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Hockey

Saying goodbye to the house that Gretzky built

Championship banners hang above Recall Place in Edmonton Alberta, March 23, 2016. Home of the Edmonton Oilers, Rexall Place, is in it's last season as the Oilers move to a new arena.

Evidence of the Oilers’ dynasty hangs from the rafters at Rexall Place.

JASON FRANSON/for The Globe and Mail.

Since 1974, Northlands Coliseum, known now as Rexall Place, has seen the best and worst of the Edmonton Oilers. On April 6, workers, fans, players and alumni will say goodbye to the oldest arena in hockey, Marty Klinkenberg reports from Edmonton


Rexall Place, the time-worn barn off 118th Avenue will always be thought of as ‘The House That Wayne Gretzky Built.’ The Edmonton Oilers constructed a dynasty with the Great One as their heart and soul and Northlands Coliseum, as it was named until 1995, as their home. The Oilers say farewell to the oldest rink in the NHL with a game on April 6 against the Canucks. They will open next season in Rogers Place, a luxurious $480-million downtown arena that many northern Alberta hockey fans say is long overdue. The 42-year-old bowl that replaced the long-ago-demolished Edmonton Gardens has faded, but the memories and occasions it gave birth to remain mythic and deeply personal for those who were there. It’s time to say goodbye, but it won’t be easy.

A statue of Wayne Gretzky stands outside Rexall Place in Edmonton. Home of the Oilers, it's in its last season before the team moves to a new rink.

A statue of Wayne Gretzky stands outside Rexall Place in Edmonton. Home of the Oilers, it’s in its last season before the team moves to a new rink.

JASON FRANSON/For the Globe and Mail

Don Clarke (83, a former Edmonton police officer, hired as events manager by the Edmonton Exhibition Association in 1972 with construction about to start on the Northlands Coliseum): “The city had plans to build a facility known as the Omniplex that included a football field that would have been lifted by hydraulics up into the ceiling to reveal a hockey rink below it. It was going to be built downtown near where the new arena will be, but it failed to pass a plebiscite. It came so close that the Exhibition Association decided it would go ahead and build a rink.

“I remember it as a hole in the ground surrounded by cranes. There were many days when I was out there with a hard hat on.”

Neil Campbell (75, hired by the Edmonton Exhibition Association as purchasing manager in 1972, went on to become operations manager of the Northlands Coliseum, and later ran the Kingdome and Safeco Field in Seattle): “I went to work in the coliseum before it opened. I saw an ad in the newspaper for the position, and said, ‘That’s gotta be fun.’ I was in heaven. I’d followed hockey in the Edmonton Gardens. At the end, the Gardens was really old and in bad shape. It served its purpose, but it was time for something new. One thing I miss is that the Gardens had great big grills. As soon as you walked into the place, you could smell the onions and wieners cooking. That aroma has stuck with me all of these years.”

Peter Pocklington (74, the millionaire businessman became part owner of the WHA Oilers in 1976, bought out his partner in 1977, acquired Wayne Gretzky a year later and turned the team into one of the greatest franchises in sport): “I remember when Pat Bowlen and Peter Batoni were building the coliseum. The total price was $16-million, and later I spent $13-million or $14-million myself renovating it.

“Now, it’s just an old barn. It was nice 35 years ago.”

Gordon Wilson (66, chairman of Northlands’ Board of Governors since 2000, has volunteered and worked since 1974 in a number of capacities for the organization): “My grandfather, Charles, was president and CEO in the 1930s, and my father, Lloyd, was president in the 1960s, so I think I got involved when I was born. I remember how exciting it was sitting in the stands at the Oilers’ first game in 1974. It was fabulous to be in such a great building.”

Cal Nichols (74, helped raise $60-million in the 1990s to keep the Oilers in Edmonton and owned and governed the team as chairman from 1998 through 2008, when it was sold to Daryl Katz): “I’m a small-town guy from Saskatchewan. I came from a terrific family. My dad was a small businessman and a mayor and I learned community involvement and how reciprocity worked. I played hockey like every Canadian kid. It was such a small place that you either played with kids half your size or twice your age.”

