Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Joe Louis Arena: May it Rest in Pieces

Joe Louis Arena is the only sports venue I know of that became obsolete the moment it opened for business.

One of the best things to come from yesterday’s announcement by Mike Ilitch that he and his family are seriously pursuing a purchase of the Detroit Pistons, is that it probably will accelerate the construction of a new arena to replace JLA—one that will likely house both the Pistons and the Red Wings.

Such an arena can’t come a moment too soon.

Ilitch has been associated with the Red Wings for so long, I’m sure there are folks who think he had a hand in the creation of Joe Louis Arena. He didn’t. JLA opened in 1979, and Ilitch bought the Red Wings in 1982.

Where The Palace of Auburn Hills was built ahead of the curve in 1988, JLA was erected with no vision, no sense of convenience, no adroitness.

Parking is a nightmare. A fellow could have a heart attack climbing the steps leading up to the joint. The concourses are too narrow. There aren’t enough restrooms.

JLA’s exterior looks like a warehouse. It has the aesthetics of war-torn Europe, the warmth of a scorned woman.

They didn’t build an arena, they created a giant mausoleum. Today, it’s old and dilapidated. On Opening Night, it was just dilapidated.

It’s not like they shouldn’t have known better; JLA was built in the late-1970s, not during World War II. You walk in and you want to ask where they used to make the tanks.

The air inside has the freshness of milk left on the counter overnight. It’s more stuffy than an aristocrat whose name ends with “the Third.”

It’s the only sports arena that should have been fitted with drop-down oxygen masks. All the air is borrowed from whatever the patrons brought in with them. The foot traffic is fanny-to-fanny; it’s always rush hour. You could walk a mile and never see the walls.

The seating was arranged as if to punish those who couldn’t afford the lower bowl tickets. The only arena promoting class warfare. The top row in the upper bowl is somewhere in Bad Axe. The game below is only being played on the word of well-placed sources.

If you don’t have the cash, you’re sitting closer to Terry Sawchuk’s retired number than the ice. Between periods you can while the time away by counting the girders.

There are suites, of course, but they’re even further away than the so-called nose bleed seats. Every suite should have come equipped with telescopes.

Joe Louis Arena was never state-of-the-art, unless the state of your art is circa 1950. It’s the only arena I know of that was a demotion from its predecessor, Olympia Stadium, which even at age 60 was ten times the hockey palace than JLA was on Opening Night in 1979.

JLA is a 20,000-seat cave. You keep wanting to look out for the bats.

The arena was old and outdated the night they swung the doors open for the first time. If it was a Broadway show it might have opened and closed in one night.

In the early days, the hockey team was worse than the arena, if you can imagine such a thing. Then the team got better and the arena just kept getting older. They’d try re-painting it from time-to-time, like Tammy Faye Bakker’s face, but it only postponed the inevitable.

The funny thing is, when JLA opened on December 27, 1979, it was deemed to be some sort of marvel—a real nifty place. It wasn’t until you got further from its grand opening, and you saw the types of buildings built shortly after it, that you realized we were sold a bill of goods.

Then along came The Palace of Auburn Hills, and that only underlined the foibles of JLA.

The Palace opened in the summer of 1988—less than 10 years after The Joe but light years ahead of it in every way imaginable.

So brilliant was the planning and architecture of The Palace that even today, some 22 years after its opening, the arena is presented as a model for what a sports and indoor concert venue should be.

If Ilitch succeeds in buying the Pistons, no doubt a new, dual-sports arena will be in the offing, likely downtown.

The Red Wings’ original 30-year lease with JLA has expired, and the team then negotiated a temporary extension to that lease, until another arena is built—or until the Red Wings move elsewhere (The Palace) as a stopgap measure.

Regardless, it appears as if the days of the Red Wings playing in Joe Louis Arena are (finally) numbered.

I call dibs on the plunger at its implosion.

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