With a February freeze headed towards –20 and a long, dark night punctuated by a cold wind on Jasper Avenue, the only distraction in this city is watching the Oilers. At least that's what Wayne Gretzky said in 1985, months before he hoisted the Stanley Cup for the second time at the drafty Northlands Coliseum.
Back then Edmonton was on its way to being known as the City of Champions. For the past three decades, the motto has greeted motorists driving into Alberta's capital. Now, in what Edmonton officials say is a sign of civic maturity, City of Champions will be dropped. As it happens, the move coincides with a long drought during which the Oilers have looked nothing like the juggernaut that won five Stanley Cups in seven years.
At the same time, despite declining on-ice fortunes, hockey remains central to the northern Canadian city, both psychologically and economically. The Oilers' new arena, under construction, is at the centre of a multibillion-dollar rebuilding of Edmonton's desolate downtown.
Whether or not Mr. Gretzky's remark was true in 1985 – the same year Mordecai Richler stung the city by dubbing it the "boiler room" of Canada – flush-with-oil-money city fathers hope the Oilers help transform Edmonton into a destination. The fast-growing capital is preparing to see its population surge past the one-million mark within the decade, catapulting it into the ranks of major urban centres.
In October, Edmonton City Council moved to drop City of Champions as a slogan, one of at least eight mottos that Mayor Don Iveson can count on his fingers. While Mr. Iveson says Edmonton is now a "post-slogan" city – there will be no replacement – the change drops a link with the glorious '80s when the Oilers and football's Edmonton Eskimos seemed unstoppable.
The slogan's origins are murky, but most accounts say it was coined after the city's response to a deadly tornado in 1987 and then-mayor Laurence Decore's view that Edmonton's fast rebuild had earned it the moniker.
Chiseled onto some of the city's now-obsolete welcome signs, the slogan soon became inextricably linked with sports and the city's neverending rivalry with Calgary, its Alberta neighbour to the south. Oilers' president Patrick LaForge says the decision to get rid of the slogan was "regrettable," adding its original meaning still rings true in this young province that prides itself on rugged individualism.
Mr. LaForge fears the decision was made too hastily, but admits the team's poor performance – the young Oilers are currently dead last in the Western Conference and are having trouble filling seats – may have galvanized council to look for a new way to celebrate the city. The Oilers haven't qualified for the postseason since 2006. "I wish that Edmonton being the home of champions for our fans and players was never a debate," he says.
Michael Oshry, the city councillor who led the charge to abandon the slogan, says it is "outdated" and Edmontonians are unlikely to see City of Champions on signs again. But, ironically, the team that once embodied the motto is at the centre of Edmonton's flagship rebranding effort.
Within two years, the Oilers will be leaving their first home, now known as Rexall Place. The last arena still in use where a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup, the plain concrete structure is a barn in a drab part of town. It has loud acoustics, weathered wooden blue seats and few amenities – an arena from an era when the players and game were the sole attraction.
"I feel sadness about leaving a building where the air on that ice saw us win four Stanley Cups at home," Mr. LaForge says. "There are very few buildings in the NHL that can claim that. I hope we can take that rarefied air with us."
Sitting in an Italian café midway between the Oilers' new home and Rexall Place, former defenceman Al Hamilton fondly remembers the moment the puck first dropped at the coliseum in 1974. Workers were still bolting down seats and trying to get the dust out, but the arena was widely considered one of the best in hockey at the time.
"It's a blue-collar city and we were playing to a family crowd, there were no corporate seats. It was great, everything was lower key then, all we had for music was an organist," Mr. Hamilton says.
A defenceman who led the team through its time in the World Hockey Association and the transition into the rival NHL, Mr. Hamilton saw his number 3 jersey become the first to be retired by the franchise. His old number has now been joined in the rafters by that of Mr. Gretzky, Mark Messier and Paul Coffey, among others.
The lifelong Oilers' fan says it's time to leave Rexall Place. The parking is sparse, the area dilapidated, and the arena is hard to reach. Just north of Jasper Avenue, a bowl of girders is slowly rising where the new Rogers Place will one day stand.
The metal-clad arena in downtown Edmonton will be one of the most expensive ever built for an NHL team. It will be nothing like what it's replacing. The team promises a state-of-the-art facility, a technological wonder – an excited Mr. LaForge compares it to Disneyland.
"You want to be humble, but the Oilers are the pinwheel on which everything downtown rotates," he says. More than $2-billion in new buildings are planned for the area around the arena, including new hotels, the city's tallest skyscraper and casinos. Downtown boosters are hopeful another $3-billion worth of projects on the drawing boards will go forward.
Finding itself at the centre of downtown renewal is a sign of resilience for a team that struggles on the northern fringe of the NHL. Now if the Oilers can only find a way to win again, perhaps Edmonton can return to being a city of champions, even without the slogan.