40 years ago: Red Wings play final game at Olympia Stadium

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The Library of Congree

SOUTHWEST AND SOUTHEAST FACADES, LOOKING NORTH - Olympia Stadium, 5920 Grand River Avenue, Detroit, MI

DETROIT – On Dec. 15, 1979, the Detroit Red Wings faced the Quebec Nordiques in what was the final hockey game played at Olympia Stadium.

The game ended in a 4-4 tie. The Red Wings played their next four games on the road that season before returning home on Dec. 27 to host the St. Louis Blues at the brand-new Joe Louis Arena.

“The Joe” would be the team’s home for the rest of that season and for the next 37 years until they moved to Little Caesars Arena in 2017.

Looking back at Olympia

Olympia Stadium was situated at the corner of Grand River and McGraw avenues, which is now an Army National Guard site. It was constructed in 1927 and officially opened Oct. 15, 1927.

According to HistoricDetroit.org, the stadium was first planned as a hockey arena at a cost of $600,000.

“But city leaders soon stepped in with the vision of a far more ambitious project. The Detroit Convention Bureau was pushing Detroit’s rise as an important convention city, and the city’s Board of Commerce started lobbying for a way to accommodate these huge crowds. Working with the Olympia’s builders, the plan was expanded to a $2.5 million project ($33 million today, when adjusted for inflation),” according to Historic Detroit.

At its peak, and after an addition to the building, Olympia seated more than 13,000. The arena would host numerous NHL All Star games and big concerts like the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Elvis Presley. It also became a destination for major boxing events, seeing the likes of Jake LaMotta and Sugar Ray Robinson. The Detroit Pistons also briefly called Olympia home between 1957 and 1961.

But Olympia was the Red Wings’ home, first and foremost. The Original Six franchise brought the best hockey players Canada and the U.S. had to offer for decades. Gordie Howe, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, Phil Esposito, and a long list of hockey greats played on the historic ice at Olympia.

Detroit Red Wings Gordie Howe and Bill Gadsby (left) on ice before game vs Montreal Canadiens at Olympia Stadium. (Photo by Tony Triolo /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

The Red Wings were dominant for years while calling “The Old Red Barn” their home, winning the Stanley Cup a handful of times with “The Production” line and legendary players like Howe, Terry Sawchuk, Red Kelly and Ted Lindsay.

Move to the Joe

The mid-season move to Joe Louis Arena in 1979 was an uncommon one. Teams normally didn’t, and still don’t, switch buildings in the middle of a campaign. But the team was not exactly grabbing headlines at the time. The Joe welcomed a franchise struggling through its worst years -- the “Dead Wings” era. The final decade at Olympia was not a kind one for the Red Wings. They made the playoffs just twice in 12 seasons.

Joe Louis Arena

However, the franchise was sold to Mike Ilitch in 1982. He and his family vowed to return the team to its former glory. Steve Yzerman was drafted in 1983, and things started trending in the right direction for the Red Wings for the first time in 20 years.

Detroit won four more Stanley Cups while calling the Joe home, forever cementing it in Detroit sports history.

Olympia, the Joe eventually torn down

Olympia was demolished in September 1987. As of this writing, the Joe’s demolition is ongoing -- here’s what it looked like in September 2019. The Joe will be completely gone by sometime in 2020.

The original OLYMPIA letters can now be seen at Little Caesars Arena.

The Detroit Red Wings play the Minnesota Wild during the first period at Little Caesars Arena on October 5, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

About the Author:

Dave Bartkowiak Jr. is the digital managing editor for ClickOnDetroit.