Saturday, December 16, 2017
Tampa Bay Lightning

Lightning GM Steve Yzerman in rare company: athletes with arenas named after them

The Red Wings have begun their final season at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. And when they move out next year, it will be the end for an arena with a feature that is exceedingly rare in major North American sports.

Joe Louis is one of a tiny number of high-profile stadiums or arenas named for an athlete.

This shortage is somewhat puzzling. Athletes, after all, perform the feats that make the stadiums special places.

It is partly because so many stadiums are named after sponsors, to bring in additional revenue. All three Tampa Bay pro teams play in stadiums named after sponsors: the Lightning's Amalie Arena, the Bucs' Raymond James Stadium and the Rays' Tropicana Field.

Yet even the stadiums that still carry the names of famous individuals seldom honor athletes. Although their athleticism may not go beyond signing a check, owners have been well represented, at places like Paul Brown Stadium and Wrigley Field. Coaches (Lambeau Field) and politicians (RFK Stadium) are also honored.

And even in the pre-sponsorship era, few stadiums were named after athletes. Out of hundreds of stadiums used for major pro league games over the years, only a handful have carried the name of an athlete. To find them, you have to dig deep into history.

When baseball experimented with the Expos playing in Puerto Rico, their home was Hiram Bithorn Stadium, named after a former major-league pitcher. Bennett Stadium in Detroit was named after Charlie Bennett, a player who lost his legs in a train accident. The Tigers played there at the beginning of the 20th century.

There are few other examples at the top level of North American sports.

Minor leagues and colleges have a sprinkling of arenas named for players. Louisiana State plays basketball at Pete Maravich Assembly Center, for example, and former NHL players Steve Yzerman, the Lightning's general manager, and Grant Fuhr lend their names to junior hockey arenas in Canada. Yzerman's is Steve Yzerman Arena in Ottawa.

Tennis and auto racing have done a better job than most sports at honoring their greats, with Arthur Ashe Stadium, Rod Laver Arena and Margaret Court Arena hosting Grand Slam events and Formula One drivers racing at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve in Montreal and Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace in Sao Paulo.

But even around the world, stadiums named for athletes are fairly rare, with Ferenc Puskas Stadium in Hungary and Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha in Brazil the exceptions, not the rule.

Joe Louis Arena opened in 1979, named for the heavyweight champion who spent his teenage years in Detroit. The sports action there has been worthy of Louis. The Red Wings won four Stanley Cups during their time in the arena, with Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov and Nicklas Lidstrom pouring in goals. The Red Wings continue to ride an astounding 25-year streak of playoff appearances.

In 1980, the arena hosted the NHL All-Star Game, the final appearance of Red Wings legend Gordie Howe, then with the Hartford Whalers. "I can still remember the announcer calling the lineups that night," Howe wrote in his book Mr. Hockey. "When my turn came around, he just called out, 'No. 9.' The standing ovation from the crowd for my 23rd All-Star Game appearance seemed to last forever."

Also in 1980, the arena hosted the Republican National Convention, where Ronald Reagan was nominated.

Most infamously, the arena hosted the 1994 U.S. figure skating championships, won by Tonya Harding after Nancy Kerrigan was attacked by a man hired by Harding's husband. (The actual attack on Kerrigan took place next door at Cobo Center.)

The arena, known fondly as "the Joe," will be torn down next year, and the Red Wings will pay tribute to it throughout the season. And next fall, they will move into their newly built home: Little Caesars Arena.

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