For nearly four decades, Blackhawks fans have filed into Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena to watch their team take on the Red Wings.
That period is about to end; the Hawks play their last regular season game at “The Joe” on March 10.
Come next season, the Red Wings will host their Midwestern rivals in new digs: Little Caesars Arena, a key piece of a much larger development dubbed The District Detroit. This 50-block span of sports and entertainment venues, restaurants, bars, businesses, parks and more promises to link downtown and midtown into one big, thriving urban setting.
The $1.2 billion District Detroit project “is one of the largest sports and entertainment developments of its kind happening in the country right now,” said Tom Wilson, president and CEO of Olympia Entertainment, the management company overseeing the new arena. “For sports fans, there will be no other destination quite like it.”
It’s easy to see the eye-catching Pizzarena — as some are already calling the new venue — as one more sign of Detroit’s much-ballyhooed renaissance. But it’s safe to say hockey fans’ emotions are mixed during this farewell season at The Joe.
“When I look back, I’ll remember pounding on the glass around the ice,” said retired teacher Alana McKibben, who splits Red Wings season tickets with a friend. “I’ll think about going to The Joe with my buddy, buying Little Caesars pizza and a Slurpee for dinner, then peanuts at halftime. We had a routine.
“But it’s time for a new stadium,” McKibben added. “I guess I’ll find a new routine.”
When the Wings drop the puck at their 2017-18 NHL home opener, it will be at an arena that can accommodate about the same number of fans as The Joe — roughly 20,000 — but more comfortably. The new stadium, which sits a mile north of The Joe’s riverfront location, will feature gondola seating overhanging the lower levels, five restaurants (The Joe has only concessions), seven clubs (The Joe has one) and a concourse three times as big as The Joe’s.
“We worked hard to make Little Caesars Arena the best in the country,” Wilson said.
The stadium’s name is a nod to the Detroit-based pizza empire owned by the Ilitch family, whose patriarch, Mike Ilitch, passed away Feb. 10 at age 87. The Ilitches also own the Red Wings and the Tigers, who play ball at nearby Comerica Park.
The completion of Little Caesars Arena will transform this part of Detroit into an athletics nirvana. Late last year, the Detroit Pistons announced that they’re leaving their current suburban location at The Palace of Auburn Hills when the season ends. They’re going to share a roof with the Red Wings and make Little Caesars Arena their home court.
Within four blocks of the new arena lie the Tigers’ home and Ford Field, where the Lions play. The location of all four teams in such close proximity is expected to render Detroit into a major sports destination — one billed as having the country’s highest density of pro teams clustered in a downtown core. The ante will be raised even higher if Detroit businessmen Dan Gilbert and Tom Gores have their way. The NBA owners (Gilbert of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Gores of the Pistons) submitted a bid earlier this year to bring a Major League Soccer team to downtown Detroit in 2020.
Little Caesars Arena and its baseball and football counterparts represent merely a piece — albeit the centerpiece — of the greater District Detroit development. Wrapping around the three sports arenas, the District also envelops several theaters, MotorCity Casino and the Detroit Opera House. Projects in the works include new parks, restaurants, bars and a hotel, many of them replacing underdeveloped or derelict properties.
While entertainment is a key component of District Detroit, the development will be mixed-use. The Piazza, for example, adjacent to Little Caesars Arena, will feature a large, open-air community gathering place where concerts and performances can be broadcast on super-sized display screens. The space will include residential buildings and offices, as well.
As Detroiters watch construction cranes complete the final stages of the new arena, there’s a sense of nostalgia, to be sure. But there’s also a sense of excitement for what the future holds.
“You know, The Joe was never state-of-the-art, even when it was new,” said Livonia resident Jim Buchel, a Red Wings fan since childhood.
He isn’t the only one to disparage the 38-year-old arena’s narrow and slow walkways, scarce and inadequate restrooms, and steep entrance stairways often made all too slick with ice and snow.
Besides ... “It wasn’t the building that made The Joe special,” Buchel said. “It was the teams that played there. Now it’s up to Little Caesars Arena to write its own story.”
Amy S. Eckert is a freelance writer.
Where fans can fuel up
Dozens of new restaurants and bars are slated for the District Detroit. But Detroiters are a loyal bunch, and all expectations are that today’s fan favorites will remain long after The Joe goes dark.
Nemo’s Bar: Fifty years ago, founder and hockey lover Nemo Springstead lent players money to keep them afloat in the offseason. A Red Wings favorite, this Corktown bar will still buzz long after The Joe closes. Hop aboard Nemo’s fleet of shuttles for cheap transportation to the game, whether you’re headed to The Joe or District Detroit; www.nemosdetroit.com.
Hockeytown Cafe: Detroit sports memorabilia — most of it Red Wings-themed, naturally — makes this Woodward Avenue restaurant a hit with hockey fans. A free shuttle makes the trip to The Joe this season, but the cafe’s proximity to Little Caesars Arena means you can walk next year; www.hockeytowncafe.com.
Old Shillelagh: Greektown’s Irish pub dishes up bar food, beer, live music and the occasional group singalong. The popular tavern sits roughly equidistant from The Joe and Little Caesars Arena and offers free game-day shuttles; www.oldshillelagh.com.
Grand Trunk: History runs deep in this Woodward Avenue pub. The 1905 Grand Trunk ticket office has served as a restaurant and bar since the ‘30s, and its vaulted ceilings and wooden bar remain. There’s no free shuttle to the game, but with more than 170 beers on tap — most of them brewed in Michigan — the pub remains a fan favorite; www.grandtrunk.pub.