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IN DEPTH: My Farewell

by Rexall Place / Edmonton Oilers
 Photo by Jeff Nash

To my fellow hockey fans,

There’s a peaceful, calm and comfortable way about an empty hockey building.

It’s chilly, but warm at the same time. That doesn’t make sense unless you’ve lived it, as I have for four decades. Hockey night in Edmonton brings with it a symphony unlike anything you can imagine unless you’ve truly experienced it.

Aside from the humming of the lights, or the far-off sound of diligent workers tending to their craft and tending to me, the air is still. The concourse is empty, the bowl is cavernous. It’s not the quiet I enjoy, come to think of it. It’s the promise of what’s to come.

From the time the ice is tended to, following a morning skate, to the early arrival of the game-night staff, there is this quiet. But within the quiet is always the anticipation of that quiet breaking. The opening of the doors signals the rush of eager hockey fans. From that quiet explodes this cacophony of popcorn machines spitting their contents into large metal containers, the shuffling of feet, and the dinging of an elevator that sure likes to take its time getting to its destination. Sometimes, the lift doesn’t make it the whole way at first. It shudders and stops, and that too has a familiar sound, which lets me know there is always someone on the move.

The smells of a hockey game, I’ll miss too. The popcorn, the hot dogs, the beer. Even the ice has a particular smell. The old smoke from the Zambonis, the blood on the ice after a fight or a sacrificial block of a shot, the sweat. Ok, so I won’t miss all the smells, but I will miss the sound.

There’s conversation humming through the halls, the flip of the pages of the game programs, the ruffling of hot dog wrappers and the foaming of the beer. The organ fires up an old tune we’ve heard before, top-40 hits and old classics echo through the filling bowl. And then, there’s the game.

There’s this sizzle of skates carving into the ice surface, the scraping of shovels between shifts, the hits, the goals, the crack of stick on puck, that bellowing horn, the shrillness of the whistles, the cheers, the groans, the jubilation and the heartache. But first, there is quiet and anticipation… I think I’ll miss that.

For certain, there will be quiet moments for myself again, but no orchestra of hockey to follow. The Edmonton Oilers — who I have hosted for so many years, moments and memories — are moving downtown to new digs. It’s not a sad moment, really. It’s the passage of time. Rogers Place will usher in a new era of sports and entertainment for the City of Edmonton, but I will always hold the past, and that’s really special. Because inside my walls, a dynasty was born.

I’ve been a season seat holder for 42 years.

I was raised from the ground in 1974. I went by Northlands Coliseum back then, opening my doors in November of that year. Much like Rogers Place will replace me, I replaced the Edmonton Gardens before it. And boy, was I something to look at back then.

You see, back in 1974 I wasn’t the weathered old barn you see today. I didn’t have the proverbial miles on me. No, I was a shiny new temple, ushering Edmonton onto the big stage of entertainment venues.

Wayne Gretzky chose me. They refer to me as “The House Wayne Gretzky Built” but in reality it was I who helped draw The Great One to Edmonton. Gretzky had a choice and chose the city, largely in part of the new building — me — and the prospects of joining the National Hockey League one day. That day would come, but I first hosted the World Hockey Association Oilers, and it was my first taste of hockey. Like the fans who visited me, I fell in love instantly.

Here we were, opening night, and workers were still bolting down seats. The dressing rooms and showers weren’t quite ready. The players had to dress in their old locker room across the street and walk to the game with the fans across the skywalk. Forgive me for not being ready on time, I was new at it all.

My tardiness, however, did nothing to dampen the excitement. I remember the smiles and the look of awe on peoples’ faces as they walked through my doors for that first game — All 15,000 of them! Cleveland was in town and the fans were excited to see what I was all about, and I was excited to welcome them. The atmosphere was unlike anything I’d seen before. That first night, I thought would be my best night. I was wrong. So much more was to come.

The players were excited that night too, of course. I was full, and would continue to fill with fans for years to come. Ron Buchanan scored the first goal in my history that night, and my rafters shook for the first time. That November evening was only the start of my journey.

