I must admit, it feels rather strange going to Edmonton to witness the last hockey game at Northlands turned Skyreach, now Rexall Place.
Compared to other buildings I have seen expire, this one isn’t that old. Rexall Place doesn’t have the history of the Montreal Forum, Maple Leaf Gardens, The Olympia in Detroit, the Boston Garden or Chicago Stadium, all places I was lucky enough to visit while they stood tall. Those buildings were architectural wonders of the early 20th century.
The home of the Edmonton Oilers has run its course. Built for under $20 million and utilitarian, there is nothing that stands out visually, both inside and out, about the place.
But on the ice, oh yes on that great ice, it was special. For a full decade, it was this building that became the centre of the hockey universe. Save for a fluke goal in 1986, and the revenge of the Great One in 1989, this place could have easily been home to the Stanley Cup champions for seven consecutive years. Edmonton, and hence Rexall Place, was the focal point for the game of hockey.
I came to Edmonton in 1979 to produce hockey on television (as I did all over Western Canada). I wore my Hockey Night in Canada blazer as proudly, I’m sure, as the players wore their Oilers’ sweaters. It was spine tingling to witness hockey history, and to be around a generation of Hockey Hall of Famers. Everyone knew everyone. Players, coaches, officials, cameramen, announcers and producers. It was a time and a place, when a player didn’t play the game, he would sit in the TV mobile with us, and watch the game. It was almost as intense as playing the game. Almost.
We became family and the Coliseum was home.
I’ve enjoyed so many people talk of the loudest times they’ve experienced in Rexall Place, whether it be any of the Cup wins (four of which were won at home), or even the playoff run of 2006. I can recall many times sitting in the bowels of the arena, inside that television mobile, watching my coffee cup shimmy across the desk because of the vibration and noise the sold-out crowd was making after something happened on the ice.
Here are some more highlights:
– A regular season game in December 1980, when the second-year NHL Oilers defeated Montreal 4-3 with a late Dave Hunter goal. An eruption of emotions from the fans announced to the hockey world that the Oilers were young, fast and ready to take anyone on. I didn’t think I would hear it any louder.
– That same season, when Glen Sather’s upstarts swept the Canadiens in a best-of-five series behind goaltender Andy Moog, who had played just seven regular season games that year. That, for sure, was the loudest.
– Wayne Gretzky’s five goals in December 1981 to achieve the unthinkable of 50 goals in 39 games. The building grew louder with every goal. And the murmur of anticipation expanded with every second on the clock. These fans, who know the game so well, knew what was happening and what was going to happen. That night was a level and style of response that could not be duplicated.
– Referee Andy Van Hellemond, skating right up into anthem singer Paul Lorieau’s face and demanding he start singing during one final, as the crowd roared even louder. The smile on Lorieau’s face only matched the one on Sather’s face, who I can only think had something to do with it.
– Gretzky’s eight point nights. Sam Gagner’s eight point night.
And let’s not forget some visiting stars that made their mark:
– In 1982, Northlands witnessed the invention of the “Pumpernicholl”, as young Bernie Nicholls and the Los Angeles Kings defeated the Oilers in a five-game series. Nicholls, windmilling his arm every time he scored, driving the locals crazy.
– Ron Hextall, in a losing effort, won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP in 1987.
– The Dallas Stars, who along with the Oilers, led many to believe that a Stars/Oilers playoff series was a divine right.
Compared to so many buildings designed and constructed in the 1960s and 70s and now passed over, this one is surely as good as it gets.
In hockey context, it’s contemporaries in Philadelphia, on Long Island, in the Twin Cities, in Inglewood, California and even its “sister” rink in Vancouver, can’t match for greater moments. And yes, it is a simple building. There is no opulence, or awe when you walk in the place and sit in your seat. But this place is special. Special, because it’s like any great Prairie city. This arena is only special because of the people in it.