Historic Detroit

Olympia Stadium

To the legions of Detroiters who passed through the turnstiles of the iconic Olympia Stadium, its name alone conjures memories of legendary entertainment that spanned more than six decades.

From hockey to basketball, boxing to circuses, The King to presidents, wrestling to rodeos and The Beatles to political conventions, the “Old Red Barn” hosted an incredible variety of events. While the venue is forever linked to professional hockey in Detroit, the Olympia also played a key role in turning the city into an entertainment destination that rivaled any in the world.

Roaring ’20s, roaring crowds

In the 1920s, Detroit was experiencing a financial boom thanks to the success of the automobile industry. Henry Ford’s introduction in 1922 of the $5 workday and the ensuing 40-hour workweek gave Detroiters not only more disposable income, but also more time for leisure. Detroiters were quick to embrace the rapidly growing phenomena of American professional sports. In 1923, Navin Field (later known as Tiger Stadium) saw the completion of an addition that expanded its capacity from 23,000 seats to 30,000. In 1925, the Detroit Panthers started playing football in the city. And on May 15, 1926, the Victoria (B.C.) Cougars hockey team was purchased by a group of Detroit businessmen — led by Detroit Athletic Club President Charlie Hughes — and renamed the Detroit Cougars. This team would go on to become the Detroit Red Wings.

Though the Cougars were based in Detroit, the team had a significant problem: It had nowhere to play. As such, the team’s inaugural season of 1926-1927 was played in Windsor. Meanwhile, on March 8, 1927, the cornerstone for a new hockey palace was laid at the corner of Grand River Avenue and McGraw Street.

The Olympia rises

The stadium was initially conceived of as just a simple hockey arena at a cost of $600,000 (a paltry $8 million today, when adjusted for inflation). 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). “Olympia — a Detroit monument to civic pride — will be thrown open to the public for the first time Saturday,” the Detroit News wrote Oct. 24, 1927. “Although the new arena … was originally planned as a home for the Detroit Hockey Club, later plans have made it a focal point for sporting events and spectacles of the entire state. … Detroit now has a place for public events that ranks among the best in the world, well equipped for boxing shows, pageants, conventions and theatrical spectacles.”

The man chosen to blend the vision of a hockey arena and a convention center was C. Howard Crane. Crane had established himself as a noted architect of theaters, designing Detroit’s Orchestra Hall, the Capitol Theatre (now the Detroit Opera House) and others. He would later design the Fox, United Artists and State (now Fillmore) theaters. Crane was considered a master of architectural acoustics, so it is little wonder that Olympia Stadium would be known as a place where fan excitement was amplified into a near hysterical pitch. The building’s seating sloped at such a steep angle, one felt right on top of the action. At the time it was built, Olympia was the largest indoor skating rink in the United States, and its 77,393 square feet of floor space concealed 74,880 square feet of pipes for the freezing of ice.

There was no single opening day of this 107-foot-tall, red brick “monument to civic pride.” On Oct. 15, 1927, an eight-day rodeo began, with ceremonies on Oct. 17, while on Oct. 26, 15,000 fans crammed into the new stadium to witness the first of many boxing matches.

“Detroit has leaped into big-time fight circles as a result of the first boxing card staged at this city’s new sports palace — the Olympia,” the Detroit Times reported. “Fifteen thousand persons last night jammed the big building and saw Tom Heeney, New Zealand heavyweight, defeat Johnny Risko of Cleveland in 10 rounds. Just how much money the fight drew is still in doubt. But there isn’t any question that it smashed all Detroit records.”

A little more than one month later, on Nov. 22, the first National Hockey League game was played in Detroit, when the Cougars faced off against the Ottawa Senators. The ceremonies that took place that night incorporated professional figure skating between periods and performances by the University of Michigan marching band. Michigan had opened its famous football stadium – known today as the “Big House” – in Ann Arbor on Oct. 22, 1927, before 87,000 fans with a 21-0 victory over Ohio State, and wanted to help successfully inaugurate the new Olympia, as well. The band played “America,” “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “The Maple Leaf Forever.” Before the first face-off at the Olympia, Detroit Mayor John W. Smith went to center ice and presented Cougars coach Jack Adams with a huge floral piece.