Don Clarke has many stories from his time as the original manager of Northlands Arena.

Don Clarke has many stories from his time as the original manager of Northlands Coliseum.

Amber Bracken/For The Globe and Mail

Don Clarke: “The Oilers played their first WHA game in the coliseum against the Cleveland Crusaders on Nov. 10, 1974. As the last 175 people came in, we said, ‘Have a seat’ and actually handed them the cushion. The framework was in place but some of the seats were missing. People carried cushions up the stairs with them and put them in place.

“We celebrated the official opening on July 1, 1975, with Ukrainian dancers, bagpipers and a military tattoo. There wasn’t an empty seat in the house. For a while, we could have put ZaSu Pitts in there and it would have sold out.”

Neil Campbell: “When we opened, things were happening fast. We had a big new building, concerts and sell-out crowds, stuff we had never had to deal with before. I think back to that time quite often, and can’t believe some of the things we did.

“It brought things to us other than hockey. It brought the Canadian Finals Rodeo. It played a big part in us getting to host the British Commonwealth and University Games. We had an NBA exhibition game, and pro tennis. Part of it was the newness of the building and part of it was its flexibility. You could move seats in and out pretty easily.”

Henry Stainthorp (74, hired by the Exhibition Association as a rink rat in 1963, groomed the ice at the Edmonton Gardens and went on to become the ice maker at the coliseum during the Oilers’ five Stanley Cups): “For a long time, the ice in the old Gardens was cleaned by rink rats. When they bought a Zamboni, it was cause for great debate. People said, ‘Oh, that’s not going to do the trick.’

“In 1964 or 1965, they placed an ad in the paper ahead of the first time it was being used. The place was sold out, but people weren’t there to watch the hockey game. They wanted to see the Zamboni.”

Gord Graschuk (55, organist at Rexall Place since 2011, first auditioned for the position in 1984, grew up in Edmonton, and his family had Oilers season tickets from 1973 through 2007): “I saw the first game in this building, and saw Wayne Gretzky’s first game in the WHA. The first game I went to at the Gardens I had to look through joists to see the ice at one end of the rink. Another time, I found a cement pole right in front of my seat. So it was amazing to walk in here. It was what a building was supposed to look like.”

Gordon Graschuk, the organist at Rexall Place, is a lifelong Oilers fan.

Gordon Graschuk, the organist at Rexall Place, is a lifelong Oilers fan.

JASON FRANSON/For the Globe and Mail

Neil Campbell: “Kids jammed the concourse waiting for Bobby Hull after the game when he came to the Gardens with the Winnipeg Jets the first time. Bobby came out and started signing autographs, and after a while an equipment guy came out and told him the bus was leaving. Bobby told them to go ahead, and said he would catch up with them later. He stayed until almost midnight, until he signed each and every autograph, and then asked me to call a cab.

“I asked why he had stayed so long, and Bobby said, ‘You know why I do it? Because when I was young, Gordie Howe signed an autograph for me.’”

Dave Semenko (58, one of the toughest players of all time, he joined the WHA Oilers in 1977 and won Stanley Cups in 1984 and 1985. He remained with the organization as a commentator, assistant coach and scout until last summer): “The first time I set foot in the Northlands was in 1974, when I was playing in the Western Hockey League for the Brandon Wheat Kings. We were practising at the Gardens and I wandered over and sat in the very top row at centre ice and looked down. I had no idea that destiny would lead me here four years later, or that 10 years later I would win the Stanley Cup.

“For me, nothing compares with winning those Stanley Cups. You grow up watching teams do it and dream about it as a kid. I can’t imagine any player not acknowledging it as the highlight of their career.”

Kevin Lowe (56, vice-chairman of the Oilers Entertainment Group, was the Oilers’ first NHL draft pick and won six Stanley Cups, five with them and one with the Rangers): “Stepping on the ice here was special. It was as nice a rink as I had ever seen at the time. It has been my home and office for so many years that it is going to be sad to leave it. The last few years, as we have been working on the new arena project, I have had a lot of time to pause and reflect. I have a lot of great memories here. In the early years, you could look in the stands and see the same faces every night. I didn’t do it as much as other guys, but Paul Coffey was a real fan gawker. He would tell me what colour dress my mom was wearing.”

