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VanMurph's View: The Edmonton Experience

by Staff Writer / Florida Panthers
Murphy and Vanessa Burch
In just another attempt to bring the fans closer to the team and vice versa, would like to introduce our newest fan blogger, Murphy Burch. Joining YourBlog's Cliff Peeke, Murphy will be writing about his views on the Panthers for this season.

Murphy, an airline pilot originally from North Carolina, is better known as vanmurph on the Panthers message boards and he, along with his wife Vanessa are two of the most vociferous fans at the BankAtlantic Center.

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The first time I glanced at the 2008-2009 Panthers’ schedule back in September, I immediately saw two trips that were going to be at the top my wish list: the November west coast trip, and the December western Canada swing…

With equal amounts of effort and luck, plus a signed permission slip from Vanessa, the November road trip became a reality, and I traveled to see the Panthers play the Kings, Coyotes, and Ducks. Now, just over a month later, I’ve arrived in the Great White North to make a hockey fan’s equivalent of a trip to paradise; following my team as they play games in Edmonton, Calgary, and Vancouver. I’d ask someone to pinch me, but the icy winds, the piles of snow, the super-nice people, and the plentiful supply of “eh’s”, are proof enough that I’m really here in Canada!

During the initial planning stages for this trip, my intention was to fly into Edmonton and rent a car for the entire four days while enjoying the scenery during a nice long drive, and then drop the car off at the completion of the trip in Vancouver. But that plan was abruptly abandoned with the first Internet search of one-way rentals… A one-way, 4-day rental for an economy-sized car from Edmonton to Vancouver was almost $600!!! The one-way fee between Edmonton and Calgary was over $400. So to save money, I decided to divide the trip into two segments. On the first leg of the trip I flew from Ft. Lauderdale to Dallas, then into Calgary. Upon arrival, I rented a car and drove up to Edmonton. After the game against the Oilers, I drove back down to a hotel here in Calgary. Even including the cost of the gas, it was significantly less expensive than flying into Edmonton and getting a one-way rental to Calgary (plus, since I’d never driven between the two cities, it afforded me the opportunity to experience some beautiful sights along the way). After the game against the Flames, I’ll head back to the hotel for a quick nap, then early in the morning, I’ll fly to Dallas, meet up with Vanessa and spend the day with friends. Then on the second segment of the trip, we’d fly to Vancouver, watch the game against the Canucks, and return to Miami via Dallas the following morning.

Unlike most NHL cities in the US, there is absolutely no doubt that hockey is played here in Edmonton! I mean this is Canada, after all, and I think it’s actually a requirement to demonstrate a slap shot on the test for your driver’s license… Yes, hockey is king with our neighbors to the north, and you only have to spend two minutes watching TV or listening to the radio here to realize it. During the drive to and from Edmonton last night, I heard commercial after commercial about the Flames and the Oilers. It was a very nice change from what I’m used to: Not hearing anything about the team or sport I love… Even on the sports segment of the local news stations.

Notes from Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta:

- The arena is located east of downtown and easily accessed by public transportation. In fact, there is a train station located just outside one of the main entrances to the arena, and numerous bus stops close by. Traveling by car requires a little patience, because the wintry conditions, the numerous stoplights, and the sheer volume of traffic make for a hectic experience.

- I arrived at the arena by car about 15 minutes after the doors opened (they opened one hour prior to the puck drop), and traffic was fairly snarled. Not wanting to miss any of the pre-game skate, I decided to park in the first lot I saw with available spaces in it, and I did so without any problems. I parked across the street from the arena in the parking lot of a small business that was charging $8.00 (Canadian). The walk to the arena from where I parked was a little over 5 minutes.

- The crowd filing into Rexall Place was spirited and very polite. Since I didn’t want to lug my heavy coat around all night, I just left it in the car and wore my jersey. I was expecting a little ribbing about it, but I didn’t hear a single negative word… Coming out of the building, though, I heard several comments from fans who were probably just frustrated that they’d braved the snow and the cold to come watch their team get shutout by the Andyman!

- Once I located the “Game Day” ticket office, picking up my ticket was a snap. The line wasn’t very long, and within a couple of minutes, I’d received my ticket and was inside the warm confines of the arena.

- The first thing I noticed once inside the building was the very narrow and winding concourses. Even though the arena has undergone a major renovation or two since it was built almost 35 years ago, the concourses still have a very cramped feel to them. If you’ve ever been over to see the Everblades play in Estero, or to see the Wolves play in Chicago, you’ll have a good idea of the feel I’m describing. Basically, Rexall Place had a bit of an “Old School” ambiance. Having become accustomed to a state-of-the-art facility like the BankAtlantic Center, there was something quite homey and nice about seeing NHL hockey being played in a place that has some history to it. It reminded me of Wrigley Field.

