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From hockey fights to Stanley Cups, league says goodbye to Joe Louis Arena

The city of Detroit has agreed to demolish Joe Louis Arena, the home of the Detroit Red Wings, and give the land to a creditor as part of a major settlement in the city's bankruptcy case.

Paul Sancya/AP

It was the smell you remembered more than anything.

For anyone walking in the hall under the stands at Joe Louis Arena between the dressing rooms of the Detroit Red Wings and the visiting team, it was always there – a pungent mixture of stale beer, stale popcorn and fermenting garbage in the nearby bins. No one who spent time there regularly ever forgot it.

"The Joe always smelled," said Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, who won three Stanley Cups as a power forward with the Red Wings in 1997, 1998 and 2002. "There was no red-carpet, private walkway for the players. We generally walked through a concourse, ducked under steel girders or stepped over them, with the nice aroma of stale beer.

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"I'm not sure what [the smell] was. Stale beer and stale popcorn. But to be honest, it felt like home."

It was a fitting backdrop to an arena that matched the hard-scrabble Detroit downtown, even though it was one of the first new buildings to open around the NHL as the 1980s began. But The Joe, as it came to be known after the Red Wings took residence on Dec. 27, 1979, with a game against the St. Louis Blues, had no luxury suites ringing the lower levels or any private clubs for high-rolling season-ticket owners.

Not that the loud, mostly working-class fans would have any truck with such frills. The 20,027 fans who regularly filled the place during the Wings' glory years from 1990 through 2008, when they won their last Stanley Cup, did not care that The Joe never had enough washrooms, that the walkways were too narrow, or that the stairways at the entrances were steep and dangerous on snowy nights. As long as the beer was cold, the Red Wings were literally or figuratively kicking someone around the ice, and the security guys looked the other way when they threw an octopus on the ice at playoff time to maintain another Detroit tradition, the fans were happy.

"It felt like a tough, gritty arena with a gritty team and gritty people," Shanahan said.

The Leafs play their final game there on Saturday and, now that the Red Wings have missed the playoffs for the first time in 25 years, the final NHL game at The Joe will be their season-closer on April 9 against the New Jersey Devils. Once The Joe is demolished to make way for a development, and the Wings are ensconced in their new $635-million (U.S.) playpen less than two kilometres away, it will be remembered for great moments and the people rather than the building itself.

"It was like a dump," said Leafs TV broadcaster Bob McGill, who played for two fierce rivals of the Red Wings in the 1980s, the Leafs and the Chicago Blackhawks, before a brief run with the Wings late in his career. "I don't think they're going to be sad to leave that building."

In the 1980s, the Red Wings did not have much on-ice success, but they had lots of hard-fought games with bruisers like Bob Probert and Joey Kocur in the lineup. They played in the old Norris Division with the Leafs, who boasted equally abrasive players like McGill, Wendel Clark, Brian Curran and Al Secord, and it was soon known as the Chuck Norris Division.

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"The love-hate," Clark said when asked what he remembered most about the place. "That rivalry always went Friday-Saturday night. We played Friday at The Joe and Saturday at home. You never knew which one was going to be the hockey game and which one was going to be the other.

"I always remember the great ice and the fans. Even at our alumni game around the lockout, I think it was in '06, it was almost sold out. And the fans still hated us."

Clark also remembers the Red Wings could be counted on to make The Joe as uncomfortable as possible come playoff time, even off the ice. "There was a fresh coat of paint the Red Wings always put in the dressing room when the playoffs started," he said.

The greatest Leaf moment at The Joe was May 1, 1993, in the seventh and deciding game of their first-round playoff series with the favoured Red Wings. Nikolai Borschevsky, a 28-year-old rookie, tipped in a Bob Rouse shot early in overtime to give the Leafs the series win and start them on their memorable run to the Campbell Conference final. It was a break from the dreadful years of Harold Ballard's ownership.

Joe Bowen called that game on the radio and it remains a high point, even though he recently passed his 3,000th game as the team's play-by-play broadcaster. The play happened quickly and Bowen is proud to say he made the right call by tabbing Borschevsky as the scorer.

"Our broadcast position was down at that end, almost at the blue line, so when Bobby Rouse shot the puck I definitely saw Nicky get a small piece of it," Bowen said. "You get a big goal like that after the '80s, when we had no chance with Harold and you get it right, it was a special moment.

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"The other thing about the Norris Division and playing there so often was that it really was the rink, before the Ottawa Senators arrived, where a lot of Leaf fans would go there. It was a good atmosphere any night we were there."

Most of the time, though, Bowen wasn't thrilled with his broadcast spot, much like the rest of the media. Legend has it that when The Joe was built someone forgot to include the press box. So the last two rows of seats at the top of the arena were knocked out, a ledge was installed, and the box was jammed on top of it. Reporters looked over the shoulders of fans in the last row, who weren't shy about telling out-of-towners what they thought of them.

"You were literally in the seats with those guys," Bowen said. "During many of the playoff runs I broadcast, some leather-lung right below me, obviously a Red Wings fan, would jump up every time they'd score and give me a stare and everything else."

Another of Bowen's favourite memories occurred at the start of a game when the Wings had goaltender Eddie Mio, who made up in personality what he lacked in skill. Mio made his way to the rink entrance just as Bowen's hometown pal, referee Dave [Snapper] Newell, was circling the ice.

"Eddie used to sprint down the corridor and explode on to the ice," Bowen said. "I'm watching this and I see Snapper Newell coming down the ice. I'm thinking, 'They don't see each other.' Sure enough, he comes out and whammo! Newell goes flying and they have to cart him off the ice.

"The game is delayed by I don't know how long. When it gets going, the Leafs scored like six goals. Mio says, 'Geez, my concentration was completely screwed up.' So Snapper Newell had a big hand in a Leaf win at Joe Louis Arena."

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the Wings gave up most of the roughhousing to become a skill team with Steve Yzerman and the Russian Five. Four Stanley Cups followed but there were still players who could score and fight if they needed to, like Shanahan, or check and fight, like Darren McCarty. The fans loved the scrappers.

Shanahan said it was the fans that mattered. Neither he nor his teammates worried that their arena did not have the same luxury features as the new wave of arenas that came along in the 1990s.

"All we cared about was the atmosphere on the ice," he said. "There wasn't a row of suites halfway up the stands, so it felt like the fans were on top of us. You could connect better with the fans. You could hear them better, especially in the days when the glass was lower.

"I remember scoring an empty-net goal to clinch a Colorado series. We're celebrating and a fan reached over the glass to pat me on the head. He just slapped me right on the face."

Shanahan said the rink itself had its quirks, especially the boards, which the Wings used to their advantage until other teams figured it out.

"Any time the puck was shot from the point and it missed the net, you knew the puck was coming back out in front of the net," he said. "Some of our veteran defencemen that were used to that would sometimes shoot the puck wide, knowing there were a couple of forwards who would position themselves to take advantage of it coming off the boards.

"I think in the early days, people didn't talk about it as much. There's so much more scouting now. I felt we got between a half dozen and a dozen goals at home [per season] from those bounces."

Leafs head coach Mike Babcock was the Red Wings head coach from 2005 to 2015, winning a Stanley Cup in 2008. He says there are simply too many memories to list them all, from having hockey legends like Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay as dressing-room regulars to coaching players like Yzerman and Nick Lidstrom and working with general manager Ken Holland.

But he's still a hockey coach and lives firmly in the present.

"You think about all those things," Babcock said. "My kids grew up going to those games. It was an important part of my life. I got lots of opportunities out of that.

"It's a walk down memory lane. I'm sure you can do that in the warmup and get ready to play."

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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