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Oilers close Rexall in style

Former, current players say goodbye to historic venue

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

Gretzky, Messier at Rexall Place

VAN@EDM: Messier, Gretzky share final thoughts

4/6/16: Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier talk about their playing days in Edmonton and their legacies as Oiler greats

  • 04:21 •

EDMONTON -- They arrived at Rexall Place by bus mid-morning on Wednesday, their name-plated Edmonton Oilers jerseys under their arms. Their smiles lit up the place.

Come late afternoon on this historic day, the last of 1,558 NHL Oilers games would be played in this arena, 221 more having preceded it in the team's World Hockey Association incarnation.

The outcome, a resounding 6-2 Oilers victory against the Vancouver Canucks, brought down Rexall's curtain in a good light, fans chanting themselves hoarse as their heroes closed the building with a win and their 2015-16 home schedule at 19-20-2.

A group of about 150 alumni would be in attendance for the finale and the emotional two-hour post-game closing ceremony. Many of them came for a morning reception, a walk through the Oilers locker room and a midday outdoor civic rally.

It was 90 minutes before noon that they were filing in as a large, happy group, a handful of Hall of Fame members and dozens of everyday players on whose backs this franchise was built.

Video: VAN@EDM: Oilers display video honoring Rexall Place

One by one, they shuffled through metal detectors to enter the arena, many tripping the alarm. And you knew it wasn't keys or coins or cellphones as much it was as new knees and hips.

One former player - we'll protect his identity - set off the alarm a few times and patiently tried to explain to the security guard that he'd had a few joints replaced.

Finally, winking, he tapped his skull and said: "I had my brain replaced. That must be it."

The earnest guard nodded and waved him in.

"I think she bought it," the player said with a grin, heading off to meet old friends.

Video: VAN@EDM: Fans sing final anthem at Rexall Place

Some nine hours later, hockey at Rexall was done, the home team having skated into history on a winning note.

The biggest roar during the game would be for Walter Gretzky, father of a reasonably well-known player in these parts, shown on the third-period scoreboard over the label "Once An Oiler, Always An Oiler." That merely set the stage for the goosebumps to come.

The post-game ice was covered with blue carpet, the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra in tuxedos - except for a percussionist wearing an Oilers jersey - filling one end from the top of the faceoff circles to the goal line. From a square that framed the Oilers logo at center ice, set for a couple hundred chairs, stretched a carpet to the other end of the rink, a runway for arriving alumni and the current team.

The lengthy parade began at 8:20 p.m. local time, guests introduced to welcomes from warm to a gentle boil, the anticipation building.

Thirty-two minutes after the procession began, to a massive ovation, came Connor McDavid, the No. 1 pick at the 2015 NHL Draft and most exciting player in this city in a generation.

Video: VAN@EDM: Walter Gretzky gives signed jersey to fan

Soon afterward, Ryan Smyth cranked the building up to playoff-loud volume, leading a galaxy of the Oilers' brilliant 1980s stars.

Mark Messier arrived, to "Mooooose!"

Finally, just before 9 p.m., came No. 99.

Profoundly moved. With his jersey tucked in the back of his pants, as it should and must have been.

Of course, Wayne Gretzky remains the brightest star in any hockey constellation, just as he was when he was leading the Oilers to four Stanley Cup victories, all of them won on this ice.

The lost were not forgotten. Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale" on the organ soundtracked a poignant scoreboard remembrance of Oilers no longer with us, followed by folksy on-ice interviews of a variety of players through the decades.

Video: VAN@EDM: Ceremonial puck drop before final home game

The evening began with a rousing recording of "O Canada" sung by the late Paul Lorieau, a hugely popular local figure who sang the national anthems here from 1981-2011.

Mark Messier, who stood for Lorieau on many nights, had earlier in the day considered a moving ceremony that lay ahead.

"You think about all of the different events that happened here, not only the hockey games, but all of the other emotions and events that happened here," Messier said. "It's going to be a powerful night for the city of Edmonton.

"For me, seeing the building built, seeing Gordie Howe here when I was a kid, Bobby Hull, all the great players in the WHA, being able to fulfill a dream to play in the National Hockey League, here in my hometown, would never have thought that was a possibility when I was growing up.

"I was here from the start, but for fans, for every one of the guys who put the sweater on, for every one of the people who have worked for the organization in one form or another, it's going to be a powerful night. And it's incredible how a building can take on a personality. It's taken on so much personality because of the great moments that have happened here."

Video: VAN@EDM: Messier remembers the fans and his childhood

Messier spoke about the dynasty of the 1980s, about the swaggering Oilers.

"We were very talented but one thing that we had, and that any team needs to be successful, is belief," he said. "You've got to believe you can win. And how you get that belief is through your preparation and through experiences and through falling down and getting up and winning and setting goals and reaching those goals. That's what gives you the belief that you can do it. …

"And we had the best leader in the world in that regard in Wayne. He was always the hardest-working guy, he was always having the most fun on the ice, he was always the guy playing games after practice. So we had a great teacher/mentor in that regard, even though he was the same age as us. We learned a lot from Wayne about what it took to be a winner."

Gretzky's name practically wallpapers the Oilers' Rexall Place record-book, the leader in goals scored (316), assists (586) and points (902).

His No. 99 banner was the second one hung in the rafters in retirement; that came in 1999, 19 years after Al Hamilton's No. 3 was hoisted aloft. Five more would join them in two-year intervals: Jari Kurri in 2001, followed by Grant Fuhr, Paul Coffey, Messier and most recently in 2009, Glenn Anderson.

Video: VAN@EDM: Gretzky talks about his early Oilers' career

Messier would score the first of his 694 career goals on Oct. 13, 1979, the NHL Oilers' first game in this building. Not yet 19, he beat Detroit Red Wings goalie Rogie Vachon with 2:24 to play, earning Edmonton a 3-3 tie.

Three nights later, Gretzky earned three assists in the Oilers' first Rexall victory, a 6-3 win against the Quebec Nordiques.

As the ceremony moved to its conclusion, Gretzky and Messier joined iconic broadcaster Bob Cole for a casual interview at center ice.

The first NHL goal scored in this building came Oct. 13, 1979, off the stick of Oilers forward Blair MacDonald in the first period. History will record that Edmonton's Leon Draisaitl scored the last at 18:03 of the third period Wednesday, on a power play.

Video: POST-GAME RAW | Connor McDavid

The crowd was on its feet a full minute before the final horn at 7:45 p.m., the Oilers saluting their fans with a center-ice stick wave and applause, just as the honored guests would do two and a half hours later.

McDavid, who had three points, was named third star; two-goal scorer Patrick Maroon was selected second star.

In a nice touch, the Oilers named their fans first star of Wednesday, and of the past 41-plus years at Rexall.

The Farewell Night banner was lowered, appropriately, to Aaron Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man."

For most of its blue-collar life, Rexall Place was about the community it served and the hockey team whose work ethic made it, for a time, a pre-eminent force.

It's on to Rogers Place next fall, where if the Oilers can produce even a reasonable facsimile of those 1980s teams, they'll be doing just fine.

Video: VAN@EDM: Oilers employee Joey Moss lowers flag

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