- There were only two main levels in the arena, and on one side, there was a small third level.  Even with the added third level, the official capacity is just over 16,800. But considering there were fewer empty seats in their entire arena than we have in one section in Sunrise, I’d say the number of seats in the building is the only thing that limits their attendance. The slope of the lower bowl was pretty steep, meaning that even seats as close as 10 rows up had very good views of the ice over the glass.  The upper levels were also relatively steep and had very good sightlines. There were no escalators, just stairs to get to the upper levels. 

- There were plenty of advertisements located around the arena. Not quite as much as we’re used to in the BankAtlantic Center, but a noticeable amount. One of the things I found interesting was that during the intermissions a group of guys would go around and change out the advertisements along the boards. They’d unroll a new logo and stick it over the one that was already there. I guess if you want to have your advertisement along the boards at an Oilers game, but you can’t afford 3 periods, you have an option to purchase one period at a time.

- The food was very similar to what we have in the BAC, and at comparable prices.  I had chicken fingers, fries, and a large soda for $13.25, and it tasted exactly the same as the chicken fingers in Sunrise. There were no souvenir cups, and no cup holders at the seats.

- The scoreboard was large and fairly nice. There was also a one-ringed scoreboard around the arena between the first and second levels, and several smaller scoreboards located in the endzones and high up in the corners. The latter were used mostly for out-of-town scores, announcements, and shot counts. The sound system in the arena wasn’t as good as those in other arenas, although it may have had a little to do with where I was sitting. The main speakers are located above and to the outside of the center-hung scoreboard, and because I was seated in the first row by the glass directly on the goal line, I couldn’t hear any of the announcements very clearly. 

- A local casino sponsors the pucks used during the warm-ups.

- The Oilers have an in-arena host. He’s a guy in a nice suit, and among other things, he interviews fans and plays host during contests.

-During the player introductions, the Oilers skate out of the locker room through a giant oil rig that was lowered onto the ice. I thought it was outstanding.

- The nets in Rexall Place are black and almost invisible when looking through them.

-During one of the TV timeouts, they have a cartoon car race up on the scoreboard. There are 3 different colored cars that begin by getting gassed up at a cartoon gas station before heading out into the countryside for a race. As the race is going on, all of the cars take turns in the lead.  The Oilers fans went nuts for this race! They cheered loudly during each lead change, and went crazy at the completion of the race. It was fun to see a crowd having such a good time.

-Speaking of the crowd, the only time they were prompted to make noise was coming back from TV timeouts. They really responded! It got very loud when “NOISE” was displayed on the scoreboards. The crowd was also into the game from the national anthems through the Dvorak empty-netter. They stayed engaged and continued to vocally support the Oilers right down to the final seconds of the game. They are a very smart hockey crowd, and it’s evident that they love their team! The “Let’s Go Oilers” chant was started numerous times during each period.

-The championship banners and retired numbers hanging from the rafters are very impressive!

-The crew that cleans the ice during the TV timeouts was quick and efficient. They skated out, did their job, and left just as quickly as they’d arrived.

-The visitor’s locker room is located behind the Oilers shoot-twice end zone. That entrance is also where the Zamboni enters and exits the ice. Before and after each period, the Panthers would have to skate off the bench and make their way past the net on their way to the locker room.

- The main TV cameras are located on the opposite side of the arena from the ones in the BAC. There is a small camera on top of the glass above the goal at each end of the ice.

- I’m told that the goal horn is really cool in Edmonton… I guess I’ll just have to wait until my next visit to hear it… (Thank you Mr. Anderson)

- The restrooms were not really that impressive. By that I mean there was standing water in the ones I visited, and they weren’t very clean. But considering the building is as old as it is, they’re not as bad as they could be.

- The intermission entertainment consisted of watching the crew repair the ice. There was no music, no games, and no show. Just a couple of Zambonis and some guys with shovels and squeegees. It was actually nice to sit there and watch the guys work on the ice. I’ve never really paid attention to the details involved in repairing the damage caused by 20 minutes worth of NHL hockey. It’s quite a delicate process and it’s a real labor of love. The guys and girls who worked on the ice in Edmonton were attentive to their duties, and it was obvious they enjoyed their work and they took pride in it. I did think it was interesting to see that there were large puddles of water left on the ice after the intermissions. It took several minutes into each period for them disappear. At one point an Edmonton player went down into one of the puddles right in front of me and the water splashed up onto the glass.

-There were no commercials during the intermissions. Just old hockey highlights.

- There were beer vendors, but no other sort of product-sellers, in the aisles. There were also beer hawkers out on the concourse before and during the game.

