There isn’t much to celebrate in Western Canada this week — or Eastern Canada, for that matter — as a National Hockey League season winds down with seven franchises playing irrelevant hockey.
It surely is a sad send-off for the rink in Edmonton — Rexall Place, nee Skyreach Centre, nee Edmonton Coliseum, nee Northlands Coliseum — that there hasn’t been a truly meaningful (read: playoffs) game played there since June 17, 2006.
As a guy who has worked almost 30 years in the building, I have to say I’m more excited about the incoming Rogers Place than I am sad about the old girl the Oilers will leave behind. I’ll have a couple of pieces this week about the old barn, but here are a few takes from people making their last visits to Rexall Place recently.
“I will always remember my first exhibition game here,” said Colorado coach and Hall of Fame ex-goaltender Patrick Roy. “I had a nice welcome from the Gretzky, Messier, Anderson group: Six goals, first game. That’s a nice start. A learning lesson, I guess.”
Dave Semenko first walked into the rink as a junior, after his Brandon Wheat Kings had practiced across the parking lot at the old Edmonton Gardens: “After practice I came over to this building by myself. I wandered in and sat way up, as high as you go, like a kid. Looking down at centre ice with no clue whatsoever that in two years I’d be skating for that club, and in 10 years winning a Cup. I was 17. This building was amazing.”
After the initial rivalry with the New York Islanders, and the ongoing Battle of Alberta with Calgary, it was the Dallas Stars who had the best rivalry in this building.
“There were a couple of games versus the Oilers where, at the end of the game there were 150 hits,” said Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock. “They were very emotional contests. We ended winning a lot of games close, at the end. More because we had a little bit bigger budget than Edmonton at the time.”
The goaltending matchup back then was Ed Belfour for Dallas vs. Tommy Salo for Edmonton. Thanks for coming.
Hitchcock used to sneak in to World Hockey Association games as a kid. “It was such a brand new facility so nice, and the class of the WHA. But I go back to watching games in (sections) AA, BB, ZZ in the old Gardens.”
“I liked to play here a lot, maybe ‘cause we won most games here,” said former Stars winger Jere Lehtinen. “You’d go (to Reunion Arena in Dallas) and it was the worst (ice), then come up here and it was the best. The history, the ice — a lot of good memories from those playoff series.”
Time marches on, but plenty was lost when they replaced the old Montreal Forum, Chicago Stadium, Boston Garden or Maple Leaf Gardens. You’ll likely be able to fit two Rexall Places inside Rogers Place, and it’s the crowd noise from 2006 that Anaheim’s Shawn Horcoff remembers as an Oiler.
“In new rinks nowadays it makes it impossible to feel the energy when you’re in the dressing room. But we could hear them. You could feel the buzz in the room,” he said.
Kevin Lowe sums up my own feeling best: “Personally, I’m so excited about the new building, I can’t say I’m going to miss (Rexall Place). The amenities for the fans, the players, the fact the building is going to be downtown… It just puts aside any disappointment leaving here.”
It’ll be fun saying goodbye, and perhaps more fun not coming back next year.
NO. 99 IN 1998
Speaking of Horcoff, he played his 1000th game last week in Toronto — not bad for the 99th draft pick in the ’98 draft. Only nine players from that draft have played more games than Horcoff’s 1,003 as of Friday: Vincent Lecavalier (1,207), David Legwand (1,132), Brad Richards (1,121), Robyn Regehr (1,090), Alex Tanguay (1,083), Scott Gomez (1,078), Brad Stuart (1,056), Mike Ribiero (1,025) and Mike Fisher (1,013).
“It’s a little bitter sweet, because you know you’re not just on the back nine. It’s like, (hole No.) 17 or 18,” Horcoff said of his career. “A guy like me, I had good coaching in college (at Michigan State). They said, ‘Look everybody in the NHL is skilled. That’s not going to make it for you. You’re going to have to play defence, learn how to kill penalties, and learn to bring energy off the fourth line.’”
One thousand games later, we guess he’s figured it out.
Did you notice the initials “BM” on the helmets of NHL officials last weekend? That was a nice gesture by the NHL zebras to honour one of their own, U.S. college ref Oliver “Butch” Mousseau.
Mousseau suffered a head injury when he fell during pregame warmups in a WCHA Final Five game last Friday. He was reportedly skating backwards, and without a helmet when he tripped and fell. Mousseau died last Friday as a result of the injury. He was 48.
One more quick ref’s note: We’re hearing that inexplicable review on goaltender interference in L.A. last Saturday — when Milan Lucic skated through Laurent Brossoit’s crease and kicked his heel, causing him to fall before a Kings goal was scored — is being admitted to as a major mistake in the video review process.
Somehow, the on-ice officials never got the replay that showed the slew-foot, even though those of us at home saw it many times. If true, that is inexcusable. The officials should have seen it live and called tripping, or at least if one referee missed it, one of the four officials should have brought it up when they huddled post-goal.
So the system failed on three levels, proving that the video review process still has some work to do.
I keep hearing the question: When do the referees get fined? How are they accountable? Why can they get away with mistakes?
One: Officials with poor records don’t get playoff work. That costs them money — not out of their pockets, but potential earnings they don’t get. And it’s not small money. Then, when new younger officials arrive on the scene, it’s the non-playoff officials who get replaced first.
Two: Players, scouts, GMs and coaches make mistakes all the time. Do we think a player who mishandles a shootout chance and fumbles the puck into the corner should be fined? What about fining a goalie who lets in a softie? Or a scout who misses on a mid-first rounder? Then why do we demand perfection from a linesman who botches the rare line call — even though they’re at about 98% as a group?
Three: Newsflash — all refs aren’t the same. As hockey people, we’re on board with first-, second-, third- and fourth-line players. We don’t expect the same level of skill, production or input from Lance Bouma that we do from Johnny Gaudreau. We just expect Bouma to work as hard.
Then why do we expect the 36th referee and the No. 1 referee to give us identical games? These are the best 80 or so hockey officials in North America. That’s not to say that the 40th lineman is as good as Brad Lazarowich or Mark Wheler though.