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Wayne Gretzky

Wayne Gretzky impressed by Rogers Place

Calls new Oilers arena 'truly fascinating in every aspect'

by Derek Van Diest / Correspondent

EDMONTON -- Wayne Gretzky was impressed with Rogers Place, the Edmonton Oilers' new downtown arena, but the Hall of Famer still has a soft spot for the old, iconic buildings.

Gretzky took part in the grand opening ceremony for the arena on Thursday after he had a private tour and skated on the ice for the first time.

"It's pretty unique, pretty special," Gretzky said. "We live in a different era now. A lot of people understood and remembered Maple Leaf Gardens, the Montreal Forum and Chicago Stadium, and you hate to see those buildings go. Northlands Coliseum was a pretty special place, but it's a new time and a new era and you have to change with the times.

"This arena is truly fascinating in every aspect. I got an opportunity to walk through the entire building, from the locker rooms to the seats to the boxes to the ice itself, it's pretty special."

The Oilers move into Rogers Place this season after playing at Rexall Place (formerly Northlands Coliseum) since their entry into the NHL in 1979. The Oilers were founded in 1972 by Bill Hunter and played in the World Hockey Association for seven seasons.

"If you had a crystal ball in 1972, you'd never think that you'd have an arena like this in downtown Edmonton that's so special and so unique," Gretzky said. "It's a landmark. People are going to talk about this building worldwide, not just for the hockey, but for concerts, shows and everything that goes with that."

Five Stanley Cup banners, and the statue of Gretzky that was in front Rexall Place, will move to Rogers Place. The Oilers first play there on Sept. 26, a preseason game against the Calgary Flames. The first regular-season game is against the Flames on Oct. 12.

"I hope they can build their own identity, this group, with this arena and build some history here," Gretzky said. "What makes an arena really special is when you start winning and you win championships. That's what makes an arena unique and special. They have the foundation, the organization, with some good, young players, and I wish them all the best."

Gretzky said the atmosphere in Rogers Place will be similar to that of Northlands Coliseum, which developed a reputation as one of the loudest arenas in the NHL during playoff games.

The Oilers have not qualified for the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the past 10 seasons.

"The atmosphere is everything," Gretzky said. "I think in 1981 when we beat [the Montreal Canadiens] the first two games in Montreal and came home for Game 3, that's when the atmosphere in our arena really changed and the attitude that 'This team has a chance to, one day, win a Stanley Cup,' and you could feel it in the building. So atmosphere is a big part of the success of urging players on. This is going to have a great atmosphere; I hope the players respond to it and I hope they end up having a tremendous year."

Rogers Place is the cornerstone of an arena district envisioned by Oilers owner Daryl Katz when he purchased the team in 2008. The Oilers will host an open house Saturday and the first event will be a Keith Urban concert on Sept. 16.

"We're very proud of what we've accomplished with the city, and it really serves as a model with how public, private partnerships can be constructed for the benefit of everybody," Katz said. "I'm very proud, and I'm very proud of what everyone has accomplished together. The amount of work that went into this, the resources, the people, the time, it was an enormous undertaking to see it all come together like this. It's exhilarating and I'm proud for the city and everybody, all of our employees that worked so hard for this day, it's really fulfilling."

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