- I saw maybe 7 or 8 Panthers jerseys during the course of the evening. I only got to chat with a few of people wearing them, and they said they have become fans of the team through our contact with them in the preseason.

- The fans were very friendly, and eager to talk hockey. I had some nice conversations with the people around me during the game.

- There was no mascot in the arena. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: You don’t really realize how much you enjoy something until it’s not there. I like the antics of Stanley, Mini, and others in our arena. I know there are some who say that mascots “don’t belong in hockey”, but until the Habs (you know, the oldest team in the sport) get rid of Youppi, I’m just gonna have to call BS on that. Mascots are simply a fun part of the whole entertainment experience.

- They have the CISN (a radio station in Edmonton) “Kiss Cam”. It’s pretty much the same as every team in the league, and the fans enjoyed it just as much as we do in Sunrise. The crowd really reacted enthusiastically to it.

- One of the biggest cheers of the night from the jumbotron came when a kid in an Oilers jersey held up a sign that said “Merry Christmas to all… Except Calgary Fans”…

- The music they played during the pre-game skate was very similar to what we hear in the BAC. During the game there was plenty of classic rock.

-Exiting Rexall Place after the game was an eye-opening experience. When I entered the concourse a few minutes after Radek Dvorak sealed the win with the empty-netter, it was packed wall-to-wall with people. As the concourse narrowed, we were packed in tighter and tighter until the forward movement stopped. If someone would’ve shouted out “Free Beer!” I have no doubts that in the resulting stampede, tragedy would’ve ensued!

The game itself was outstanding! I felt the utmost confidence in our guys, and despite the injury-plagued lineup, there was never a doubt in my mind that we were leaving Edmonton with two points. Watching our defense force the Oilers to the outside, and never really giving them a good look at the net made for some exciting hockey (for me anyway). I enjoy the technical aspects of the game, and watching guys like Gregory Campbell, Jay Bouwmeester, and Keith Ballard is like watching a hockey clinic. It was also very nice to see some hitting. Anthony Stewart is really finishing his checks, and I had the pleasure of seeing a few of them up close last night. That guy is flying around the ice and trying to make things happen.  

The penalty kill unit was in top form. Watching a game on the road with 16,000 fans of the opposing team gives you an interesting perspective on just how effective our guys are when playing a man down. Since the Panthers weren’t giving Edmonton many looks at the net on their power plays, the crowd was getting antsy, and the audible groan of the masses every time we’d clear the puck down the ice was amazing. I can relate to their frustrations, and I have to admit that there is a great deal of satisfaction when the shoe is on the other foot.

By the way… I think I saw it… When Anderson skated over to the bench during the warm-ups, I believe I caught a glimpse of the Superman cape tucked under his jersey! I knew there had to be an otherworldly explanation for his stellar play! All kidding aside, Andy was simply lights-out Thursday night! He’s becoming a master of deflecting shots into the corners, or just swallowing up the puck to prevent rebounds. Those abilities, combined with the defensive push to the outside, are really paying dividends for this team. As we continue to get healthy, I sincerely hope our injured guys will come back with a vengeance in recognition of the outstanding job the others have done in their absence. With people like Booth, Stillman, Zednik, and Horton returning soon, I see no reason why we can’t continue the push toward a playoff spot, or a Southeast Division Championship.

One of the nicest things about the tailgates at the BankAtlantic Center is the opportunity to meet new Panthers fans. Last spring, a group of Canadians, who were attending school at Northwood University in Palm Beach County, drove down for a couple of Panthers games. Upon returning to school, they registered for the Panthers Message Board, and their participation kept them in touch with all of us. They’ve since returned to Canada. When I started planning for this trip, I made sure to contact them to be sure we would get together in Edmonton or Calgary. During the game we text messaged with each other to coordinate our meeting after the game out by the statue of Wayne Gretzky. These guys are the real deal! Panthers fans, all! They live in Edmonton but are loyal devotees of the southernmost team in the NHL. It takes a lot of nerve for a group of guys born and raised in Alberta to come into Rexall Place sporting the colors of the opposition! Jared, Zach, and Brett, you guys are all terrific! I enjoyed seeing all of you again, and I’m glad I’ll have some backup here in Calgary against the Flames. I’m sure I can speak for all of the tailgaters when I say that we look forward to your next visit to the Sunshine State! Until then, stay warm!

Thank you very much for stopping by the blog.  My next entry will be the arena summary from the Saddledome here in Calgary.

Take Care,

If you have questions, comments, or suggestions, or if you just want to say Hi, I can be reached at:

Thank you to everyone who emailed me after the last blog entry.  It was a pleasure to correspond with each of you.

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