In 1979, the Oilers earned expansion into the NHL. I was sad to see my WHA Oilers go, as they will always hold a special place in my heart. But what an exciting time that was for the city and I. Who would have thought we’d be getting an NHL team? Who would have thought I’d be playing host to hockey royalty, to the Original Six teams? I could only dream of a championship some day, that maybe I’d see the Stanley Cup up close and personal. I would a few times, as a matter of fact.

By 1984, we knew who the Oilers were. Led by Gretzky, and his unbelievable supporting cast of hockey legends, the Oilers were on the precipice of greatness. On May 19, 1984 the Oilers won their first Stanley Cup in five games. I was there that night, as Edmonton beat the New York Islanders 5-2 to close out the series. I remember the euphoric eruption very clearly.

Photo by Jeff Nash

Truly, the euphoria began in Game 3. The Oilers put the boots to New York, 7-2, and the fans could feel it. Again, the Oilers beat the Islanders 7-2 in Game 4 and we just knew they wouldn’t be denied on home ice; on my ice. The opening puck drop of game five was like a party. The fans went ballistic when Gretzky scored a breakaway goal, and in the end the Oilers took it 5-2. I wish I could describe the thundering response of the home crowd. Fans ignited sparklers in the final moments, shining like airplane runway lights guiding the Oilers to victory. The stands erupted, streamers, hats, everything was thrown into the air and as Gretzky lifted the Cup above his head and I couldn’t help but swell with pride at the thought that our city and our team had achieved something every franchise strives for.

Yes, I will always remember my first Cup. But, celebration and achievement is just one part of my story. My story also contains heartache, but more importantly redemption.

I don’t have tear ducts, but if I did I would have cried for Steve Smith.

In 1986, Smith scored a goal that resonates in the hockey world, and sports in general. When Smith fired a pass off the back of Grant Fuhr’s leg and into the Oilers net, in Game 7, the hockey world stopped for a second. I distinctly remember a fan blowing a horn before Smith’s zone-clearing attempt. No one would have thought a deciding moment would come from so harmless a hockey play. The shrill sound of the horn was cut off abruptly as a smattering of Calgary Flames fans’ cheers alone echoed through the bowl. There was shock… several moments of shock. That shock was more deafening than cheers.

The Oilers went on to lose to the Flames, and the Smith goal was a representation of a disappointing end for Edmonton’s Cup hopes that year. But redemption makes trials and tribulations worth it.

Glenn Anderson scored the insurance marker late in Game 7 of the 1987 Stanley Cup Final. That moment was surreal as fans began to realize the Oilers were about to win their third Cup in four years, leaping closer to dynasty status. Fans danced in the aisles, and counted down the final seconds in unison as streamers fell from my highest levels and rained down on the party below.

It was what happened shortly after that sticks out the most for me. I don’t have tear ducts, but if I did I would have cried for Steve Smith… again.

Gretzky passed the Cup to Smith first, showing the family mentality of the Oilers of the 80s. Redemption, sweet redemption.

The Oilers won five Stanley Cups in seven years, four on my ice. Deep in my underbelly, I can still feel the thundering of boots stomping the stands, shaking my foundations. Even in the quiet, when the lights are off and I’m empty, the sounds of those championships still echo through the darkness.

Those stands really shook in 2006. That was one of my and the fans’ favourite teams, I think, because they embodied the hard-working, blue-collar city. I remember Game 6 of the Final vividly.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There were plenty of great moments leading up to the Final series here in Edmonton. I do remember the Oilers beating the mighty Detroit Red Wings in Game 6 on home ice. I also vividly remember Ryan Smyth’s blood staining my ice in Game 3 against San Jose in the second round. Smyth went into the locker room and got stitches after taking a puck to the face, came back to finish the game and the Oilers won in triple overtime, with Smytty setting up the winner. The Oilers crowd loved every second of that finish, but I really remember Game 6 of the Final.

