Detroit — The tour begins where the story begins, in the small office tucked around the corner from the ice, amid the clutter of the years. There are framed photos and fuzzy stuffed octopi, skates and jerseys and old wooden cabinets that lean from the weight.
To the side is a red cushioned chair, its simplicity belying its history. The chair is older than the building, older than the man in the office, and its only distinguishing feature is the old-school Red Wings logo.
“A lot of important butts sat in that seat,” Al Sobotka says with a laugh. “A lot of VIPs, players, GMs. Alex Delvecchio, Ted Lindsay, they all remember that seat.”
It’s a chair from Olympia Stadium, from the owner’s suite where Bruce Norris used to meet with his coaches and general managers. Sobotka — building manager, Zamboni driver, octopus-twirler — saved it from the trash when Olympia was torn down, and brought it to the new gray-block building along the Detroit River. And there it has sat for 37 years, comfortably accommodating hundreds of visitors’ backsides.
The building manager and Zamboni driver walks through Joe Louis Arena with Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski. David Guralnick, The Detroit News
What’s new is old again, and Joe Louis Arena will soon be gone. The Wings’ final games Saturday and Sunday will be celebratory and somber, the vault of memories cherished more than the structure itself. No one suggests this is a premature demise. The arena was practically outdated shortly after opening in 1979. As you walk the halls and concourses, you get the sense even the Joe knows it’s time.
The arena never pretended to be a showplace. It was built along the river but offered no view, with precisely three outside windows in the entire place. It was hurriedly constructed and wasn’t meant to be the draw — the hockey was the draw. And for all these years, fans climbed those steep steps, waited in those long lines, then sat in the red seats with the best view of some of the best hockey in the world.
The structure is nondescript and the interior is intimate (OK, cramped), and in a way, that refines the memories. It isn’t about the walls, but what happened inside the walls, the four Stanley Cup championships, the parade of legends, the incredible games, the 25-year playoff streak that’s expiring as the Joe expires, almost fittingly.
It was about the people who played there, worked there and cheered there. It was about the franchise’s rise under Mike and Marian Ilitch, who shepherded it to the new place a few miles away, the glittering Little Caesars Arena.
People wonder why the Joe receives so much attention while another building in Auburn Hills will close the next day with less fanfare. The Pistons won almost as many championships (three) in the Palace, and that arena is a design marvel. It’s also 10 years younger, standing starkly in the northern suburbs, and the Pistons’ move downtown was announced during the season, leaving little time for sentiment.
The Joe’s closing has been charted for years, and now that it’s almost here, the memories and mysteries echo in the voices of those who gave it life.
Sobotka, 63, has worked for the Wings almost as long as anyone, starting in 1971 at Olympia. It’s safe to say, he’s the most recognizable Zamboni driver in the NHL, renowned for his pristine ice and his octopus-twirling, appreciated for his colorfulness.
Sobotka’s two Zambonis sit in a large room behind the tunnel to the ice. The 1998 model has logged 5,800 hours, and at nine minutes per resurfacing, that’s a lot of trips around the rink. The 1987 model bears its own history — stickers honoring Vladimir Konstantinov, Mr. I and former Wing Steve Chiasson, who died in a car accident in 1999.
A few yards away is the gate to the ice, the spot where Sobotka watches every game from a stool, shovel in hand. During the Wings’ glory runs in the 1990s, he was on the ice often, twirling the octopi above his head. The NHL cracked down when the octopus volume escalated, and threatened to fine Sobotka $10,000 for each overhead swing.
“They said slime was falling out, getting in the players’ eyes, but there wasn’t much slime,” Sobotka says. “People loved the twirl, loved the expression. It’s a tradition that I hope never dies. It’s been going on since 1952 — why stop it?”
Here at ice level, Sobotka is like the man who runs the engine room in a giant ship. He rarely ventures upstairs and never has watched a game from the seats. Before the finale Sunday, he’ll be on the ice for a different reason, scheduled to drop the last ceremonial puck.
For a moment, he stares, as if memorizing the view. It’s the only view he’s ever known, perhaps the best view in the house.
“I probably will get misty-eyed,” he says. “Everybody says I won’t. I don’t know, maybe a couple of drops.”
Ask those who played here about the Joe’s unique appeal, and they explain it pretty much the same way.
Detroit News columnist Bob Wojnowski walks us through the press box experience at Joe Louis Arena.
“The simplicity of the building is what was great about it,” says Steve Yzerman, now Tampa Bay’s GM. “The atmosphere, with the fans right on top of you. The ice always was good, the boards were good — all the things that are important to a player, this building had.”
Yzerman was the main figure in the arena’s greatest moment, when he lifted the Cup in 1997, ending the 42-year drought. You could argue those Wings teams were pushed by the aura of the old barn, by the noise from 20,000-plus desperate fans, even by the boards constructed with plywood, not the plastic used now. That gave the puck a little extra bounce, if you knew where to shoot it.
“It was like that rink you grew up playing hockey in,” Chris Osgood says. “You go to your hometown rink and you know the Zamboni driver, you know everyone who works there. Every year you walk in, you know everybody’s faces. As a goalie you look up sometimes, and all of the fans were in the same spot every time.”
