Kevin Lowe took a stroll for the first time last week around the concourse in Rogers Place, the glamorous new rink against which all of North America's arenas will soon be measured.
The vice-chairman of the Oilers Entertainment Group, Lowe was caught by surprise when he saw a four-storey graphic of Mark Messier brandishing his hockey stick along one wall.
Pausing, Lowe took a snapshot and sent it to the Hall of Fame centre with whom he won six Stanley Cups in Edmonton and New York.
"I texted him and said, 'That old Sher-Wood of yours cross-checked many a man,'" said Lowe, the first player the Oilers drafted in 1979, their first season in the NHL.
The team began moving boxes into Rogers Place only last week, and the cavernous building with soaring ceilings and escalators that climb as far as the eye can see still has that new-car smell. Lowe has yet to don a pair of skates and test the ice, but he claims two firsts among team executives – he was the first to try out the players' two-storey gym, and along with vice-president Craig MacTavish enjoyed the initial beers poured in Curve, a reservations-only restaurant on the loge level.
The opening of the sprawling downtown arena is a big moment for Edmonton. The public will get inside for the first time on Saturday and Sunday – and 57,000 people have registered for tours. In the first 10 minutes the free open house was advertised online, 13,000 people signed up.
"When we saw those numbers, we were caught off-guard," said Tim Shipton, vice-president of communications for the Oilers Entertainment Group. "We felt maybe something a little odd had happened, and checked with our IT people to make sure nothing went wrong.
"The public response has just been phenomenal."
A ribbon-cutting and party was held for hundreds of guests at Rogers Place on Thursday night. Wayne Gretzky was there, and addressed the crowd during an hour-long ceremony that included acrobatic aboriginal hoop dancers and thunderous Japanese drummers.
"This really is a special, special arena," said Gretzky, who flew into Edmonton from Los Angeles late Wednesday. "I truly believe Edmontonians will brag about the building into eternity.
"I hope the team will create some more memories and win some more championships, because this city deserves it."
Earlier in the day, with his wife, Janet, watching from the runway leading to the Oilers' dressing room, Gretzky skated on the ice surface at Rogers Place for the first time. He was joined in the jubilant exercise by his sons Trevor and Ty, and by Chloe and Harrison Katz, the twin teenagers whose dad, Daryl, owns the team. In a not-so-subtle nod to the passage of time, Harrison took shots on the net while dressed in a Connor McDavid jersey. In Edmonton, Gretzky will always be the Great One, but now the 19-year-old superstar is in charge.
Katz received a standing ovation during Thursday night's program, which brought out Edmonton's bureaucratic and business heavyweights. The billionaire fought a lengthy and at times contentious battle to get the arena built, and smiled shyly through the applause.
"It wasn't always easy, but I think I speak for all when I say that the result has been outstanding," Katz told the crowd. "When I came in here and walked around for the first time, tears came to my eyes.
"I couldn't believe what we built, and what it means for our city. For the first time in a long time, Edmonton will have a world-class urban core to go along with its remarkable spirit."
Built in a partnership with the city, Rogers Place is the anchor of a $2.5-billion entertainment, business and residential district that is unlike anything elsewhere in Canada. Ground was broken recently on a 69-storey tower that will feature a luxury hotel and exclusive condos in the country's tallest building outside of Toronto. Despite an economy that has been battered by low oil prices, there is a buzz here.
This time last year, the Oilers had 107 employees. Today, more than 1,600 people, including contractors such as concession suppliers, work for the hockey club. In the past, the Oilers merely leased their building, but now they run it.
"I can tell you that cities from across North America are coming to see us," Katz said. "They want to see how we did and what we did."
The gathering brought together the city's previous and present mayors – Stephen Mandel and Don Iveson. Mandel, who was a proponent of the project from the beginning, received a standing ovation when introduced. A former abandoned rail yard and parking lot has been turned into sporting's version of the Taj Mahal.
"We can say now with confidence that we are on the right path to building a vibrant downtown," Iveson said. "This is Edmonton's spirit in action. When people watch Hockey Night in Canada now, they will see a city that reflects our aspirations.
"This changes Edmonton forever."
Keith Urban will play the first concert at Rogers Place on Sept. 16, with Dolly Parton applying her makeup in front of a big, lighted mirror in one of the venue's three hospitality rooms the following night. Drake is booked for shows on Sept. 20 and 21, having chosen to appear in the fancy new arena on this tour over the so-yesterday Saddledome in Calgary.
A banner strung in the 25,000-square-foot entrance way to Rogers Place welcomes visitors to "The Epicentre of Wow."
The ceilings are 75 feet tall in the grand hall that most patrons will use to access the arena. It is airy, and light streams in through soaring windows. There is a breathtaking mosaic laid in the centre of the floor, an artwork by Alex Janvier that was commissioned especially for the venue.
The colourful abstract piece called Iron Foot Place is made up of 6.5 million tiles. It was created by Janvier to honour his aboriginal descent, and was installed in the arena because the land on which it sits is party to a treaty signed in 1876 between the Canadian government and native bands.
Janvier, who is 81 and ranks among Canada's greatest artists, grew up on a reserve in northeast Alberta and was 15 the first time he came to Edmonton. He remembers buying his first box of oil paints there for $14, and feels overwhelmed to have a major work on display in such a large public venue.
"To me, it is a treasure to behold," said Janvier, who started playing hockey at 8 when he was taken from his family and placed in a residential school. "It is unimaginable for me to have artwork in an extreme public place like this. I am truly honoured."
Few details were missed in the design and construction of the arena, which will seat about 18,500 for hockey and 20,000 for concerts. It was completed on time in 30 months, and on budget – $485-million.
So what does nearly a half-billion dollars look like?
For one thing, it is equipped with the largest full-definition scoreboard in any NHL or NBA arena. It is so huge that it hangs over the ice, stretching from one blueline to the next.
In building the fanciest facility in the NHL, the Oilers made sure they would have the best dressing room as well. It comes in at around 28,000 square feet – more than three times the size of their previous one at Rexall Place. Its most amazing feature is a two-storey granite fireplace that serves as a break between dressing and training facilities. There is also a video room, space for medical staff and exercise equipment on two floors.
"The room is special," Shipton said. "It's about taking care of our players and providing them with the best level of fitness, training and health care.
"The room is a reflection of what we feel will give the Oilers an edge. When players come to the building, they are at work. And these facilities ensure they will be in peak condition and prepared to play."
For the fans, the arena is full of creature comforts such as bars and restaurants and clubs.
The fanciest spot is the Chairman's Club, which sits on the ice level directly across from the Oilers' dressing room. The cost for two tickets for the season is about $60,000, and includes a full view of the rink, bottles of fine wine and scotch and a dinner menu that includes entrees such as organic red beet and frisée salad that is served with goat cheese and candied pecans.
Walking around the arena for the first time on Thursday, Dave Semenko took it all in: the four-storey graphics of Messier and Gretzky bathed in light, the photographs of players on the ramps leading into the bowl, all the glass and smooth curves.
The first time he played in Edmonton, it was with the Brandon Wheat Kings in the old Gardens in 1974. He remembers walking across the street one day and climbing to the top row at the recently completed Northlands Coliseum.
It took his breath away, and he never knew then that he would later play for the Oilers, serve as Gretzky's on-ice bodyguard and be party to the last great dynasty in hockey.
"This is just overwhelming," Semenko said after his first walk-through. "I had seen pictures and renderings but they didn't do this justice.
"I have been in a lot of big buildings, but this catches you off guard. I knew it was going to spectacular, but everything is better than I imagined."