Detroit — The fellow who designed Olympia, where the Red Wings played for nearly a half-century, gained fame as an architect of movie theaters and gems like Orchestra Hall, the home of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, renowned internationally for its acoustics.
C. Howard Crane, who died four months after the Wings won their fifth Stanley Cup in 1952, made hockey an intimate experience in the Old Red Barn.
Adjusting for things 90 years after the Olympia opened, Crane might well have approved of Little Caesars Arena.
The Wings have created an up-close, on-top-of-the-play experience for their fans and, now, for fans of the Pistons, too.
The architect, HOK, the dominant player in the field, says about 19,600 of the 20,000 seats in Little Caesars Arena are closer to the action than in any other 19,600 seats in the NHL.
In preseason, many fans say they feel closer to the ice than they were in similar seats at Joe Louis Arena.
But some at the early games dissent, saying they find some of the greater height disconcerting.
The vertical design, using stacked levels, overhangs and steeply-rising rows, brings the lion’s share of seats in the upper levels closer to the ice than the Bell Centre in Montreal, a prototype for Little Caesars Arena, according to officials of Olympia Entertainment.
Upper levels hang over the ones below, in a piled array constructed without obstructing supports.
A total of 8,944 seats are in the lower bowl, 2,378 more than Joe Louis Arena, according to HOK.
Sharp inclines, about the same as Joe Louis Arena in the lower bowl but steeper in the upper levels, keep the seats closer to the ice.
The limited number of rows at each level shortens the steep climbs for fans.
“I said we should have a place where it’s intimidating for other teams to play,” GM Ken Holland said, when asked about his input on plans for the new building.
“In Montreal, the fans are right on you. There’s no breaks in the seating. You look up and it’s a wall of people, right on top of you.”
On top of the action
Joe Louis Arena provided an unbroken plane of faces. But Red Wings fans of a certain age celebrated Olympia for its intimacy.
The Pistons became familiar with the ambiance during their first four years in town, 1957-61, before the construction of Cobo Arena.
The Olympia felt as though Crane managed to stick an NHL rink into one of his movie houses downtown, to which Detroiters thronged in the years before television, the Madison, Adams, United Artists, Fillmore, or his tour de force, the Fox.
Mike and Marian Ilitch held season tickets at Olympia long before they owned the Red Wings. They moved their offices into the Fox and financed its $12.5 million renovation in 1988.
After what many Tigers fans say is a mistaken approach to seating angles and sight lines at Comerica Park, this time the Ilitches appear to have made no mistake.
Sort of like the box seats in the upper deck of Tiger Stadium, between home plate and first and third bases, Little Caesars Arena is designed to put fans on top of the game.
One of the designers of the new building, Ryan Gedney, said the architects intended “to embellish that sense of intimacy from above.”
“When we started the design process, the Ilitches really had a strong motivation to preserve a lot of the things that they remembered about some of the older hockey venues in terms of seating,” said Gedney, of HOK, a Missouri firm and a leader in sport venue design for 30 years.
“It had a steep lower bowl that provides a really intimidating environment to play in, as well as a loud, exciting environment for the fans,” Gedney said.
“And that was a big priority for them.”
Like Crane, HOK made significant use of sharply elevating rows of seats, stacked levels and overhangs to keep the bowl tight.
“In today’s kind of modern venues, it’s more challenging to preserve those qualities when you’re tasked with infusing what has become a robust and diverse array of premium-seating product,” Gedney said.
“It’s a Swiss watch, as many have talked about, of balancing those various components of sidelines, steepness, scoreboard, all of these things we need people to be able to see comfortably.”
Things like luxury suites, tables with waiters and banks of video monitors tends to cut into the wall-of-people concept.
“This venue does a good job, I think, of questioning that premium seating creatively, but also capturing a number of qualities that exemplify that steep wall of people that was really important to the family, and others,” Gedney said
With a significant twist, Little Caesars Arena follows a trend of integrating the concourse, and an array of refreshments, conveniences and licensed products, with the seating area.
“In Detroit, there was a little bit of that,” Gedney said.
“But there was a really strong motivation to say as a design team that once I’m in that seating bowl, I’m in that seating bowl for the hockey and for the event.
“So there became this really kind of big motivation to seal up that environment, if you will.”
Opponents may find themselves in a pretty tight spot.
Because a basketball court is smaller than the sheet of ice, with 1,000 additional seats mostly around the court, there is likely to be a bit more horizontal space before the steep wall of faces. But the Pistons’ opponents may feel a bit claustrophobic, too.
Given the successive generations of families who often purchase Wings’ seasons tickets, a good number of folks who have experienced both Olympia and Joe Louis Arena are making highly informed assessments of the new place.
In Olympia, hockey became an intimate experience.
“You felt like you could reach out and shake hands with the fans,” said Ted Lindsay, who played 14 seasons for the Red Wings in the old building.
“The glass was lower in those days, and you could hear them talking.”
The lower bowl in Little Caesars Arena rises at almost precisely the angle of the lower seats in Joe Louis Arena. The abrupt rise affords much the same sight lines.
In the mezzanine and upper bowl, the seats rise more sharply than in comparable seating in Joe Louis Arena.
The upper levels remain close to the rink, given the stacking and efficient use of overhangs.
Spectators in the higher seats are closer to the action on the ice than at Joe Louis Arena, and those to the front of each level should feel almost on top of the game.
“This building is even tighter than Montreal,” said Tom Wilson, the President of Olympia Entertainment, a company with roots in the Olympia Stadium Company, the management firm set up in the 1930s by the Norris family, which owned the team.
“The sight lines are the best in the NHL.”
Luxury seating and seats for team executives, managers, scouts and the media are contained in the east and west gondolas, suspended from the ceiling, hanging well out over the seats below.
Looking directly down from the front of the gondolas, high above the ice, one is directly above the 11th row of from the glass.
It feels as though one is nearly hovering over the action.
The legendary Canadian broadcaster Foster Hewitt broadcast from a booth hung from the ceiling, suspended over the ice, in Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. Accessible via a tall ladder and a catwalk with no guardrails, the somewhat perilous appendage obtained the moniker “the gondola.”
“It starts to embellish further the sense of intimacy and closeness from above, with these big, physical gondolas hanging from the roof structure,” Gedney said.
Fans will make their judgments, over time.
But given what the Ilitches and the Red Wings set out to achieve, their goals seem accomplished.