As the live band blared pop covers and the sun dipped behind the parking deck, Kevin Larkin surveyed the red-carpet setup with a wide grin. When he first settled here with his wife in 1989, the beauty supply distributor tried mining this downtown Detroit area for potential clients but quickly realized the futility of his efforts. Too many shuttered offices, empty lots, burned-down houses to make business worthwhile. But look around now. Look how everything changed.
“We’ve been spoiled,” he says, an hour and a half before Thursday night’s regular-season opener. “We’ve come a long way from the Joe.”
Technically, the distance separating the Red Wings’ old digs at Joe Louis Arena and their new rink at Little Caesars Arena is about one mile, as the winged wheels drive. But like Detroit defenseman/forward Luke Witkowski says, “It’s not comparable.” On the one hand, the Joe was beloved for its rustic...uhh...charm. “The whole place looks as if it was built after somebody cut the budget in half,” SI’s Michael Rosenberg wrote in March. “Who builds a riverfront arena with no windows?” On the other hand, when Larkin’s 20-year-old speedster son Dylan invited him into the home locker room at Little Caesars after a recent Red Wings exhibition game, he stumbled into a sprawling, 25,000-square-foot complex replete with spa pools and a sauna.
“Sad to see the Joe go,” Kevin Larkin says, as a woman snaps a selfie with an octopus atop her head nearby. “A lot of great memories. But I knew where we were going. I like shiny and new.”
In that case, he came to the right spot. The concourse is filled with interior brick, natural light and garage-door entrances to restaurants, lending the ambiance of an outdoor plaza. A massive LED grid turns the rafters into an arena-sized Lite-Brite. The center-ice video screen briefly held the title of largest in the league at 5,100 square feet, at least until New Jersey’s Prudential Center and its behemoth board smashed that at more than 9,500. “The Joe, there was a lot of history,” defenseman Danny DeKeyser says. “But this is first-class everything.”
It was a special night for all the players at the Pizza-Pizza Palace, to be sure, especially after third-period goals from captain Henrik Zetterberg and rookie Martin Frk lifted the Red Wings to a 4–2 win over visiting Minnesota. (Players were evidently so excited to hop onto the ice that Detroit took a too-many-men penalty at the 47-second mark of the game.) But much like the sellout crowd streaming into the entrances near Larkin, decked in jerseys of Gordie Howe and Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom and every other Motown marvel, six native Michiganders on the Red Wings’ roster can claim a higher understanding.
“It’s bittersweet,” says Witkowski, who was born in Holland, Mich., and attended Western Michigan University. “The Joe was way past its prime. That’s the way life goes, right?”
Of course, none could’ve guessed that life would actually take them here, no matter how hard they dreamed. Larkin, Witkowski, DeKeyser, and forwards David Booth, Justin Abdelkader and Luke Glendening all grew up attending Red Wings games at the Joe. This is entirely unique in the NHL; no other U.S.-based team has more than three area natives on its roster (or more than three Michiganders, for that matter).
Larkin idolized Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, collecting their posters and bobbleheads. DeKeyser’s childhood bedroom, meanwhile, was flush with Lidstrom memorabilia, and his family couch was usually draped in Red Wings-themed pillows and blankets. “There was always a Red Wings tattoo on his heart,” says his mother, Linda DeKeyser. “Where else would you want to play but here?”
She and her husband, Mick, are standing in a family section near the red carpet, while an emcee announces the arrivals of players to the rink. There goes Booth, who returned from two seasons in the KHL and made his hometown team on a tryout. And Larkin, who while weighing whether to leave the University of Michigan and turn pro in 2015 told Kevin, “Dad, I want to play at the Joe before they close it.”
Mick and Linda DeKeyser hail from the area too. He spent four decades employed by Ford; Linda works at an engineering company that designs automobile safety systems. When he was a kid, Mick saw games at Detroit Olympia, predecessor to the Joe, “but that only means I’m old.” Together they would chaperone Danny and his youth hockey teammates to Red Wings games in Detroit, or even on the road if both squads happened to be in the city. After he was born, the youngest of their five children, they stuck him in a Red Wings onesie. And it was an “out-of-body experience,” Mick says, when Danny decided to sign with Detroit after his junior season at Western Michigan, where he was defense partners with Witkowski. Because they are opposite-handed shots, Linda calls Witkowski, “my righty son.”
To the DeKeysers, the growth of the surrounding sprawl—50 blocks marketed as District Detroit, including the homes of the Tigers and Lions—means more than the new building where the Pistons and Wings play. “Because of the way Detroit’s making a comeback,” Mick says. “We want to be a beacon,” Linda says. “We want people to come to Detroit. We don’t want people to be afraid.” At least Gary Bettman agrees; during a pregame press conference, the NHL commissioner peered into his crystal ball and foresaw “league events” in Detroit’s future, once the district is “finished.”
Indeed, it’s all about the future now. The on-ice product is far less certain than, say, the prospect of the city hosting an NHL draft and All-Star Game, though sending fans home happy against the reigning Central Division champs was a nice start. But memories of the Joe are still fresh. The home bench was relocated to the Little Caesars Arena concourse, where fans can pose next to cutouts of current players. The final game there, a 4–1 win over New Jersey on April 9, did nothing to help Detroit avoid seeing its streak of 25 straight playoff appearances end. But the deejay kept spinning tracks in the Olympia room long after midnight; Mick and Linda DeKeyser didn’t leave until past 3 a.m. “You’re heartbroken, but you know you need change,” Mick DeKeyser says. “This is energizing for the city.”
Kevin Larkin remembers coaching Dylan in the squirt hockey finals at the Joe. “To see those kids skating out, and the sea of empty red seats,” he says, “it’s so surreal that all these seats were full for his first game” with the Red Wings in October 2015. At no point during opening night will Little Caesars Arena appear packed to capacity, but there’s a reasonable enough explanation; when this happened during the preseason, the operating theory held that everyone was simply checking out stuff in the concourse. The shiny and new things, of course, just like Larkin prefers. “You know where to find me,” he says, walking through the entrance at the new barn, for the first of however many games to come.