Detroit's Olympia, site of many great hockey memories.
"It would not matter where the city builds its new stadium. No location could be better than the one we have now." - Olympia General Manager Lincoln Cavalieri, in 1970, defending his building's location on Grand River.
"This is a tremendous building ... if an atom bomb landed, I'd want to be in Olympia." - Cavalieri, in 1979, describing the structural soundness of the old red barn.
The wheelers and dealers created Olympia, and they likely are going to destroy it. At the very least, this season (1980) will mark its end as home of the Red Wings.
Soon the Wings, as well as the rock concerts, rodeos, Ice Capades, boxing matches and revivals that have made such a money-maker out of Olympia, will move to the Joe Louis Arena on the riverfront.
The move has nothing to do with the neighborhood around Olympia, and it certainly has nothing to do with the crowds, because fans have broken all sorts of attendance records there recently. It has to do with power and money; as Olympia was born, so shall it die.
Just as the Joe Louis Arena grew out of a power struggle between those who wanted a new arena in Pontiac and those who wanted one on the river, Olympia grew, in the mid-20s, out of a struggle between rival groups.
Both battles were won by the fittes. In 1926, plans were announced to build an arena across from the old Ford plant in Highland Park. The heavyweights at the Detroit Athletic Club opposed that arena and set about to build their own. It was not contest. A year later, Olympia had already been built and opened, thanks to the financing of such notable names as Fisher, Townsend, Buhl, Kern, Ford (Henry and Edsel) and Butzel.
Only after they had the rink under construction did the movers and shakers go about getting a team to play in it, purchasing the Victoria (British Columbia) Cougars and moving them to Detroit. They played the 1926-1927 season in Windsor and moved to Olympia after it opened October 15, 1927.
Hockey has been a mainstay since, but it was boxing that really made the place famous.
The first event at Olympia was a rodeo, but a fight 11 days after it opened brought in the first huge crowd. Heavyweights Tom Heeney and Johnny Risko fought before a crowd announced a 16,000, but according to newspaper accounts, there were far more in the building. They were hanging from the rafters, and that's when the term wasn't a clichˇ; many fans actually wormed their way out onto the rafters and thousands of others jostled for prime standing-room spots.
But a depression was on the way, and Olympia soon went bankrupt. James Norris bought the place for $5 million in 1933, renamed the Cougars the Red Wings, and things have been rolling for the Norrisses and Olympia ever since.
In 1934, Joe Louis, a promising amateur, made his debut there, and nearly got whipped in the Golden Gloves by a kid named Stanley Evans. Louis knocked him down in the first round, then got pummeled the rest of the way en route to a win that was booed by the fans.
Boxing hit its prime there in the early 1940's, with some classic bouts, including two historic matches between Jake LaMotta and Sugar Ray Robinson. It was early in 1943 and Robinson was the classiest fighter in the world, having run up 129 wins without defeat. Before a frenzied crowd of 18,930, LaMotta pulled off a stunning upset, barely missing out on a knockout when the bell rang at the count of nine to save Robinson at the end of round eight.
Three weeks later, LaMotta and Robinson went at it again in Olympia, with Robinson winning a 10-round decision.
Other famous fighters to appear there included Jersey Joe Walcott, Ezzard Charles, Kid Gavilan and, of course, Thomas Hearns.
Fights and hockey weren't the only things to draw huge throngs of Detroiters to Grand River. In 1944, 19,500 showed up to hear vice president Henry Wallace tell them that the Republican nominee for president, Thomas Dewey, had "a sterile mind (and his) campaign is conceived, concocted and speech-written by expert manipulators."
Hockey hit its heyday in the late 1940's and early 1950's. Led first by Sid Abel and then Ted Lindsay and Gordie Howe, the Wings won seven straight league championships and eight in nine years, and they won four Stanley Cups.
It hit its nadir in the 70's, when under first Ned Harkness and then Alex Delvecchio the club dropped to the bottom of the NHL. Even then, except for only two seasons, the fans supported the team and the building.
In 1979, with the team way under .500 and out of the playoffs all season, the team set a new single-season attendance record.