Osgood had a unique view of that ’97 championship, with Mike Vernon in net. Now as a broadcaster on Fox Sports Detroit, he has another perspective. Like most people, he can’t wait to see the new arena. Like most people, he wonders if the atmosphere at the Joe can be recreated.
“To me, this is like a museum, you walk around and you know there’s never, ever going to be another place like this,” Osgood says. “I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I just think, you can’t emulate it, like the old bar where the peanuts are on the floor. Here, you can still spill your beer in the concourse and it’s OK for everybody but the guy who spilled it. It’s that homey feeling, and certain things are never going to be the same.”
It’s a feeling that extends all over the building, from the locker room to the kitchen to the little work room where equipment manager Paul Boyer has been sharpening skates for 23 years. He’s looking forward to enhanced conveniences, although the team has been careful to maintain some simplicity in the new arena. For instance, the locker room won’t be much larger. Ken Holland and management were specific in the design elements, especially in the steep rise of the stadium seats, to keep fans as close to the ice as possible.
Beneath the stands leading to the Joe’s locker rooms, all the franchise’s Cup winners are commemorated with their names splashed on the white cinder block, which makes a figurative statement fairly literal.
“The hockey drips from the walls here,” Boyer says. “And we bring our history out. Mr. Devellano put all the Cup teams out there to be recognized, so everybody in the league knows who’s on those teams.”
Since the Ilitches bought the franchise in 1982, the Wings have been famously loyal, from Jimmy Devellano to Holland to Nicklas Lidstrom to Pam Janiec in the mailroom, in her 39th year, to concession supervisor Robert Bennane, in his 54th year.
Leslie Baker has handled food service for the Wings, visiting teams, officials and media since 1981, one of those familiar, smiling faces everyone mentions.
“All the players, they’ve been like brothers to me,” Baker says. “I started out as the little sister, then the big sister, then the aunt, and now I’m like the den mother. It’s like nobody wants to leave here, it’s family.”
Back beneath the stands, Sobotka continues his stroll, past gigantic bags of popcorn, past stacks and stacks of beer. There’s a sticky, after-party feel to the place, no airs about it, just a distinctive air.
“Everybody complains about the smell,” Sobotka says. “But people are making popcorn, cotton candy, grilling hot dogs. Yeah, you’re taking out the old beer, that doesn’t smell very well. Every building has some kind of a smell. I don’t smell anything bad, do you?”
Moving right along …
Sobotka heads toward the locker rooms, past the exercise bikes in the hallway, where visiting teams try to work out. He keeps walking, past the framed photos outside the Wings locker room, through the big double doors, toward the ice.
Your eyes immediately widen to the bright whiteness, framed by all the redness, from the seats to the banners. Sobotka’s eyes dart to the right, beneath the stands, to what he calls “the spaghetti factory” of wires and TV cables. If you walk 20 feet under there, you’ll reach the midway point between the home and visitor’s locker rooms, a special meeting place.
Boyer’s office is a few feet away, and he saw many hockey greats, rivals and friends, chatting in the darkened sort of demilitarized zone.
“If Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic wanted to talk, they talked right there,” Boyer says. “That spot is where the friendships of the hockey world continued.”
Sobotka nods, and then for a moment, his emotions flare. The area under the stands looks about how you’d expect, not dirty, just old, and he wants people to know that.
“How much cleaner can it get?” he says. “People say they’ve seen rats — I haven’t seen a rat in this building in five years! Yeah, we had them when the Cobo expansion shook the ground up, but I’ll give you 10 bucks for every one you find now.”
Sobotka shakes his head and turns away.
“We have a lot of pride in this building,” he says. “I resent when people say things.”
About the people
Finally now, Sobotka is where he longs to be, next to his huge grill, which actually is a converted nacho stand. Al’s BBQ has been the scene-maker and scent-maker at the Joe since he began grilling burgers, ribs, chicken and sausages for the team before each playoff round, starting in 1995.
It’s a simple little tradition that continues to this day, even though there will be no playoff rounds. You wonder how a BBQ can become part of a building’s lore, but then you hear the stories and understand.
Sobotka usually fires it up in the loading dock area and starts cooking while the Wings are practicing. On one especially windy day years ago, the doors were open and the smoke swirled onto the ice. It hung there, just above the glass, and a certain coach was displeased, or so it seemed.
“Scotty would go on and on — ‘I’m taking the players off the ice, all the uniforms smell like smoke!’” Sobotka says of Scotty Bowman. “And then later he’d come down here all happy and start eating. Scotty loved the camaraderie with all this stuff. He cared about everybody more than anybody I know. He probably didn’t want to show it, but he cared about people, the players.”
And truly, that’s what this is about. It’s not the tight quarters or the pungent aromas. It’s not about the old red chair, but the people who sat in it. It’s about the connections, generation to generation, and how the closer you are, the closer you get.
There will be a lot more room in the new place, and a lot more new faces. But the Zambonis still will bear their stickered tributes, and Sobotka still plans to take the full nine minutes to do the job right.
“It’s going to be a little sad, but it’s time to move on, to be honest,” he says. “Yeah, we’re cramped here, but you know what, everyone makes it work. We all pitch in.”
It was a simple arena named after a legendary boxer, an odd windowless building that never adopted a corporate name. It was a place of no pretense, and though it began as the average Joe, it became so much more than that.