Commemorating the Rich History of Detroit’s Olympia Stadium

It might be overlooked in most seasons as the Detroit Red Wings are usually in full swing at this time of year, however, yesterday marked an important anniversary. The first NHL game in Detroit took place on Nov. 22, 1927, against the Ottawa Senators and was held at the freshly-minted Olympia Stadium which remained the team’s home until 1979.

Technically, Detroit’s first NHL team was called the Cougars and they kept the name after the team relocated from Victoria, British Columbia of all places. The Cougars made the Stanley Cup Final in their last two seasons in Victoria and were the 1925 Stanley Cup Champions.

Construction of the Detroit Red Wings’ Olympia Arena, 1927 (THW Archives)

The team did not officially become the Red Wings until 1932, and in that time, the Olympia gradually took on its beloved nickname: “The Old Red Barn.” The architecture was Romanesque Revival but the moniker likely came from its red brick and stone trim.

Stanley Cup Finals

The Olympia hosted many events including music concerts, historic boxing matches, the NCAA Frozen Four, as well as NBA and NHL All-Star Games. Amazingly, the building also hosted 18 Stanley Cup Finals throughout its existence, of which the Red Wings won seven.

At the Olympia, the Red Wings seemed to win the big prize in ‘streaks’ that either started or finished with back-to-back championships. The earliest streak was three Stanley Cup wins in eight seasons between 1936 and 1943. Better known as the Jack Adams era, the player-turned-coach guided the franchise to its first taste of glory in 1936 when the team won its first of back-to-back Stanley Cup victories that season.

Gordie Howe
Gordie Howe (THW Archives)

Before that, the Red Wings won four Stanley Cups in six seasons from 1950 to 1955 at the Old Red Barn. The Red Wings capped that streak off with back-to-back wins in 1954 and 1955. This was also known as the Gordie Howe era when he, Ted Lindsay, and Syd Abel formed a historical trio known as the Production Line.

Dead Wing Era

It was not all good times for the Red Wings at the Old Red Barn. The team was still playing at the Olympia when the dreaded ‘Dead Wings Era’ began in 1967, the same year as the Detroit Riot, and would not be competitive again until 1979.

The year 1967 marked the infamous Detroit Riot, also known locally as the 12th Street Riot. The 5-day protests began on July 23rd when local black residents confronted members of the Detroit Police Department after the ‘suspect’ raid of a local pub. The rioting intensified throughout the day (23rd), and because of its proximity to the Olympia, caused the cancellation of “The Monkees” concert scheduled for that evening.

In the years that followed, the Red Wings’ decline seemed to correlate with the deterioration of the Olympia’s surrounding neighborhoods. The Dead Wing Era and decline of the facility eventually prompted a move to the infamous Joe Louis Arena in 1979.

Red Wing banners hanging in the Joe Louis Arena (THW Archives)

Of course, this is where the most recent Red Wings Stanley Cup streak took place. In what is known as the Yzerman, the team won three Stanley Cups over 11 seasons. This included back-to-back Cup championships in 1997 and 1998 that kicked that streak off.

Little Caesars

With the magnificence of Little Caesars and the near-mythical status of Joe Louis Arena, it is easy to forget the great history of the Old Red Barn on Grand River Avenue. Despite the bells and whistles of the new facilities, the only relevant question for Red Wing fans is when can they expect the next winning ‘streak’ to happen?