Pat Hughes (60, a right wing, he won a Stanley Cup in Montreal in ‘79 and with the Oilers in 1984 and 1985. He retired this month after 20 years as a police officer in Ann Arbor, Mich.): “The one thing we always had in the building in Edmonton was great ice. You went to Boston and it felt like you were skating on wax. You’d get to New York and they would have just put in ice that morning after having a circus the night before, and there would be pits all over the place. But Edmonton’s ice was perfect all the time. It was one of the best skating surfaces in the league. It played right into our hands.”

Neil Campbell: “Back in the early days we didn’t have the ice-making equipment they have today. It was really backwoods. I remember that [Henry] used to mix paint in an old horse trough.”

Henry Stainthorp: “I gerry-rigged a mud pump from an oil rig and designed a nozzle myself that I hung off of a boom and used that to paint the ice. It went like a bat out of hell and worked up until a couple of years ago. It wasn’t a matter of days that I had to make ice, it was hours. Everything I did was calculated by time. I’ve heard people say, ‘What’s there to making ice? You just put the water on and it freezes.’ But there is a lot more to it than that. It was not only the ice I did, but a lot of extras. I put shelves in the dressing room, and one time I tightened Marty McSorley’s blades with an Allen wrench. He must have had a hell of a game, because after that they would ask me to come back and tighten them again.”

Mark Napier (59, president of the NHL Alumni Association, he played against the Oilers in both the WHA and NHL, and won Stanley Cups with the Canadiens and Oilers): “I won a Stanley Cup with Montreal in 1979. By the time I got to Edmonton in 1984 I was a little older than the Oilers’ core of young players, and I appreciated winning the Stanley Cup a lot more. I had gone from thinking I’d win every year to thinking I’d never see it again.”

Grant Fuhr (53, Hall-of-Fame goaltender grew up in Edmonton suburbs, went 62-18 in playoffs as Oilers won four Stanley Cups): “I have lots of good memories. I saw it being built, and was there when the Oilers moved into it. It was one of the great, classical old buildings where fans nearly sit on top of you.”

Susan Darrington (46, a native of Edmonton, began working at the Northlands Coliseum as an usher at 15. After running the stadium for the Seattle Seahawks for eight years and helping open a soccer stadium in Brazil, she accepted a position last summer as vice-president and general manager of Rogers Place): “When I was 17, the Oilers won the Stanley Cup. I was an usherette, and we were called down to stand on the ice as security so fans wouldn’t climb over the boards. In one picture, I am standing in the background as Wayne Gretzky hoists the Cup over his head.

“I remember meeting him when I was 15. I stood in a long line one day to get his autograph at the West Edmonton Mall. In 1987, I skipped my high school grad party because Northlands staff was invited to a Stanley Cup celebration with the player. It was a time the entire city was passionately invested in a hockey club.”

Peter Pocklington: “One of my fondest memories is bringing a duffel bag stuffed with $100,000 into the Oilers dressing room before a game with LA. I can’t remember exactly when it was, but it would have been during the season where we won our third or fourth Stanley Cup. I walked into the room and emptied the bag on top of the ping pong table and told the players, ‘This is yours, but you gotta win.’ They loved it. They went out and tore the Kings apart.

“The NHL didn’t like it. They fined me $10,000 or something but I didn’t care. I gave a shit and wasn’t interested in losing.”

Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington standing the team's dressing room in back on Feb. 22, 1989.

Former Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington standing in the team’s dressing room back on Feb. 22, 1989.

Ray Giguere/Canadian Press

Fernando Pisani (39, an assistant hockey coach at the University of Alberta, he grew up in Edmonton and was the Oilers’ top player in 2006 during their last run to the Stanley Cup finals): “We played against the Red Wings in the first round, and everyone thought we were going to be a bump in the road for them. We played the first two games in Detroit and then came back to our rink. The atmosphere was electric. There is no other way to describe it. I remember sitting in the dressing room before Game 3 and every time the door opened we could hear people cheering outside. It really gave us butterflies. As soon as we set foot on the ice, the building erupted. It was deafening.”

