EDMONTON – Paul Woods doesn’t remember a lot of detail from the first time he played a NHL game in Edmonton.
But the Red Wings radio broadcaster, who played in seven NHL seasons, recalls the incredible atmosphere inside the Northlands Coliseum the night that he and his Detroit teammates played to a 3-3 tie in the Oilers’ inaugural home opener, in 1979.
Though the arena – it opened in 1974 and is now called Rexall Place – has undergone a few name changes in 41 years, it will host the Red Wings for the very last time time tonight.
Next season, the Oilers will move into the new 18,500-seat Rogers Place in the downtown district.
“It was a close game and I remember the crowd and how the crowd was really into it as you can imagine,” said Woods, who took the opening face-off against the Oilers’ Dave Hunter, on Oct. 13, 1979.
“Edmonton had WHA hockey, which is a great brand of hockey,” Woods said. “But the NHL is its own different animal, so to have the excitement of the fans and the face-off, and the puck drop, and then ‘Bam!’ right into the game. That was fun.”
Goals by Dan Labraaten, Mike Foligno and Dale McCourt catapulted the Red Wings to a 3-2 lead in the third period. For Foligno, the Wings’ first-round pick in the 1979 draft, the third-period goal was the first of his career.
But B.J. MacDonald scored twice for the Oilers, and Mark Messier had the game-tying goal against a weary Wings’ team that arrived an hour late for the game. The delay was caused by travel problems encountered by the Wings, who played the previous night in Vancouver.
Having the Red Wings as their first NHL opponent for the home opener had historical significance, as the Edmonton Flyers, who were one of the clubs to precede the Oilers, were a powerhouse in the old WHL in the 1950s and a farm team to the Red Wings for many years. The Flyers produced such future Hall of Famers as Al Arbour, Johnny Bucyk, Glenn Hall and Norm Ullman.
But the young Edmonton group that lined up against the Wings that night in ’79 weren’t minor leaguers. With Messier, Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, and others, the Oilers quickly built a dynasty in this northern-most hockey outpost, winning their first Stanley Cup in just five seasons.
“I think of all the great, young players that they had too with Messier and Gretzky and guys like that,” Woods said. “The merging of the NHL with the WHA there was a certain thing about Edmonton. You think back historically about Edmonton, it’s been a great hockey town for many, many years. We all knew about the Edmonton Oil Kings and had great memories of the players that played here and moved on, so it was an exciting moment when they opened here.”
As a young boy growing up in Peace River, Alberta, former Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood vividly recalls cheering on the Oilers’ four championship teams.
But getting to games wasn’t that easy. Instead, Osgood would go with his family to the stampede fairgrounds, where he would gaze at the arena in the distance and dream of watching his idols up close.
“I got a chance to go to an exhibition game when my dad got the tickets, so I was fired up about that,” Osgood said. “I think I went to maybe two games the entire time because it was so hard to get tickets. They were obviously the best team in the world at that time with Gretzky and Paul Coffey. I remember being so fired up to see Andy Moog and Grant Fuhr play live.”
Osgood is doing color analyst on the Fox Sports Detroit broadcast night in the building where he earned the last regular-season win of his career.
“Eventually I got my last ever win here in this building, so in a way it’s weird how things happen,” Osgood said. “It was actually my last ever game. Funny how it comes full circle.”
For Red Wings rookie Dylan Larkin, who will play his first and only game in this building filled with so much tradition and history, Wednesday will be a very special night.
“I didn’t really think about it until I showed up and skated on the ice and I looked down their hallway and saw the four Stanley Cups in the glass case,” Larkin said. “Just to think of Gretzky and those guys, I didn’t get to see them play, but you hear about the best players to ever play this game skated on this ice.
“That’s pretty cool.”