The crowd was out of their minds with excitement, as the Oilers had just beat the Carolina Hurricanes 4-3 in overtime. No quit in those Oilers.

Edmonton came home, facing elimination again, and right away we knew something special was brewing. One of my favourite visuals at Oilers home games is the lowering of the oil derrick. It’s an iconic piece of game-night presentation that really helped make me, me. The team skated through that night, and there was a vibration everyone could feel as a raucous crowd geared up for do-or-die hockey. There’s nothing like the energy that brings. I can picture the wave of silver pom-poms bouncing around as the lights dimmed and the spotlights surfed the crowd. With music blaring, the Oilers took the ice.

The voice of the late Paul Lorieau, singing the Canadian national anthem in that series, accompanied by the thousands of emotional fans, gives me chills to this day.

The players could feel the fans and hear them from the locker room, and on the bench. They took the energy from that evening and rode it to a 4-0 win to extend the series to seven games. I’ve seen a lot of jubilation in my time, and I’ve heard a lot of celebration, but that night was something else. I truly believed the Oilers would win another Cup that year. While it didn’t end that way, we’ll always have those memories. Moments like those, when the fans and the team are so tuned to each other, is what the game is all about.

I know I’m old now, filled with dust and memories. My showers don’t work sometimes, much like they didn’t when I opened. My lights sometimes take their time to turn on, or refused to turn on completely a few years ago. Think of me like the elderly. Sometimes, I just need a little more time getting ready. I’m old, but I’ve held up and I’ve served the Oilers as best I can for many years.

I wonder if they’ll now remove the Barney balloon from my ceiling. It’s been sitting there for I don’t know how long. Actually, come to think of it, I hope they leave it.

I’m described as a building with character. There are, of course, dents and dings — some put there by players and coaches, like the ones on my door in the locker room. The legends of my beer pipes resulting in stronger beer… I can neither confirm nor deny. Sometimes, my press box shakes or sways, but it’s held strong much as I have through countless games, concerts and events.

I’ve seen a lot of records broken and set on my ice. I saw Gretzky make it to 50 goals in 39 games, almost certainly an unbreakable record. I’m sure glad he saved the final five for my ice. I saw the team begin the tradition of taking a team photo at centre ice, following their Cup win in 1988. Now other teams copy, but I was the first building to host it.

I’ve seen legends retired to my the rafters. I saw Patrik Stefan fan on an empty-net goal, allowing Ales Hemsky to score the equalizer at the other end. I once hosted a non-sanctioned fight in my dressing room between Georges Laraque and fitness consultant Daryl Duke. I witnessed championships, playoff losses, eight-point nights, five-goal nights, overtime thrillers, barn burners and highlight-reel moments. My Oilers memories are irreplaceable and many. The people, though, I’ll remember most.

To every usher, every ticket taker, every media member, player, coach, stick boy, equipment manager, trainer, popcorn maker, beer vendor, or fan who has ever walked through my doors for an Oilers hockey game, thank you for keeping me company.

Thank you, fans, for being a part of my history and for visiting me through this long ride. The history, tradition, legacy, and pride of the Oilers was born in my hallowed halls. I quite enjoyed the visit from almost 200 alumni, and the packed house of ravenous and appreciative fans at my final game. The Oilers 6-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks was a fitting way to begin my retirement from professional hockey. The future of the Oilers organization belongs to the fans and it belongs to the new arena. I will always hold tightly to its past.

There truly is something special about the calm before a hockey game. I’ve come to know what to expect when the doors open. That calm, reflective period during the day and the lead-up to the puck drop is special. The bubbling future of downtown is sure to bring its buzzing and bustling to the new arena. I hope Rogers Place takes the time to enjoy the moments leading up to and following an Oilers game — which, I know it will — because those are the times you can reflect and remember all the history the Oilers take with them. Their history is my history.

I’ve been a season seat holder for 42 years, and I can honestly say I’ve had the best seat in the house.

Farewell, and Let’s Go Oilers.

Yours Truly,
Rexall Place

By Rexall Place/

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