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One final act at Rexall Place

Home of the Oilers dynasty set to say goodbye to NHL on Wednesday

by Dave Stubbs @dave_stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

EDMONTON -- It is brick and mortar and memories, dreams and nightmares and soul, and now it is within hours of its final NHL game.

Early Tuesday morning, 42-year-old Rexall Place - previously branded Northlands Coliseum, Edmonton Coliseum and Skyreach Centre - was breathing quietly, only a few security guards and maintenance workers in its corridors.

In its kitchens, staff were checking lists, slicing meat, moving hot-dog buns, the early preparations underway for Wednesday, when the Edmonton Oilers host the Vancouver Canucks in the building's NHL swan song (7 p.m. ET; SNW, SNP).

I arrived before 9 a.m., two hours before Oilers practice, and wandered the building alone, listening to the hum of its air conditioning and refreshment fridges, taking photos of signs and machines and doors.

There is something melancholy about an arena that seems to know its days are numbered. I sensed that 20 years ago in Montreal, walking the corridors of the Montreal Forum before its final game in March 1996, then in Pittsburgh's Mellon Arena in May 2010, the Montreal Canadiens eliminating the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinal after having defeated the Penguins to open that arena in 1967.

It was almost as if Rexall Place were taking shallow breaths Tuesday morning. The floors were scrubbed to a gloss, the washrooms were immaculate and the arena bowl was still, not a spectator in the stands.

High in the stands, between the Canadian and U.S. flags, a worker silently hung giant white letters over a railing that spelled FAREWELL REXALL. Two maintenance workers stopped to talk about their three-decade careers in this building, one soon to take his retirement, the other uncertain whether he'll be offered work at downtown Rogers Place, the Oilers' new home beginning next season.

The memories, so many of them, at this address:

There was goaltending pioneer Jacques Plante earning a 4-1 victory in the Oilers' 1974-75 Northlands Coliseum home opener, the team then in the World Hockey Association.

There was Wayne Gretzky. 

There were the Oilers' powerhouse teams that won the Stanley Cup five times in seven seasons between 1984-90, four on this ice, only the Canadiens and provincial-rival Calgary Flames putting a stick in their spokes of NHL domination.

There was Wayne Gretzky.

There were concerts and myriad events and rodeos - the toxic leftovers of what rodeo cows and horses do once destroyed the ice, forcing the postponement of a WHA game.

And there was Wayne Gretzky.

 

This arena was 23 years old when Oilers phenom Connor McDavid was born. Like all of his teammates, McDavid will relish the final game Wednesday and try to absorb every moment of it while trying to win a hockey game.

"This building has a ton of history," McDavid, 19, said following the Oilers' upbeat practice Tuesday. "It's special to play here, in my first year. I'm looking forward to the final game and experiencing what that's going to be like. It's going to be special, for sure."

Oilers alumni will be coming out of the woodwork Wednesday, an estimated 150 expected in the house when the curtain falls with a 90-minute postgame ceremony.

"I'm not sure that we'll be able to spend much time with them," McDavid said of the Oilers' legends and journeymen who will be a focal point of the night. "But I'm sure we'll see a bunch of them around and it will be cool to talk to some of them. We still have a game to play and we have to focus on that."

Video: 1984 Cup Final, Gm5: Oilers take the Cup from Isles

On the heels of a 5-0 defeat against the Flames on Saturday, the Oilers want to close out Rexall with a strong showing, for themselves, their fans and even for the legacy of the only place they've called home. There's nothing but pride to be gained with a win, both the home team and the visitors skating into an early summer by week's end.

The Oilers have clinched their second last-place finish in the Western Conference in the past three seasons, no matter what happens Wednesday or in Game 82 Saturday in Vancouver.

There will be no shortage of motivation for the Oilers in their Rexall finale. A beautiful state-of-the-art building awaits, but this team knows it owes something special to these walls, to the great history that has been made inside them, and to the legends who will be in the seats in what promises to be an emotional goodbye.

McDavid isn't looking beyond Wednesday, nor are any of his teammates. But he's often asked about the new arena, where new memories will be created.

"The building looks amazing, even from the outside," he said about the barn that's too new to even be called a barn. "And from anything I've heard, the inside is going to be just as nice. I know we're all looking forward to that. It's going to be really cool to open that building up as well.

Video: PRACTICE RAW | Connor McDavid

"It's kind of bittersweet here, the end of Rexall. But the end of something is always the start of something new. It's going to be exciting."

On Wednesday night, McDavid expects to be one of the last Oilers to leave the arena. He's not certain just yet what, if anything, he'll take as a souvenir, not that he'll be searched on the way out the door.

"I haven't thought about that too much," he said. "I'm sure it will be something I'll think about as I'm leaving, a decision I'll make at the end."

Tucking a win in his pocket would be a nice place to start, a fitting tribute to an arena that has defined much of what has been great about hockey in Edmonton and, in recent years, much of what has been all too forgettable.

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