The building is structurally fine - built in tiers, it allows most fans a beautiful view of the game, a view that won't be matched in the Louis Arena - and the fans are supportive, so why move on?
Money talks. In this case, it roared.
Two years ago suburban developers made an offer Norris and Cavalieri couldn't refuse. They wanted the Wings to move to Pontiac, next to the Silverdome, and offered them a package worth nearly $3 million a year in profits in addition to paying for construction of the building.
A year ago, the City of Detroit (read that Mayor Young) came up with another offer the Wings couldn't refuse. They were offered control of Cobo Arena, Louis Arena and two parking structure, all at one-third the rent they would have paid in Pontiac. As quickly as you can tear up a contract, or hop through a loophole, the Wings bid adieu to Pontiac.
Despite the money, and despite the pretty, new arena, everyone associated with the Wings admits Olympia will be a hard place to leave. And they admit that Olympia's atmosphere will not be duplicated in the Louis Arena.
"We don't want to leave this building," said Cavalieri, "I've been here for 20 years. This is a tremendous building ..... You don't get the charm and the character in a new building that you have here. And the sight lines are the best in the league. We're going to cry our eyes out."
Said Art Whelan, Cavalieri's assistant: "I've had architectural students come in, look at the trusses in the ceiling (at Olympia) and say, 'Wow, we've seen stuff like them in textbooks.'"
"It's poured concrete," said Cavalieri of Olympia's construction, "It's not cinder block or any of that."
Yet, Olympia will likely be leveled by the wreckers in the near future. The Wings' contract with Detroit prevents them from operating Olympia in competition with the downtown arena, or even selling it to someone who will use it in competition. That leaves either giving it away to Wayne State or the University of Detroit - neither of which are likely to be able to afford its upkeep - or wrecking it. Each would make a nifty tax deduction.
"It's a single-purpose building," said Cavalieri, "As long as it can't be used in competition, it is going to be very difficult to sell it. We'll probably strip it, knock it down and put up houses or something.
They shoot horses, but only when they have to. Somehow it seems obscene to raze a building that everyone admits is in great shape, that everyone admits is in great shape, that everyone admits is a super place to watch hockey. But there's money to be made and so it will be made, and if that means higher prices for worse seats in a structurally inferior building, so be it.
By Tom Henderson, The Detroit Free Press, January 1980
Drew Snider writes: Before TV coverage of hockey was an almost-every-day thing, I heard a recurring complaint about the Olympia about the shape of its end boards (one observer remarked: "the boards are egg-shaped and made of elastic").
By the way, the tribute to the Olympia you have at the website put me in mind of an interview I did on a sports-talk show a couple of years ago. Bruce Martyn -- for years, the radio voice of the Red Wings -- was my guest (he was about to retire and the 'Wings were heading for the Stanley Cup finals -- the year they didn't win) and he and Jim Robson (then-newly retired as the Canucks' radio broadcaster) were enthusing about what a wonderful place the Olympia was for watching hockey. It was, no doubt, a gem.
On June 30, 2002 James M. McKillen writes:
A final word about Olympia Stadium -
I first attended hockey games in the latter part of the 1960's. A time of Alex Delvecchio, Gordie Howe, and The Big 'M', Frank Mahovolich, with Roger Crozier and Gary Bergman defending. It was a special treat that my parents brought me to such a place as the Olympia. It may not have been the biggest arena in the time that I saw it, I believe Chicago held that distinction for a number of years, but it was certainly fan-friendly. The noise that could be generated in that building during a playoff run could only be recounted by a fan that was there at that time. Trust me, it was incredible.
Olympia went out without fanfare. Not even a whimper. I thought at the time that it deserved better. It was truly one of the best arenas ever to be built. It's memory will live on in the minds of those who attended there.
On December 28, 2002 Greg Kacir wrote: Not only was the Olympia a great hockey arena, it was an excellent venue for concerts. The accoustics were unbelievably good. I saw several legendary shows there: Among them were Paul Mcartney & Wings, Yes, and George Harrison. Also, it was the home of the "Ice Follies" and the "Shrine Circus" for many years.