They don’t make arenas like Olympia Stadium anymore. Hell, they don’t make buildings like it anymore.
I don’t know of any place where an escalator lifts you up at an 80 degree angle, which it did at Olympia—the Old Red Barn where the Red Wings played from the 1920s to December 15, 1979.
If you think I’m exaggerating about the 80 degree angle—you’re right; perhaps it was only about 77 degrees.
The Olympia—corner of Grand River and McGraw on Detroit’s west side—comes to mind because we’re inching closer and closer to the 30th anniversary of the last game played there. Oh, they played a charity alumni game there a couple months later, but 12/15/79 was when the Red Wings recovered from a 4-0 deficit to tie the Quebec Nordiques—Le Nordique—in a final score of 4-4. No overtime back then. Certainly no silly shootouts.
For a few moments that night, I thought they wouldn’t need the explosives used to implode buildings that have outlived their use, because when Greg Joly scored on an end-to-end rush with about three minutes to play to tie the game, you’d have thought the place would come down due to the thunder of cheers and foot-stomping.
I ought to know, because I was there.
It’s among the list of electrifying moments I’ve been lucky enough to witness in person in Detroit sports history—right up there with Kirk Gibson’s homer off Goose Gossage to seal the 1984 World Series, Isiah Thomas’s 16 points in 90 seconds against the Knicks in the 1984 playoffs, and the Lions’ 45-3 trouncing of the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thanksgiving Day, 1983.
Yep, my fanny was in the seats—and leaping out of them—for all of the above. Good stuff.
I cornered Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch a couple of years ago at the unveiling of the Gordie Howe sculpture inside Joe Louis Arena, and he confirmed that the organization was looking at parcels of land onto which they’d build a brand new arena for the Red Wings. One of them, I managed to get out of him, isn’t too far away from Comerica Park, near the Woodward Avenue corridor.
But despite the success the Red Wings have enjoyed over the past 15 years or so at JLA—four Stanley Cups and some near misses—I don’t know that the sentiment will hit me the same when they shutter The Joe for good, as it did when the medicine ball started ramming against Olympia’s bricks in the 1980s.
Olympia, with its famous marquee on the lower left; beyond it would be a drugstore where players often stopped for a post-practice milk shake
There was the balcony at Olympia, number one, which thanks to the architects made you feel as if you were looking down at the ice between your legs, if you were sitting in the lower rows.
There was no overhead scoreboard or clock; instead, those were located in the “end zones,” along the balcony facade, horizontally stretched from curved corner to curved corner. There were also smaller auxiliary scoreboards on the lower levels of the expensive seats, in the corners.
Olympia seated about 16,000 for hockey and was just about the most intimate indoor arena you’ll ever enjoy.
The place shook when the crowd reaction was explosive enough. But when the din was low, you could hear the players shout to one another, even if you sat in the upper rows of the balcony. It was like a theatre that way.
The skates etching the ice, the puck being smacked from tape to tape as it was being passed around, the crunch of the glass during a solid bodycheck—those are hockey sounds to be treasured. And you could hear them at Olympia as if you were wearing personal earphones.
The acoustics were tremendous—which made it a wonderful concert venue, too. All the big name acts played the Olympia: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, you name it.
The Pistons called Olympia home for a few seasons before Cobo Arena opened on the riverfront in 1960.
Olympia’s front doors—it literally had a lobby—were just a sidewalk away from Grand River. Kind of like the old Maple Leaf Gardens on Yonge Street. The old-fashioned marquee with the hand-posted red letters would announce that evening’s festivities: “HOCKEY TONIGHT RED WINGS VS MONTREAL 8:00.”
Then the escalators, which were, frankly, a nightmare for anyone with either claustrophobia or a fear of heights. If you had both, you were in trouble. The steps were barely wide enough for two people. And that steep angle made you feel like you’d tumble backward on the people behind you if you leaned back a bit too much.
I feel sorry for those who never got a chance to take in a Red Wings game at Olympia Stadium.
I feel that way, because they’ll never make hockey palaces like that again. No one has it in them, I guess.