“Detroit got its first real taste of big league hockey and liked it,” the Detroit Times wrote of the event. “

More than 14,000 enthusiastic fans saw one of the most rapid exhibitions in the Olympia last night that it has been their pleasure to witness. The hockey morsel pleased their palates, and they yelled themselves hoarse. It didn’t seem to matter a bit that the Detroit Cougars lost to the Ottawa Senators by the narrow score of 2-1. It was the spectacle itself that charmed the populace. Fans who have been satisfied with baseball, football and basketball were amazed at the speed of the thing, for hockey is new to Detroit. It is true that local fans who like the ice game have had opportunities to view it across the river, but never before has it been brought right home to them in a big way.

“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.”

A long way to Hockeytown

If Coach Adams’ prideful optimism was at a peak when he rolled into Detroit in the fall of 1927 to take over the coaching duties of the hapless Cougars, it was quickly steamrolled back into proper perspective. Although Olympia was packed with fans on opening night, it soon became apparent that hockey was far from “catching on” in Detroit. Detroiters didn’t know or understand hockey. They thought a cross check and the blue line were tailor’s patterns. Hockey was viewed as a Canadian curiosity, and many of the fans who attended the games came over from Windsor. Couple that with the fact that the Cougars were an awful team, and you got many of the hometown fans rooting for the opposition.

Compounding the indifference of most of the city’s sports fans was the fact that their “hometown” NHL club had played its first season across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario. As far as some Detroiters were concerned, that made the Cougars a Canadian team.

“I’ve never seen a place like this in my whole life,” a disillusioned Adams moaned one night after a loss to a visiting Canadian contingent. “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.” The quote is featured in “If They Played Hockey in Heaven: The Jack Adams Story” by Phil Loranger

Despite the early struggles of Detroit fans embracing hockey, the future of Olympia Stadium itself appeared to be bright as numerous bookings for circuses, bicycle racing, basketball, wrestling and boxing was supported by a citizenry with plenty of disposable income. All of this changed, however, on October 29th 1929, a day which will forever be known as “Black Tuesday.” On this day the stock market crashed and in a single year, automobile manufacturing in Detroit dropped from 5,337,000 vehicles to 3,363,000. By 1931, production had sunk to 1,332,000. From October 1929 to January 1931, the unemployment had risen from 19,412 to 223,568 and Detroit was declared (by the U.S. census) to be the hardest hit city of any in the Great Depression.

Gone were the days of Detroiters spending extra cash on entertainment; in were the days of struggling to acquire basic necessities. As the attendance and event bookings began to dwindle, Olympia’s management started to focus more on its signature attraction, hockey. Though the team had been terrible over the course of its first six years, Adams, doing double duty as coach and general manager, had been laying the foundation for a franchise that would carve a niche in the very soul of the city.

First and foremost, it is important to understand that there wasn’t just one hockey team calling Olympia home from 1927-1936, there were two. Having nowhere near the financial backing of other organizations that could afford talented players, Adams was determined to develop his own. With this idea in mind, the Detroit Olympics were born. The idea of having a minor league team was by no means new to sports, or even hockey in particular, but Adams insisted that his minor league team played at Olympia so he could mold his young players into the rugged, precision-style gamers that he adored.

Along with developing young players, hockey teams in the Depression era could rarely afford more than 15 men on a roster, and having a second team on hand with cheap talent readily available to replace injured players was often the difference between success and failure. In the 1930s, the Olympics grew to have its own loyal fan base, and being able to draw 96 games worth of revenue — instead of just the 48 that the Cougars played — helped to carry the stadium through the most uncertain times in its history.

In 1930, the team was renamed the Detroit Falcons. Adams had been doing everything in his power to get the Motor City to embrace hockey, including writing a weekly article for the Detroit Times called Following the Puck. By 1931-1932, three stars (Larry Aurie, Herbie Lewis and Ebenezer “Ebbie” Goodfellow) had emerged from the ranks of the Olympics and would form the core of the franchise, leading the team to a third-place finish, its most successful season up to that point.

