There Used To Be An Arena
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With apologies to the Frank Sinatra song, “There Used to be a Ballpark,” I thought I would write some thoughts about NHL arenas which no longer exist or no longer have hockey but where I broadcast Kings’ games during my 40 years with the team. I was shocked when I started making out a list and found there are 29 of those former arenas. The only ones I have ever broadcast in that are still standing for hockey are, Madison Square Garden, New York Rangers; Nassau County Veterans Memorial Coliseum, the N.Y. Islanders ; Rexall Place in Edmonton, the Oilers; Honda Center in Anaheim, the Ducks; Nationwide Arena in Columbus, the Blue Jackets; and Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, the Predators.
In this writing I will comment on Chicago Stadium and Olympia Stadium in Detroit.
This arena is the most nostalgic for me since I grew up in Chicago and as a youngster, around 1950, my mother used to take me and my best friend Joe March to the Stadium to watch the Blackhawks. The Hawks were not very good in those years, so we could arrive about 10 minutes before game time and sit anywhere in the house. The Stadium was built for $9.5 million (in today’s dollars that would be $129 million) in 1928. It opened on March 28, 1929, and the first Blackhawks game was played there on December 15 of that year. The Stadium was the home of the Blackhawks until the final game was played there on April 28, 1994, when the Hawks lost a playoff game to Toronto by a score of 1-0. At the time it was built it was the largest sports arena in the world.
Having seen my first NHL game in that arena, it was always a thrill for me to broadcast a game there as the L.A. Kings announcer. Here are some of the things I remember about the loudest stadium in the NHL.
– The smell of hot dogs and sausages cooking at the concession stands as you entered, as well as the smell of stale beer.
– The sound of the Barton organ, the largest theatre organ in North America. Played for years by Al Melgard, the organ had 3,363 pipes and had a volume of a military band of 2,500 pieces. When the organ started our radio broadcast booth located on the third level would actually shake.
– The atmosphere in the building during the playing and singing of the National Anthem. At the first note, the crowd would start roaring and increase the roar with each measure until by the end of the song the entire building was in a frenzy and the game hadn’t even started. For the Blackhawks it was a tremendous boost and for the opposing players it was the most intimidating situation in the entire NHL.
– The crowd noise because those old buildings were not acoustically perfect as arenas are today. The sound would bounce off brick and steel.
– The irregular size of the rink. It was 185 feet long – 15 feet short of regulation.
– The dressing rooms, both the Hawks and the visitors, were located in the basement underneath the ice and the teams had to climb 22 stairs to get to the ice surface.
– The Blackhawks theme song. As soon as the organist saw the Hawks goalie reach the playing surface he would start a stirring rendition of “Here Come the Hawks.”
– The world’s worst scoreboard. It wasn’t digital like you see today, it had dials and sweep second hands all over it, lit by different colors. It was so impossible to read that even Blackhawks players would have to give hand signals to their coach to let him know how much time was left in a penalty. For announcers all you could do was guess at the time remaining.
– The neighborhood on West Madison Street, which was one of the worst in the city. My friend, Joe, would wait for me to finish my post-game show and then drive me to the hotel. One night as we walked to his car, another car drove up slowly behind us. I was getting nervous and asked him what was going on. He informed me that it was an unmarked Chicago Police car which would follow you to your car, make sure you were inside with the windows rolled up and the engine started. Then they would go and escort other fans to their cars. The neighborhood was so bad that taxi cabs would not even venture in to the area to pick up writers who had to stay late to write their game stories. The Blackhawks PR person would have to give the writers a ride to their hotel. So where did they put the new United Center? Right across the street from the old stadium. The neighborhood has been cleaned up and is a lot better now, or so it seems.
– The great vantage point for our radio and or TV broadcasts. The stadium was built for hockey and the steep seating afforded everyone a fantastic view of the game with spectators and announcers alike right on top of the action.
The Chicago Stadium was demolished in 1995. Most everyone you ask will say that the “Madhouse on Madison” was the greatest hockey arena they ever experienced.
Another great old hockey arena in which I had a chance to broadcast Kings’ games was the Detroit Olympia. In fact, it was built two years before the Chicago Stadium and was the model for the arena in Chicago so both arenas were similar in design and with spectacular views for hockey with the crowd and the announcers right on top of the action.
The Olympia, nicknamed “The Old Red Barn,” was located just northwest of downtown Detroit at the corner of Grand River and McGraw, and not in the greatest of neighborhoods. The Olympia opened on November 22, 1927, and for 52 years was the home of Detroit professional hockey teams, starting with the Detroit Cougars and ending with the Red Wings.
Our broadcast location was one of the best in the NHL. We had a booth in the upper deck and we were practically hanging out over the ice, unlike today in some new arenas where the press box and broadcast booths and in the highest reaches of the building.
Musician Glenn Frey, of the Eagles, is from Detroit and a huge hockey fan. One day he told me he was going to be in Detroit when the Kings played there so I asked if he would be our guest on TV. I told him I would let the press box usher know he was coming between periods. When the period ended he still hadn’t shown up and I wondered what happened. Glenn is relatively small in stature, and soon there was a knock on the door of our booth and the usher said, ‘There’s a guy out here who says he’s with the Philadelphia Eagles and I don’t believe him.’ I convinced him to allow Glenn to join us.
For many of the years I did Kings’ hockey the Red Wings were not very good. From 1973-74 to 1982-83 they missed the playoffs nine of 10 years. One particular Kings’ player who always had success against Detroit was Marcel Dionne, much to the chagrin of Detroit fans. Marcel had started his career as a Red Wing and the Kings acquired his rights in 1975. Detroit fans thought Marcel was a traitor and came to L.A. only for the money. Every time the Kings would play in the Olympia, Detroit fans would mercilessly boo Dionne and hold up derisive signs aimed at him. One game Marcel had a hat trick which included his 300th career goal in a 7-3 Kings win and the crowd got more incensed with each goal.
At the end of the game, my broadcast partner at the time, Pete Weber, went down to ice level to interview Marcel on the ice. As the interview started, Red Wing fans started throwing glass bottles from the upper deck. When one crashed close to Pete and Marcel, Pete said on the air, ‘This is London’ as reporters did during the bombing of that city during World War II. Pete quickly decided to end the interview and he and Marcel got safely off the ice.
The Olympia had a lobby where visiting players could meet their friends and family after the game. That night no one with the Kings was allowed to go into the lobby fearing it would not be safe. The Kings bus pulled up to a back door of the locker room and got close enough so that when the bus doors opened no fans could get between the building and the door and the Kings got out in a safe manner.
In 1979 the Red Wings moved into their current home, the Joe Louis Arena, where the broadcast location is not nearly as good as it was at the Olympia. In fact, I believe they forgot to put in a press box when the building was built and it’s one of the worst in the NHL.
The Olympia fell into disrepair and shortly after the Red Wings moved, the wrecking ball demolished everything but the memories of one of the great old hockey arenas.