now reach the arena by heading up Steve Yzerman Drive.

But just as the Red Wings’ dynasty came to a close after 2009, so too did the great run for Joe Louis Arena. Owner Christopher Illitch announced in 2014 the plans for Little Caesars Arena, a roughly $600 million venue in downtown Detroit.

That plan topped out last Thursday, and all that’s left is the final 41-game farewell to a Detroit Legend. Get the octopi ready.

This article originally appeared in the weekly Arena Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? Click here to sign up for the free weekly newsletter.

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