However, while things were looking up for the team, the finances of Olympia Stadium were so dire that in 1931-1932, the stadium’s owners had gone bankrupt and Adams was working for the bankers who were managing the organization through receivership. In an era of hockey history in which teams were constantly folding and being relocated, the team’s future would never be more in doubt.

“Things are so bad around here that I’m having to put up my own money sometimes to meet payroll,” a downhearted Adams confessed to a friend near the end of the season. “We’ve been riding day coaches all season on the road and eating cold sandwiches, candy bars and oranges when we can afford to buy them from hawkers. I just hope we don’t break any more of our sticks, because we’re at a point where we just can’t afford to buy any new ones,” he groaned. “Last week, a gang of kids over near the stadium stole some of our sticks, and if the police hadn’t recovered them, we’d be kicking the puck with our skates.”

Later, Adams told a gathering of associates that if Howie Morenz, the incomparable center of the Montreal Canadiens and the greatest hockey player of his generation, had been available “for $1.98, we couldn’t afford to buy him.”

It was at this moment, that a savior arrived. James Norris was an immensely wealthy Chicago grain magnate and hockey fanatic who had long dreamed of becoming an NHL owner. Barred from doing so in his hometown by Chicago Black Hawks owner Maj. Frederick McLaughlin, Norris switched his attention to the struggling Detroit franchise and bought Olympia in 1932, along with all of its interests (including the hockey teams) for $100,000, the equivalent of $1.7 million today, when adjusted for inflation.

Retaining Adams and settling the debts for the stadium, Norris decided to change the team’s name again. Having played for an amateur team in his youth called the Montreal Winged Wheelers, Norris thought the logo of a winged wheel would be far more relevant to Detroiters, and in 1932 the Detroit Red Wings were born.

In their first season as the Red Wings (1932-33), the team reached new heights of success, tying the Boston Bruins for first place and winning its first playoff series. In 1933-34, the Wings were even better, winning first place outright and advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals. With this success, Detroiters finally began to embrace their team, but still not at the level that would guarantee the franchise’s future. A spark was needed to truly endear the team to the people of Detroit.

Detroit: City of Champions

In order to understand the importance of the 1935-36 season, keep in mind that just a few years earlier, in 1933, Detroiters didn’t have much to cheer about. Not only was the city gripped in the throes of the Great Depression, but the Detroit Tigers had finished in fifth place and had been underwhelming the fans for so long, attendance had fallen to its lowest since 1907. Three efforts to establish a professional football team had failed, the last attempt had come in 1928. While the Red Wings had achieved a measure of success, by no means had the team captured the imaginations of the city. In short, Detroit was viewed by the rest of the country as a second-class, Midwest baseball town that had never won a World Series.

In 1934, all of this began to change. Before the 1934 baseball season, Tiger ownership had acquired the greatest catcher of his age, Mickey Cochrane, from the Philadelphia Athletics for the then-extraordinary sum of $100,000 (about $1.7 million today). During spring training, Cochrane made the startling prediction that the Tigers would play in the 1934 World Series — and his prediction would come true. For a city that had been trampled on by the Great Depression, the Tigers’ renaissance drove the city into a baseball fever.

Though the Tigers lost in the seventh game of the 1934 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, the city would soon embark on the greatest season in the history of American sports. The first was the creation of the Detroit Lions, which were brought to the Motor City from Portsmouth, Ohio, amid the Tigers’ euphoric season of 1934.

That year, an unknown Detroit boxer named Joe Louis turned pro, fought and won his first 12 fights (including three fights at Olympia Stadium), positioning himself as the ninth-ranked heavyweight going into 1935. While the Red Wings seemingly took a huge step back after finishing in fourth place, the midseason acquisitions of two young superstars — Syd Howe and Scotty Bowman — would help set the stage at Olympia Stadium.

