The Detroit Red Wings have been part of the fabric of the City of Detroit for decades, but primarily since Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch took a chance and purchased the team roughly thirty-five years ago. When they did that, slowly but surely, the Red Wings started to become similar to the teams that the older generations were so fortunate to have watched. I remember stories about the old Olympia arena (which, for reference, was around for about ten years longer than JLA has been) where Gordie Howe and the Production Line were Gods amongst men and Terry Sawchuk’s greatness between the pipes became lore. Not to mention the better left forgotten ‘Dead Wing’ era that carried over into the early years of Joe Louis. Then 1982 happened and the Red Wings would be vastly different forever.
Admittedly, I’ve taken, and will continue to take, some liberties with what this story was supposed to be about (my first experience in LCA). To understand the impact that LCA had on me, and I can imagine on many others, it is important to understand the vision that the Ilitch’s had, at least from the perspective of someone who has never had the privilege of meeting them. I always felt that the Red Wings were akin to a family to Mr. Ilitch; you could see the sorrow in his face during times of loss, the anguish in his face in the aftermath of the accident that changed several lives forever, but most of all the genuine elation of seeing his boys hoist the Stanley Cup several times over the years. Few will ever truly know the intentions and whether there was benevolence within those intentions but I felt that way many times over the years; more so than with any of the other major professional sports teams in Metro Detroit. Chris Ilitch, now the head of his family’s empire, answered two questions in an interview with John Gallagher of the Detroit Free Press that I believe embody my impressions of Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch and their vision for Detroit through the District and LCA:
Your parents moved their company to downtown Detroit 30 years ago, renovating the Fox Theatre, building Comerica Park, and creating Little Caesars Arena and District Detroit. What does this project mean to you as an Ilitch family member?
I look at Little Caesars Arena and the District Detroit truly as the culmination of all the incredible work my parents did throughout their lifetimes. Their vision was for a bustling Detroit. That’s what they remember from their youth. They set the stage for all of this to come together and to be an exceptionally dynamic, impactful, transformational project, to power our local economy. But more than that, sports venues, when done well, they instill pride in the local community, they change how people feel about their city, the state. We took to heart the opportunity of Little Caesars Arena and District Detroit. We really felt that this place could make a huge impact on this community if it’s done really, really well. And as such, we have put our heart and soul into this.
This was the first question that Gallagher posed and for me, it struck a chord that giving people pride was – and still continues to be – a goal of theirs. Chris elaborated on his father’s feelings regarding LCA when asked what he would say if he’d been able to see the finished arena:
One of thing I’m so proud of is my father saw all of these plans. Every week I would go over to his house and I would share the plans and get his thoughts and his input, and he was over-the-moon excited about Little Caesars Arena and the District Detroit. And he would often say, ‘I’ve got to pinch myself,’ because this is what he dreamed about. And to see it all come to fruition after all of his hard work through his career and the chances that he took on Detroit, his hometown, and his ambition to rebuild his hometown, he was so excited. And I think if he saw this today, he would be thrilled. At the end of the day what he wanted more than anything, he wanted to produce a winner here in Detroit, and it’s coming together.
We can all debate the validity of whether or not the Red Wings are becoming winners. The first two games notwithstanding, count this guy on the side that they’re much further away from being a winner than being on the opposite end of the spectrum. The important aspect of that response was the happiness Mr. Ilitch had about his dream coming to fruition. This was the happiness, awe, elation and stupor I felt when I walked onto the campus of Little Caesars Arena; it was only heightened when I entered into ‘The Pizzarena’ (disclaimer: I did not make that up, I saw it on social media). It was stunning, a truly breath-taking example of modern day architecture; the simplicity of its complexity was ingenious. I really enjoyed the look of the brick, with the external staircases, it gave a look almost of an alleyway you’d see in a downtown common place (e.g. Campus Martius or Cadillac Square); that, coupled with the color schemes within LCA, seemed to be very unique and fresh. The best part though, is truly the vision that came together for the fans when it comes to seeing the ice. My seats are in the 200 level, 5th row to the left of the goal where the Wings shoot twice and yes…it is steep! It truly didn’t matter though, the views of the game and the ice were impeccable; even though I was quite close to the underside of the gondola there were no obstruction issues.
Joe Louis Arena was a staple and an icon of Detroit, not only where the Red Wings played but where legends were created. From the ‘Dead Wing’ era to Mr. Ilitch buying the team, back to back Stanley Cups and the end of several eras during the final season; it gave many people hope and was a beacon during extremely trying times. I was fortunate enough to attend the final home opener there, the final game at JLA and the inaugural home opener for LCA; all three had emotional elements that will stay with me forever and I hope that one day I can pass those memories onto my sons, as I got wonderful memories from those who got to see the transition from the Olympia to the Joe.