Monday, March 20, 2017

So Long, ol Joe

Venerable Al Sabotka has thrown his last Octopus
Unless you’re mired in nostalgia, going to Joe Louis Arena these days is a rocky experience. Trying to watch hockey replays on the video board is an exercise in frustration, as three pairs of digital cubes have gone out on the south sideboard, creating three virtual pucks to confuse the viewers. It’s amusing, yet maddening.

“We don’t want the video wall going out,” said Detroit’s rink maintenance icon Al Sobotka, the man best know for collecting thrown octopi from zealous Red Wing fans. “Those are in cubes, sometimes a cube breaks, side’s going bad. We just changed a few a couple weeks ago.”

$164 seats in decay
The seats wobble, and the upholstery is ripped, even in the most expensive seats. “Why spend a lot of money?” asked Sobatka, who will keep his job with Olympia Entertainment next year at the Little Caesars Arena. “We knew years ago that we’re was going to be moving, so why? We don’t own the building. It’s like if you’re renting a house, why would you want to put a lot of money into it?”

So The Joe is in a state of rapid decay: rust on bolts, shredded seats, ancient slices of pepperoni in the pot-holed pedestrian ramps to the tram stop. Two women from Traverse City who attended the Big 10 semifinals opted for dinner out in Detroit rather than see the Championship game due to the toxic fumes coming from the ice after each resurfacing. Joe Louis Arena is hockey’s answer to a dive bar: a tough sell unless you have learned to drink there.

The 2017 Big 10 Championship games are a far cry from the glory days of college hockey at The Joe. With both Michigan and Michigan State eliminated in Thursday’s quarterfinals, the alleged attendance for Friday’s semifinal doubleheader was 2,791. Realistic estimates for Friday’s opener was closer to 500 fans. And that included the team bands. 

Tony Granato, who spent two years behind the Joe Louis bench with the Wings as an assistant coach, referred to attendance when asked to wax poetic about the romantic rust bucket.

“I’d like to have seen a few more people in the seats,” said Granato. 

It’s a far cry from the glory days of the CCHA championships, when some of the best teams in the country would meet for a meaningful championship from 1982 to 2013. Michigan’s Red Berenson led his Wolverines to nine CCHA tourney titles at The Joe. He said his squads were all happy to perform in the home of the Red Wings.

“It was a thrill to get here,” said Berenson. “The slogan was, ‘The Road to the Joe.’ Don’t think all those players who played in Joe Louis Arena weren’t thrilled to play here. Maybe now the new Little Cesars Arena is maybe badly needed."

With the failing infrastructure of The Joe, the city of Detroit probably should have brought in the wrecking ball after the last CCHA tourney in 2013. The unique venue hard by the Detroit River has had plenty of college hockey history in addition to the CCHA playoffs, including 38 Great Lakes Invitational Tournaments and several NCAA games.

The 1990 NCAA Frozen Four was played at The Joe in 1990, where the Wisocnisn Badgers won their 5th NCAA title. Sabotka remembers it well, but preferred an earlier Badgers championship, at another hockey venue in Detroit.

“I remember when we had the NCAA at the Olympia in 1977,” said Sabotka. Wisconsin made that Frozen Four, and stormed the Big D. "That was just above everything that you’ve seen, with all the fans that came in from Wisconsin. They took the neighborhood over. I just spoke to Jack Berry (current Badgers goalie) about it from Wisconsin, he’s a local Caesar’s kid. 1990 we had NCAA here, it was nowhere near the one at the Olympia.”

Back in 19778, 6000 Badger fans travelled from Madison to see Mark Johnson and Mike Eaves capture Badger Bob’s second NCAA title back in 1977. With Michigan the other finalist, those finals at the Olympia remain the gold standard for NCAA championship games in terms of drama (overtime), dueling bands, and the respective fans' decibel level.

Sobotka, however, remains loyal to The Joe.

“I don’t care what people call it; saying it’s a dump, that’s a bunch of B.S.” said Sabotka. “We have a lot of pride in our jobs; we’re doing the best we can with what we have. It’s not easy. It’s still a great building as far as I’m concerned.”

After the Big 10 Championship, seven more Red Wings games are scheduled to conclude a dismal season of hockey in downstate Michigan, as the Wings, Michigan and Michigan State all suffered through losing seasons. 

Once hockey is over, a slew of concerts will keep the revenue flowing into summer. The last scheduled event at Joe Louis Arena before the wrecking ball arrives is a WWE event on July 29. Hockey fans should feel right at home walking the concourse srrounded the smells of stale beer and popcorn, black and white nostalgia of Gordie Howe and Ted Lindsay. The ever loyal Sabotka will be down in the Zamboni pit until the very end.