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Emotional night looms as Oilers say goodbye to Rexall Place

by Chris Wescott / Edmonton Oilers

EDMONTON, AB - There may be some watery eyes, or at the very least chills and goosebumps.

Tonight, the Oilers and their fans say goodbye to an arena they’ve called home for 42 years. The franchise moves downtown to Rogers Place this fall, leaving behind decades of moments that the players will never forget.

“A lot of good memories,” said Hall of Fame winger Jari Kurri. “There were a lot of records being made in this building, but the first that always comes to my mind is that first Stanley Cup and not knowing what’s going to happen and how everybody reacted — the players, the fans, the city.”

The Oilers first Stanley Cup championship in 1984 was secured on home ice, with Edmonton beating the New York Islanders 4-1, sweeping their three games at Rexall Place.

The celebrations both inside the building and outside are still as clear for Kurri as if they happened yesterday.

“Coming from Europe, I had no clue how much it meant with the winning,” said Kurri, who is second among scoring leaders in Rexall Place history with 253 goals and 579 points in the building. “I was shocked. People were hugging each other who they didn’t even know who they were. People were driving through the city in the cars and people were all over the place celebrating on the roof and everywhere. It was so much fun.”

Kurri, along with almost 200 fellow alumni, has journeyed to Edmonton to take part in the celebrations for the final game at Rexall Place.

“This is very fun,” he said. “There’s so many players you played with and players you knew played with the team before me and the older guys. It’s nice to be surrounded by them, remember some stories and flashbacks. It will be emotional tonight to step on the ice and look around one last time, but life goes on and everybody is looking forward to the next new building. It’s going to be unbelievable.”

The Oilers have planned an impressive show for the fans tonight, promising an evening filled with memories and an appropriate tribute to the past. Including tonight, 1428 regular season and 129 playoff games have been played at Rexall Place, so there are a lot of moments and players to celebrate.

“It’s all coming to a head now,” said former Oilers captain and Vice Chair of Oilers Entertainment Group Kevin Lowe. “There has been planning for a number of months within the organization and we’re so pleased with what has happened so far and the response by the alumni to come here, they’re all really excited. The fans have been amazing for us over the years and I know we’re going to have a good program tonight. They’re going to enjoy it, they’re going to be impressed and it’s the end of an era for sure but lots of good things to look forward to.”

The Oilers will be well represented by both NHL and WHA alumni.

“If there was one comment I could make it would be that the Oilers have gone above and beyond, I think, in hosting this event and sponsoring this event and even reaching back to guys who are older, who’ve never played in the NHL and we’re WHA guys. The fact that they would invite us and have us be a part of this event, speaks to how classy they are,” said Wayne Zuk, who played just two games for Edmonton during the 1973-74 season. All were welcome.

Coming to the arena for one final game holds a special place in the hearts of many of the alumni. In particular, Edmonton native, Stanley Cup champion and Hall of Famer Mark Messier can’t contain the nostalgia.

“It will be a powerful moment for myself, personally, because being from Edmonton and seeing the building built and seeing Gordie Howe here as a kid and Bobby Hull and all the great players back in the WHA there and being able to fulfill a dream of playing in the National Hockey League here in my hometown,” said Messier. “I would have never thought of that as a possibility as I was growing up here. For me, personally, I was here from the start. For the fans and every one of these guys who put the sweater on, for every one of the people who worked for the organization in one form or the other, it’s going to be a powerful night. And it’s incredible how a building can take on a personality. It’s a building, but it’s taken on so much personality because of the great moments that have happened here.”

That personality the building has developed over the years can be compared to some of the players who she’s housed.

“If I described the building as a hockey player, the scouting report I’d give would be it’s got a lot of heart, plays with a lot of passion, tough to play against at home and has a lot of grit and determination,” said Messier.

Messier still remembers the old Edmonton Gardens, hockey’s home in Edmonton until Rexall Place, which at the time was named Northlands Coliseum, opened in November on 1974. When Northlands Coliseum opened its doors, it was a palace.

“It was a state-of-the-art building almost across North America,” said Messier. “Someone mentioned the other day, and I didn’t even realize that it was one of the first buildings with a hanging score clock. It was really state of the art. Here we were in Edmonton, never even at that point when it was built thinking we’d have expansion to the National Hockey League here, so we felt and I think all of us felt this sense of pride that we had this amazing building right here in Edmonton. Then a few short years later we got the expansion so that was a dream come true for all of us.”

Those players from the early years remember that new and exciting building. The players today know the history, but see the passage of time’s effect of the arena. Tonight marks one last stand at Rexall Place before launching a new era in their new digs.

“How we feel in there is we need to win,” said winger Jordan Eberle. “There’s a certain mandate in this organization with a winning attitude and having everyone come back with all eyes on you for the last game in this building, that’s a lot of pressure. We need to perform and get a win for that. I think it’s going to be a special night for Rexall, a special night for the fans and a special night for the players and past players.”

The current Oilers will be able to take in the fans’ excitement, the energy of the old barn and the wisdom of championship players.

“When those guys come back, you kind of want to sit there and soak in every moment,” said Eberle. “They’ve got a lot of winning culture and a lot of advice. A lot of those guys are in the Hall of Fame and are arguably some of the best players in hockey. You want to just sit there and listen and soak in as much as you can.”

Hours before opening faceoff, media members and arena workers flooded the halls, snapping photos of the old barn. The current players laughed at the fond memories of their home building, while lamenting missed opportunities in recent seasons. The alumni shared stories with the media and with each other, some serious and others hilarious tellings of locker room happenings. The mood at Rexall Place’s final pre-game morning was more joyful and reminiscent than sad, but it is sure to be an emotional evening of goodbyes for all those with ties to a historic venue.

“Good, sad, happy — all the emotions will be coming tonight for everybody,” said Messier. "There are lot of people that put the uniform on, a lot of people that work for the team, a lot of fans that have been here from day one when it first opened, so it will be quite an evening.”
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