On Jan. 4, 1935, 16,000 boxing fans in Detroit turned out for a special event. Not for several years had a heavyweight champion fought at Olympia Stadium, and on this night, Max Baer was putting his title on the line against Babe Hunt. But the match that Detroiters would be talking about starred a young unknown local boxer who had won his 13th fight with such skill, people began to talk about him as being a challenger for the heavyweight crown.

The rise of Joltin’ Joe Louis

“Perhaps it was the contrast of Baer’s clowning, but we left Olympia with the conviction that we had looked upon the best heavyweight prospect in many years of resin-sniffing,” the Detroit Times marveled the following day. “When he finished, [Patsy Perroni’s] gruesomely scarred face was a welter of bruises, and his waist was livid from the terrific body punishment he suffered.

“Louis … boxes beautifully and hits with deadly force. He is quick and well coordinated. He can hit from any angle. He fights methodically but with deadly seriousness and the expression on his face doesn’t change during the fight. He is not a showman, but he is a fighter.”

Before that night at Olympia, boxing had been in decline. Between the Great Depression and the lack of a true superstar, the rise of Joe Louis electrified the boxing world, and as his fights grew in importance in 1935, so did the massive street celebrations that followed. By the end of the year, Louis had become an international superstar and the pride of Detroit.

As incredible as the rise of Louis was, however, there would be many more celebrations. The Tigers would win their first World Series, while the Lions would won their first National Football Championship. On the same day that the Lions won their first title, Dec. 15, 1935, the Red Wings moved into first place and talk of Detroit as the City of Champions began.

The “Tigers are resting atop of baseball’s golden stairs,” the Detroit Times wrote on Dec. 15, 1935, “The sulking, shuffling shadow of Joe Louis stands over the boxing throne. Official coronation ceremonies will take place sometime next summer. The Red Wings are storming through [the] hockey wars with the lusty thump of hard-riding Cossacks. And today, bless their hearts, the Detroit Lions [brought] the professional football championship of the world to this town of Champions.

When Horace Greely said, ‘Go west, young man,’ he probably secretly qualified it by adding: ‘Don’t go too far west, young man. Stop off at Detroit.’ Yes, indeed, it looks as though all the professional sports titles worth owning will come to roost on Detroit’s mantelpiece.”

For the first time in the team’s history, the Red Wings became the darlings of Detroit, and as they fought for their first championship, many people who may have never even thought about hockey were now swept up in the excitement of a team playing its hearts out in pursuit of something more than just a Stanley Cup. As the season progressed, Olympia began to see sold-out crowds that shook the rafters in their enthusiasm.

‘Red wolves on the prowl!!’

The Wings “were angry, greedy wolves that ganged the opposition, and skimmed the ice with burning, red hot steel,” the Detroit Times wrote in January 1936. “It all brought Detroit nearer to the ‘grand slam’ in sports. The same indefinable something which rode with the world champion Tigers, the world champion Lions, and the ‘uncrowned’ world champion, Joe Louis, propelled the strong legs and stout hearts of Jack Adams’ Red Wolves. More than 14,000 fans, occupying every seat as well as every available inch of standing room, gazed down on the ice drama being unfurled below.

“Bodies collided as if shot from springs of steel. There were scrambles in front of nets … violent bumpings along the boards … a burst of speed and then the spilled form of an athlete sliding across the white ice on his face. The 14,000 mingled screams and boos.”

The 1935-36 City of Champions season is one of the greatest, albeit unknown, stories in the history of sports, and no team benefited from it as much as the Red Wings. The dogfight that this team went through against some of the greatest players in NHL history was simply extraordinary and the fact the Detroit Olympics won their own championship merely one day after is the stuff that legends are made of. Carrying the hopes of a Depression-weary city on their shoulders to the eventual Champions Day celebration at the Masonic Temple endeared the Red Wings to Detroit. The Wings would repeat as Stanley Cup champions in 1936-37.

