DETROIT — Our intended two-fold mission in our March Madness trip to Motown last week was: 1) to watch hockey for the first time in the only arena in America named for a Black man, and 2) to find Black hockey fans. Mission accomplished.
Joe Louis Arena is named for the first Black since Jack Johnson to win a heavyweight boxing championship. The Detroit Red Wings’ home since 1979 is the fourth-oldest National Hockey League venue and one of three non-corporate-named arenas in the league. Affectionately called “The Joe,” it also hosted the 1980 GOP convention, NBA and WNBA playoff games, Arena Football games, WWE wrestling, and countless concerts, circus visits and ice shows along with championship hockey teams.
Last week the Big Ten held its second men’s hockey post-season tournament there. Until then, I had never set foot in The Joe, which was built while I was in college.
Virtually everywhere you turn in The Joe, history is there. Stanley Cap banners, retired Wings numbers, and countless division and conference title banners hang overhead.
But according to Aaron Carr, it’s “the name” that makes JLA special. He remembers a boxing event held there when Louis, who was in ill health at the time, was in attendance. “He was in a wheelchair. It was the first time he had been at the arena and the last time,” says Carr.
Located near the riverfront arena’s cramped press box is a mural of Louis, who called Detroit his home. A lifesize statue of the late champ is next door at Cobo Center, and a likeness of his fist is installed a few blocks away in Chene Park.
Before Minnesota’s NCAA-bid-clinching win last Saturday, I had seen just one Black hockey fan, who was shown on the video scoreboard. David and Zack, two of the estimated 60 percent of the arena workers who are Black, earlier told me that finding Blacks at hockey games, whether it’s the Wings or college, is like finding a haystack needle.
“There’s about a handful [at] each game,” said Zack.
But then I ran into Jason Owens, along with his wife Tenisa, Terry Carr and Marcell Whitfield after the title game. “I’ve watched [hockey] since I was 15 years old,” noted Jason, who also attends Wings games.
Therefore, if our math is correct, there were only six Blacks among the reported 16,144 total in attendance at the five-game tournament in Detroit.
William “Butch” Davis of the suburban Detroit weekly Telegram News told the only other Black reporter (yours truly) that the Big Ten could do a better job marketing to Blacks. “There are a lot of our people who do embrace the game,” said the sportswriter.
“There are not specific marketing plans to different ethnic groups,” responded Big Ten Associate Commissioner Jennifer Heppel in an MSR interview. “It’s an interesting concept to think about, but the marketing has been focused to hockey fans.”
“I do two or three radio shows per week” on the sport, noted the 32-year veteran sportswriter Davis when remembering a caller who once questioned his qualifications to talk hockey. “Number one, I’m from London, Ontario. I was born on skates,” he said, laughing at the on-air insult.
Growing up in Detroit, “In my neighborhood, we all had hockey sticks,” Davis continued. “We all had ice skates. When I got up to a certain age and they didn’t have hockey in my area, my parents would put me in the car, pay for my expenses, and take me out to the suburbs to play.
“Was it nice for me? In some cases no, because you’re the only Black kid out there playing.”
Nonetheless, Davis concludes that the stereotypes and misconceptions that Blacks and hockey don’t mix must be eliminated. “You got to market the game for everyone.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.