Cam Ward (32, a goaltender for the Carolina Hurricanes, he grew up in the suburbs of Edmonton and won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2006 after helping the Hurricanes beat the Oilers in seven games in the Stanley Cup finals): “My father’s company had season tickets to Oilers games, and two years earlier I watched a game at Rexall Place from his seats. I remember going out on the ice for Game 3 and looking up directly at where I had sat two years earlier. It was definitely a pinch-me kind of moment.

“The fans in that building have always created a great atmosphere. There aren’t many old buildings like it. You can’t help but think of all the history that’s occurred there. The building will be gone, but not the memories. Memories live on inside you.”

Don Clarke: “There was no building yet, but my job was to go out and sell it as a venue. At the time, getting entertainment acts to come to Canada was difficult, and getting them to come to Edmonton was virtually impossible. I visited the William Morris Agency in Los Angeles in an attempt to attract concert business and couldn’t get past the receptionist. She said to me, ‘You’re from where?’ and asked me to leave my card. It was a ‘don’t-call-us, we’ll-call-you type of thing. We were getting Class B or C circuits in Canada. There were so many acts that had never been that far north before. We had to prove we were a bigger vendor and could attract the crowds.”

George Waselenchuk (46, operations manager at Rexall Place, he began working for the Northlands group as a parking lot attendant at 15): “When I was a kid, my mother, Olive, worked in the box office at the Northlands. I started coming to concerts here when I was 12. I saw everyone: Twisted Sister, Triumph, Chris de Burgh, Def Leppard when the drummer had two arms. I think I even saw Enya once.”

Don Clarke: “We brought The Who in once during summer and they trashed the Oilers’ dressing room. I went down and knocked on the door, and when they opened it they had broken a bunch of chairs and thrown their meal all over the walls. Keith Moon could see I was pissed and said, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ I didn’t say anything at the moment, but when it came to pay them I deducted $10,000 and they never said a word. By comparison, the Osmonds came in and their dressing room was cleaner after they left than when they arrived. The Eagles came in and it was like you never knew they had been there. Their biggest demand was snack mix.

“The Bay City Rollers played at the coliseum in 1976. Before they arrived I checked with arena managers elsewhere and was warned the band invited the audience to the front of the stage during their encore. So I got 30 rugby players and stood them in front of the stage. The night of the concert, about 800 girls made mincemeat out of them. We had girls fainting and others needing medical attention, so I ran onto the stage and shouted, ‘That’s it! We’re shutting this down!’ One of the band members threatened to punch me in the face. He was a little guy. I would have eaten him for lunch. The next day the Rollers thanked me. They told me they got more publicity out of it than they ever could imagine. I had been to riots as a cop, but I had never seen anything quite like it.”

Mark Lewis (public-address announcer for the Oilers for 35 years, he will retire following their last regular-season game at Rexall Place on April 6): “I have had an intimate relationship with this place so the last game is going to be very emotional for me. It was a state-of-the-art building at the beginning and is still awesome, but is no longer adequate for the NHL.

“My biggest faux pas happened during a game in the 1980s. Mark Messier scored a goal one night and I turned on the microphone and said, ‘Goal scored by No. 11, Mark Lewis.’ Glen Sather turned around on the Oilers bench and looked up at me and applauded.”

Trent Evans (49, senior manager of sales for the Northlands, started working at the coliseum sweeping floors in the main concourse when he was 15, later became a Zamboni driver, and served as an ice maker at the 2002 Olympics): “It was incredible being part of the Oilers’ great era. I appreciated it, but not as much as I do now. Then, I expected we would be in the playoffs and that there would be a dramatic win every year.

“I remember when the Gretzky trade happened [in 1988], and feeling that we would never win again. And then we went and won in 1990. A lot of hockey drama occurred in this building.”

Edmonton Oilers hockey great Wayne Gretzky brought the city and its fans countless memories at Northlands, including several Stanley Cups. MIKE RIDEWOOD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Cal Nichols: “The Stanley Cup days came and went and the Oilers fell into hard times for a number of reasons. The Canadian dollar fell into the 60-cent-range and richer U.S. teams started to acquire the best players because they could afford it. Peter [Pocklington] was struggling with financial troubles and the bank called his loan, and suddenly Edmonton was in danger of losing the team. Winnipeg and Quebec had already lost theirs, and you could see the writing on the wall.