Much like in Major League Baseball, NHL players answered the call of duty when World War II began in the winter of 1941. During these war years, the team would win the 1942-43 Stanley Cup, and while 24 players left to serve their country, only 23 returned home. Goalie Joe Turner, who was killed fighting in the Hurtgen Forest in Germany in 1944, was memorialized by the International Hockey League, which named its championship trophy after him.

Shortly after the war ended, a player arrived on Olympia’s ice that would usher in a new era of Detroit hockey and would become synonymous with the Detroit Red Wings: Gordie Howe made his debut in 1946.

Experiencing the boom of post-war America, Detroiters would flock to the stadium like never before. It was in this era that hockey would become a cultural institution in Detroit. As one of the six teams (out of 10) to emerge from the Great Depression, the Original Six era was dominated by the Red Wings. The list of legendary players and their accolades is seemingly endless: Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Sid Abel, Alex Delvecchio, Terry Sawchuk. Seven straight first-place finishes (1949-1956) with four Stanley Cup championships. During the 1951-52 Stanley Cup Finals, local Detroit fish market owners Pete and Jerry Cuisimano started what would become a tradition, when Jerry threw an octopus on the ice at Olympia for good luck, the eight tentacles representing the amount of wins the team needed to win the championship. This tradition lives on today.

In 1957, the Detroit Pistons became the newest residents of Olympia and called the Old Red Barn their home until 1961. Two years later saw the end of an era, with the announcement that Jack Adams had been fired by the Norris family (who owned the team until 1982) after 36 years as general manager. To this day, Adams is the only man to have his name on the Stanley Cup as a player, coach and executive.

In the mid-1950s, Olympia began to take on an increasing number of concerts, which only grew into the 1960s and ’70s. The brief list reads like a who’s who of rock ‘n’ roll legends: Elvis Presley, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Johnny Cash, Cream, Led Zeppelin, The MC5, The Jackson 5, Pink Floyd, Elton John, David Bowie, Ray Charles, Kiss and Stevie Wonder, among others, would perform there.

In the two decades following the Red Wings’ golden Age, the team entered what has become known as the Dead Wings Era. From 1967 to 1982, the team dropped in the standings and frustrated fans with repeated trade and draft blunders. In this era, things got so bad, groups of fans, such as the Boos Brothers, organized impromptu performances among the crowds who still turned out.

The decline of the Red Wings coincided with the decline of the surrounding neighborhoods and Detroit itself. In 1975, the Lions moved to Pontiac, and the Red Wings nearly followed but instead settled on a move to the riverfront in a new arena named after the boxer who had helped put Detroit on the nation’s sporting map.

On Dec. 15, 1979, the Red Wings played their final home game at Olympia Stadium in front of 15,609 fans, tying the Quebec Nordiques, 4-4. There was no grand farewell celebration. In fact, several of the artifacts that should have made the journey from Olympia to Joe Louis Arena were lost in the transition, including Larry Aurie’s framed jersey (#6), which had been retired and hung in the concourse by Adams. To this day, the jersey’s whereabouts are unknown. Nor has Aurie’s jersey (or those of any of the 1930s legends) been hung in the rafters of Joe Louis Arena.

Tribute to Olympia

Much like Tiger Stadium, Olympia lingered as a deteriorating, heartbreaking, unused shell from 1979 until it was demolished in 1987. When it was finally torn down, the building’s superstructure was so solid and well-built, it could not be imploded. Cranes gradually ate away at it, from rear to front, while construction workers handed out bricks and chairs to tearful onlookers.

Eventually, the Michigan National Guard built an armory on the site. The Guard named its new home after the storied venue that once stood there. Today, the Olympia Armory is home to a plaque that honors the lost and storied piece of Detroit history.

While many Detroiters still lament Olympia’s passing, many celebrate the old stadium for what it created. Olympia played a crucial role in the creation of a sporting and entertainment culture in Detroit that grew so large, the Old Red Barn’s walls could no longer contain it.

Charles Avison is the author of “Detroit City of Champions: The Story of the Most Important Season in Detroit Sports History.” For more information, including how to order or to get on the mailing list for special edition copies of his upcoming book series, go to: www.DetroitCityofChampions.com