As ceremonies go, this one was short but oh-so-sweet. On a sunny afternoon in September 1993, about 150 men and women gathered inside the new Michigan National Guard Armory on Grand River in Detroit to honor a dearly departed friend. A few words were spoken, pictures were taken, and then a pair of former Red Wings, Alex Delvecchio and Stuart Evans, whisked the cloth off a bronze tablet attached to an interior wall of the armory. It read:
“Be it known to future generations that this site was for 60 years, 1927-1986, the location of Olympia Stadium, home of the Detroit Red Wings of the National Hockey League.”
The tablet, sponsored and installed by the Detroit Red Wings Alumni Association, says a lot, but it can’t possibly say it all. It doesn’t, for instance, mention the intimacy of the Wings’ former home. Unlike modern arenas, the players were so close that fans could literally reach out and touch them. This was especially true during Olympia’s early years, when nothing topped the dashers between the bluelines.
“I remember one game I wound up with Toronto’s Harry Watson in my lap,” longtime season-ticket holder Ray Ryder, who attended his first game in 1934, once told me. Even after wire mesh and then glass partitions began to separate players from fans, the in-your-face atmosphere remained. “It was very cozy,” said Nick Libett, who played 11 years in Detroit. “The crowd was close to the ice. The balcony seemed like it hung over the ice. You’d see the same people over and over. It was more of a social gathering than a hockey game.”
Olympia was the dream of the club’s first president, Charles Hughes, who headed the syndicate responsible for bringing the Victoria Cougars from British Columbia to Detroit in 1926. The million-dollar brick structure was designed by noted architect C. Howard Crane, whose other works included the opulent Fox Theatre and acoustically perfect Orchestra Hall. It opened in the fall of 1927 and was a central venue for sports and entertainment acts for more than a half-century. A 19-year-old boxer named Joe Louis won the city’s Golden Gloves tournament there in 1934; later, it hosted such musical acts as the Beatles and Elvis Presley. Rodeos, wrestling matches, bicycle races, ice skating shows, political rallies–you name the event, and there’s an excellent chance that at one time or another Olympia hosted it. But first and foremost, Olympia was known as the home of the Detroit Red Wings.
“I’ve always thought the old Olympia was better than Joe Louis Arena,” said Stuart Evans, who wore the winged wheel in the early 1930s. “The stands had more elevation. You could see the ice better.”
Pete Kelly, a right winger on Detroit’s first two Stanley Cup championship teams, in 1936 and 1937, was impressed with the facility right from the get-go. “My first year in the NHL was 1934, with St. Louis,” said Kelly. “I had the opportunity to play in the six or seven NHL rinks, and when I got home after the season, I was frequently asked, ‘Which rink did you enjoy playing in most?’ Honestly, I always said, ‘Olympia.’ I liked the shape of it. It was a nice size. It didn’t have those severe corners. They were nicely rounded corners, which was quite distinct in those days.”
Compared to today’s facilities at The Joe, player amenities at Olympia were primitive. There was a sauna, a trainer’s room, and later a weight room, but the locker room was roughly comparable to a high school facility today: some hooks and nails on the wall, long wooden benches, and a shower room with just a handful of heads.
Kelly remembered the dressing room adjoining the Wings’ clubhouse. It belonged to the Olympics, the farm team that also played its home schedule at Olympia. According to Kelly, the door was too handy to be comfortable. “You could open the door and be in the minors,” he laughed. “We’d kid each other: ‘See that door over there? You’d better get cracking–or else.’” The Wings’ coach and general manager, Jack Adams, “used to insinuate that we were never too far from the minors,” said Kelly.
Detroit’s NHL squad, then known as the Cougars, essentially were a road team during their first season in the Motor City. “Home” games in the 1926-27 season were played across the Detroit River in Windsor, at the 6,000-seat Border Cities Arena.
After spending their first year in Windsor, the Cougars finally competed on Detroit ice on November 22, 1927, as Olympia Stadium opened its doors to hockey with great fanfare. Olympia was modeled after New York’s Madison Square Garden, which had opened the previous year. A standing-room-only crowd of more than 10,000 watched Mayor John Smith present Adams with bunches of chrysantheums. The University of Michigan played, figure skaters entertained between periods, and Foster Hewitt described the entire affair over radio station WGHP.
“The side features were pleasing,” reported the next day’s Detroit News, “but the result of the game was not.” Johnny Sheppard beat Ottawa goalie Alex Connell on a rebound 10 minutes into the game to register the first-ever goal at Olympia, but the defending Stanley Cup champions scored in the second and third periods to pull out a 2-1 win. Five days later the Cougars posted their first home victory at Olympia, Hap Holmes shutting out the Montreal Canadiens, 2-0.
The first few seasons at Olympia were marked by regular outbreaks of fan violence. The majority of patrons were from Canada, and they enjoyed rooting against the home team. The rowdyism was particularly bad when the league’s four Canadian teams came to town. “I’ve never seen a place like this in my whole life,” said Adams. “There just can’t be another city in the world where the home team isn’t popular. Even when we win, which I admit isn’t too often, we get booed. Things just have to change around here.”