How Coleman Young got Joe Louis Arena built, and kept the Red Wings in Detroit

- Forty years ago, the Detroit Red Wings were bound for the suburbs. A plot of land with their name on it was ready for them to call home in Pontiac. Until Mayor Coleman Young stepped in and promised that if you build it, they will come.

On Sunday, the Red Wings will say goodbye to Joe Louis Arena. It's part of legendary Detroit Mayor Coleman Young's legacy that few people may remember how it even happened.

The Red Wings, much like the Pistons and the Lions, were packing up and heading for the suburb. Pontiac was beckoning and they had a piece of land near the Silverdome. They had even announced that they were moving! With a few words that would make Kevin Costner proud, the mayor promised that he would keep the Wings in Detroit.

Mayor Young looked at an empty plot of land along the Detroit River and said "If you f****** build it, they will f****** come."

"I know that the Tigers need a new or modernized stadium - if you look that facility, you'll see that. I know that the Wings are in the same position," Mayor Young said at the time.

Not long after that, Mayor Young initiated a game of chicken between him and the developer in the suburbs. It was 1977 and the mayor who was known for both his profanity and profundity had already watched the Lions move to Pontiac and the Pistons were about to the do the same. His longtime press secretary, Bob Berg, said the Red Wings was where he would draw the line in the sand.

"In the 70s, you know, this was when all kinds of institutions were leaving out the city. He said 'We've got to stop it. And this is where we'll stop it,'" Berg said. "The Red Wings were owned by the Norris family, and they had actually signed a contract to move to a new stadium that was going to build out next the Silverdome that was going to be called Olympia II."

Young wasn't a big hockey fan and he was nearing the end of his first term as mayor. Watching another iconic franchise announce plans to move to the suburbs was too much for him to bear so he sent backhoes to the Detroit Riverfront.

"The arena will produce for Detroit, whether or not those two teams are a part of it," Young said, referring to the Wings and Pistons.

His opponents pounced on the opportunity but Young held on to a $5 million grant from the government.

Berg says the move was so bold it alarmed Young’s closest advisors.

"They started saying, 'Well, mister mayor, how can you start to build something when you don't have the financing, you don't have the architectural plans or a contract?' And he finally said, 'I've got 5 million Jimmy Carter dollars, and if nothing else, we're going to dig the deepest F'ing hole in the state of Michigan. Now either get on board or get out of the way'," Berg said.

GALLERY: Coleman Young's gamble on the Joe Louis Arena and Red Wings in photos.

With his term almost over, his opponents were ready to jump right into that massive pit in the middle of the city and they jumped on the mayor's gambit.

"At the time City Council President Ernie Brown, who was running against him, was riding it pretty hard," Berg said. "(He called it) irresponsible, a waste of money, and we shouldn't be doing this."

A survey suggested Young was spending a lot of political capital along with all that Jimmy Carter money.

"They'd gotten the first poll back and Bob Millender told him, 'This is really hurting us, this could cost us the election,'" Berg said. "So Bill goes in to tell the mayor about the poll, and the mayor says 'What do you think? Should we be doing this?' Bill says 'Well, yeah, we've got to keep the Red Wings,' so the mayor says, 'Well, then F the poll, we're going to do it.'"

The rest, as they say, is history. The Wings stayed in Detroit and Young was re-elected as Joe Louis Arena rose along the Riverfront. An expert looked at those vertigo-inducing stairs and said it was poorly designed.

Critics said the team got a free building with a sweetheart lease. They may be right but the Red Wings stayed and raised four Stanley Cup banners in the heart of Detroit.

In November 1997, Coleman Young passed away, but he did see the Wings win their first Stanley Cup since moving into the Joe earlier that year.

Berg says if he was still alive today, he wouldn't lay in front of those bulldozers that will someday demolish the building on which he staked his career. Berg says he would be happy with how things are going for Detroit, today.

"He'd say this facility served its purpose, kept the Red Wings, stopped the bleeding," Berg said. "And now we're back, next year we'll have all four of our pro facilities back in the city."

Final home opener at Joe Louis Arena


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