By Erin Bradley
Every hockey barn has its own unique story to tell, and if Olympia Stadium’s walls could talk, they would go on for hours. This “Old Red Barn” has a laundry list of memorable moments and unforgettable events that took place within its walls from hockey games to boxing matches to rock concerts. That is why we have chosen Olympia Stadium as our featured Barn for this edition of Barn Blog.
Name: Olympia Stadium
Team: Detroit Red Wings
Location: Detroit, Michigan
Year Built: 1927
Year Closed: 1979
Year Demolished: 1987
In 1927, the Olympia stadium was built 107 feet high with a strong steel frame and red terra cotta bricks. It was so structurally sound that the general manager, Lincoln Cavalieri, once commented “This is a tremendous building . . . if an atom bomb landed, I’d want to be in Olympia.” Detroit was in an economic boom thanks to Henry Ford and the automobile industry, and with plenty of leisure time, the community was looking for an entertainment source. Originally set to be a $600,000 project, the stadium quickly turned into a $2.5 million extravagant stadium that would soon become the largest indoor skating rink at the time with 77.393 square feet of floor space.
Although Olympia’s real opening day was a rodeo, its first big event was a heavyweight fight between Tom Heeney and Johnny Risko. This match brought the stadium’s first full house as fans were even hanging from the rafters just to get a better view of the match. Boxing was the Olympia’s first favorite pastime. In 1943, Jake LaMotta and Sugar Ray Robinson fought before an audience of 18,930 rowdy fans who filled up every last inch of the stadium including the standing room only section.
Eventually, fans would move their focus to hockey. As the Detroit Times put it, “Hockey, they discovered, is football set to lightning. The athletes flashed around the big expanse of ice like shooting stars, but every electric movement meant something. They squirmed, dodged, ducked, danced and pirouetted on their flashing blades with such rapidity that at times the eye could not quite follow the maneuvers . . . That the pastime has caught on here cannot be doubted.”
There are many greats who have played at the “old red barn” including: Ted Lindsay, Sid Abel, Alex Delvecchio, Terry Sawchuk, Larry Aurie and “Mr. Hockey” himself, Gordie Howe. According to an excerpt from “Olympia Stadium” by Tom Henderson, Howe carried the team and was so good the Red Wings rarely needed to call up players from their farm team. He also held the NHL records for most goals and most points.
The stadium saw many great games throughout its years, but one of the greatest was the Red Wings last regular game. On December 15, 1979 the Red Wings took on the Quebec Nordiques. Fan and Senior Analyst, Greg Eno, from the Bleacher Report states, “It’s among the list of electrifying moments I’ve been lucky enough to witness in person in Detroit sports history.”
In the first and second periods the Nordiques managed to gain a 4-0 lead over the Red Wings. Many teams may have lost hope with a score like that, but the Red Wings didn’t give up and managed to tie the game at 4 in the end. There was no such thing as overtime or shootouts at the time. With 15,609 fans cheering on the Red Wings, “The place shook when the crowd reaction was explosive enough,” says Eno. The Red Wings left the Olympia with a happy ending and a great story for fans to tell.
Through the years, the team went through a few ownership and name changes as well. They were originally the Victoria (B.C.) Cougars when they bought by a group of Detroit businessman led by Charles Hughes. The team soon moved to Detroit and had their first game in 1926 as the Detroit Cougars. Later in 1930, they would go on to change their name to the Detroit Falcons, and then in 1932 their name was finally changed to the Red Wings. A wealthy man from Chicago by the name of James Norris had just bought the team and thought that a winged wheel was a much more appropriate symbol for a team from Detroit. He got the name from his youth amateur team who were known as the Montreal Winged Wheelers.
The Olympia saw a total of seven Stanley Cup wins. This includes the years: 1936, 1937, 1943, 1950, 1952, 1954 and 1955. It also saw a total of six retired numbers as well including: Terry Sawchuck (1), Larry Aurie (6), Ted Lindsay (7), Gordie Howe (9), Alex Delvecchio (10), and Sid Abel (12). The stadium definitely had its share of countless hockey records and moments, and produced a great team that continues to play today at Joe Louis Arena.
Not only did the Olympia withstand thousands of rowdy sports fans, but it withstood thousands of screaming girls as well. The Olympia has hosted numerous concerts of well known bands and artists including: Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zepplin, The Jackson 5, Pink Floyd, Elton John, David Bowie, Kiss, and more. In May of 1976, one fan named Michael Kudzia was even lucky enough to make it backstage after a concert to give Sir Paul McCartney himself a Red Wings sticker which he promptly added to his 1964 Texan. McCartney went on to record Yesterday with the same guitar and even used it to perform on the Ed Sullivan show.
Unfortunately, the Olympia was demolished in 1987. According to HistoricDetriot.org, “When it was finally torn down, the building’s superstructure was so solid and well-built, it could not be imploded.” It had to be considering all of the spirited sports and music fans that packed the building on its most memorable nights. “Cranes gradually ate away at it, from rear to front, while construction workers handed out bricks and chairs to tearful onlookers.” Although fans mournfully watched the building’s demolition, the memory of the Olympia and all of the wonderful events that took place within its walls, will remain in the hearts and minds of all those who were lucky enough to be in its seats . . . and its rafters.