EDMONTON, AB - There was a palpable buzz, the atmosphere thick with raw emotion and nostalgia.
A swarm of Oilers faithful patrolled the outside of the arena, ahead of the team’s final game at Rexall Place, hoping to catch a glimpse of The Great One upon his arrival. Wayne Gretzky was one of almost 200 Oilers alumni in attendance for the Farewell Rexall Place festivities.
Gretzky, a man of the people, signed autographs and took pictures with the awe-struck crowd in front of the statue of his likeness. The statue will be moving downtown in the fall to the new Rogers Place, and so will the Oilers. But Wednesday night was all about the history of their old barn, and was it ever a night to remember.
Earlier in the day, masses gathered downtown to celebrate the final game day at the barn, formally named Northlands Coliseum, Edmonton Coliseum and Skyreach Centre.
Before the puck dropped, the Oilers fittingly let the late Paul Lorieau sing the Canadian national anthem, playing a video from the 2006 playoffs. The long-time Oilers anthem singer’s voice filled the rafters for one final time and the fans in attendance joined in. The emotional beginning of the game was just the tip of the iceberg.
Later in the game, 77-year-old Walter Gretzky signed his son’s jersey and gave it to a season seat holder, receiving stick-taps from the players on the benches and a roar of support from those in attendance.
“I really fell in love with this team,” said broadcast legend Bob Cole, who called the final game at Rexall for Sportsnet as part of the night’s celebrations. He would later share memories of his time calling Oilers games back in the 80s.
The current Oilers also gave their fans something to love, with a 6-2 thrashing of the visiting Vancouver Canucks. The crowd attempted to cheer for the final minute of play, but a stoppage broke up the euphoric noise. A “Let’s go, Oilers!” chant picked up ahead of the final faceoff at Rexall Place.
“The energy in the building was phenomenal,” said Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan. “It was emotional. I’ve only been here for one year and it was emotional for me. I can’t imagine a season ticket holder that’s been here for 40 years, how they felt. But it was a good way for our guys to thank them for their support. We haven’t given them enough wins, but we performed tonight and I’m happy that we did.”
After the game, Gretzky and Mark Messier entered the Oilers locker room and approached Leon Draisaitl, who scored the final Edmonton goal in Rexall Place history. They shook his hand and congratulated the 20-year-old forward.
“That was amazing. Shaking their hands might be the coolest thing I’ve ever experienced,” said Draisaitl, who basked in the presence of the Hall of Famers.
The current Oilers had a chance to meet some of hockey’s greatest to ever play and many of those who put on the crest before them. That resonates with not only the youth, but the veterans.
“Young and old. I wouldn’t just go to Leon, but Matty Hendricks and the coaching staff,” said McLellan. “When those players come along, you perk up. This is as close as my experience was in Detroit when Hall of Fame players were around all the time. They hold you accountable by their presence, and I think there’s some value in that. I can feel it happen here when Wayne is around or Jari or Grant Fuhr or whoever it is, like the Sather night. You feel their presence and they hold you accountable with it. We used to have that in Detroit when some of the legends walked in all the time, even Nick Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Zetterberg, they snap to attention.”
After the game, the Oilers announced each alumni in attendance, along with the current players and staff, by name as they walked to centre ice and sat in chairs surrounding the logo. As the players walked under mood lighting toward centre, the hearts of the Oilers fans shown bright as fan favourites and legends received massive show of support.
“Smytty! Smytty!” sounded through the crowd as Ryan Smyth received one of the loudest ovations. “Mooooose!” hummed through the rafters as Messier was announced. The tough guys, the enforcers received much love from the fans as the blue collar city has always chosen those hard-working players as some of their favourites.
“This is what it’s all about right here, coming to the Oilers and what they had accomplished, what they had done, stepping into the dressing room,” said former enforcer Louie DeBrusk. “They were the greatest franchise around and everybody wanted to play for them. These fans are loud, they’re passionate and to hear them cheer your name is the best feeling in the world.”
Following the procession of Oilers history, some of the attendees were interviewed by Sportsnet’s Gene Principe and John Shannon.
“Isn’t this awesome?” said former captain Blair MacDonald, who scored the first game-winning goal at home in Oilers NHL history. “This event is out of this world. It’s how many hours after the game and no one has left. Unbelievable!”
Craig Muni won three Stanley Cup championships with the Oilers, and returning for this night was a special moment to go along with so many others.
“All you have to do is take a look around tonight at the game, at City Hall, it’s like winning the Stanley Cup all over again coming back to Edmonton,” Muni said.
As a sold-out crowd stayed late into the evening, well after the final horn had sounded; count McLellan among those unsurprised at the turnout and the support.
“Being from Western Canada, I know what it’s like in Edmonton and knew what to expect coming in,” said the head coach. “This is very humbling, when you look around at the players that have come back and returned to their home in Edmonton and honoured the Oilers, the different generations and their presence, just their presence alone, held us accountable tonight as well as the 18,000 people who show up every night. We appreciate it.”
The Oilers alumni reminisced about playoff wins, crushing losses, championship runs, the camaraderie of the dressing room, favourite memories of the building and the fans and much more. The stories flowed, videos played, and many were recognized.
Former player, coach, captain and general manager of the Oilers, and current Vice Chair of Oilers Entertainment Group Kevin Lowe addressed the crowd on behalf of the organization. He asked those who have their names and numbers lifted in the Rexall Place rafters to take centre stage and receive their commemorative banner. Long-time locker room attendant Joey Moss stepped into the spotlight to join the Oilers greats as a banner emblazoned with the franchise’s past captains was lowered and presented to the group. Moss retired the banner.
The night wrapped up with a standing ovation and “Let’s go, Oilers!” chant as the fans witnessed their beloved players raise sticks in salute before leaving the ice for one final time at Rexall Place.