Saturday, February 9, 2008

"They Died Old"--Vol. V

Whenever sportscasters reminisce about great old sports venues, one that is often overlooked is the venerable Olympia Stadium in Detroit.  While Boston Garden, the Montreal Forum and old Madison Square Garden in New York always seem to get the lion's share of nostalgic memories, Olympia is largely forgotten for some reason.  The former home of the Red Wings is quite legendary indeed, and very beloved by those who frequented it, so here's a little salute to a classic hockey arena.

Olympia Stadium opened in 1927 at the corner of Grand River Ave. and McGraw St., southwest of downtown Detroit, not far from where Berry Gordy, Jr. set up shop at the legendary Motown Hitsville, U.S.A. studio just over 30 years later.  Olympia was unique for its cathedral-like facade and red brick exterior, and it was a premier hockey and boxing venue.  It also served briefly as the home of the ever-nomadic Pistons of the NBA following their move from Fort Wayne in 1957.  The Pistons went on to play at Cobo Arena, the Pontiac Silverdome and Joe Louis Arena (after the Silverdome roof collapsed) before settling into their permanent home, The Palace of Auburn Hills.  Concerts were an Olympia staple as wellElvis played there.  So did The Beatles.  Even Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd rocked the Old Red Barn.

But it's old-time hockey (Eddie Shore?) that Olympia Stadium is best-known for, with its superior sightlines that were among the best of any arena of its era.  The Red Wings called Olympia home from almost Day One, although they were originally called the Cougars and briefly the Falcons before adopting their current name in 1932.  The Wings won seven Stanley Cup titles at Grand River and McGraw, including four during their 1950's heyday that featured the "Production Line" of Hall of Famers Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Sid Abel, as well as stalwart goaltender Terry Sawchuk.  Lindsay is credited for starting the tradition in 1950 of skating around the rink with the Stanley Cup hoisted on high.  Another tradition began at Olympia in 1952, back when a team only had to win eight postseason games to claim Lord Stanley's Cup, so during the playoffs that year, fish market owner Peter Cusimano hurled an octopus onto the ice for good luck, and a Motor City legend was born!

The Red Wings fell on hard times during the late '60s and throughout the '70s, which was known as the "Dead Wings/Things" era.  Olympia's neighborhood started deteriorating around that same time, and the arena itself showed its age as well, despite numerous upgrades and the addition of suites wherever they could fit them in.  After the NFL's Lions fled Tiger Stadium to Pontiac in 1975, the Red Wings nearly followed suit, but eventually they wound up building their current home, Joe Louis Arena, adjacent to the Cobo Arena/Cobo Hall convention complex alongside the Detroit River.  The final curtain came down on Olympia Stadium on December 15, 1979, as the Wings and Quebec Nordiques skated to a 4-4 tie.  The Old Red Barn was shuttered and stood for seven years until it was demolished in 1986-87.  A National Guard armory now occupies the site, which is probably the only safe haven for miles, considering the dreadful condition of the neighborhood it sits in.

In recent years, there has been talk of yet another new home for the Red Wings, and one enterprising person has proposed the brilliant idea of a "new" Olympia to be located near Comerica Park and Ford Field (ironically just a couple blocks from Grand River Ave.) on the west side of downtown Motown, also near the Red Wings' Hockeytown Cafe.  His plan would feature a modern arena with all the bells and whistles of current venues, but with a retro look to pay homage to the Old Red Barn.  Let's hope the powers-that-be in Detroit make this vision a reality someday soon.  I have some very vague memories of watching one or two Kansas City Scouts games live on TV from Olympia in 1974-75, and I'm still waiting for ol' Doc Brown to perfect that blasted Flux Capacitor so I can time-travel and watch the Production Line in action live in person at Olympia.  Heck, I'd even chow down on some octopi while I was there!  As Kiss sings, "You gotta lose your mind in Detroit..."

1 comment:

dr sardonicus said...

Fine tribute to The Old Red Barn. I'm not a Red Wings fan by any stretch, so I don't have many impressions of the place, except for a Blues game that was televised from there. Someone hung a rubber chicken from the rafters with the blue note logo painted on it, presumably a commentary on what Detroit fans thought of the St. Louis players' intestinal fortitude.