“I figured somebody needed to lead the charge here and rolled up my sleeves. It was probably the biggest challenge I had ever taken on. I kept telling people that Edmonton was a way better place with the Oilers than without them. I went everywhere in the city and had the door slammed in my face more than once but never gave up.

“When the smoke cleared, we ended up with 38 people in what became known as the Edmonton Investors Group. At a time when well-to-do people said it was too risky, a collection of blue-collar millionaires scraped the money together without having any guarantee it would work.

“I look back now and I am very proud. The night of the final game is going to be odd for me. I have put so much blood, sweat, tears and emotions into the building.”

Don Clarke: “One of my proudest days occurred in the late 1970s. We brought in a Christmas tree from Fort McMurray that was nearly as damn tall as the arena and had a Christmas party for mentally and physically disabled kids. Wayne Gretzky and [girlfriend] Vicki Moss stood on a stage and sang carols to the children. I arranged for pieces of white plastic to fall from the rafters on top of them as they sang White Christmas. It floated down like snow. There wasn’t a dry eye in the place.”

Henry Stainthorp: “We put up curtains at one end of the arena to keep the glare off the ice. One day, Kevin Lowe shot a puck that went over the glass and through the crack in the curtains and hit me right in the face. My glasses were on the floor and I was bleeding like a stuffed pig. They wanted to take me to the hospital, but I had them stitch me up in the dressing room. I put some tape on it and went back to work an hour later.”

Pauline Hunter (entertainment and marketing manager for the Northlands, has helped bring concerts to the coliseum since 1994 and served as its communications officer for 10 years): “I am extremely excited that there is going to be a new arena. I see it as a sign that Edmonton is growing up. As consumers get older and wiser they want more and more experiences, and that’s what we have to do to keep up. You can only renovate so much. As we have gotten closer to the end of the coliseum, it’s been fun reminiscing. It’s very good for the soul.”

Gordon Wilson: “I accept and support the Oilers in their move to the new building. For me, now it is all about change. I work on a committee that is making plans to convert the old arena into a building with six ice rinks. I am a grandfather and have little guys playing hockey, so I want to see the old girl renovated and turned into a worthwhile facility.”

Announcer for the Edmonton Oilers, Mark Lewis pictured at Rexall Place in Edmonton Alberta, March 8, 2016.

Mark Lewis, public-address announcer, will retire following the Oilers’ last regular-season game at Rexall Place after 35 years on the job.

JASON FRANSON/For the Globe and Mail

Neil Campbell: “I look at it two ways. I was standing next door when the Kingdome was imploded in Seattle and I was sad to see it blown up, but I was also glad to know it was being replaced with something better.”

Trent Evans: “It’s too bad we don’t have a playoff team this year. It would have been a good way to say goodbye to Rexall Place.”

Marty McSorley (52, served as one of Wayne Gretzky’s bodyguards in Edmonton and Los Angeles, and won Stanley Cups with the Oilers in 1987 and 1988): “I sneak into the building for three or four games a year, and still feel a connection. [In March] I brought my kids onto the ice. I wanted them to look around, see the banners and jerseys hanging from the rafters, and get a sense of the presence and feel what is was like. I am really going to miss it. I still feel a connection. It’s a really special place.”

Dave Semenko: “It is going to be an emotional time, realizing this era has come to an end. So many amazing things happened in this building, and there have been so many ups and downs. It had a good run, but it is time to move on.”

Susan Darrington: “At the end of the day I am a kid from Edmonton. It is a great time in my life, and the best job I could ever ask for. It is an opportunity to be part of redefining the city and being able to tell the world how great a place Edmonton is.

“There are massive expectations. My job is to make sure people who have held season tickets for 30 years feel this venue is their home, that it fits in Edmonton, and that they have a great time. I tell my staff to act as if they are throwing a party for 20,000 guests, to treat them the same way as if they were in their house.”

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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