Memories of a Cinder Block Palace
Rexall Place (henceforth known by its original name, Northlands Coliseum) was never a gleaming gem of an NHL rink. Built in 1974, it bore similarities to many other cement cinder block and concrete structures of the day. Quickly built for a purpose. Functional.
But sometimes the flashier and more visually appealing buildings in life can overshadow the events that happen within their walls. Northlands Coliseum housed one of the greatest hockey teams of all time, was home to many of their Stanley Cup wins, and provided a canvas for some of the most entertaining hockey ever witnessed. I witnessed most of these events like many others did who didn’t actually live in Edmonton (I grew up in Camrose, an hour away) – on TV. But, as the curtain closes on this beat up old barn, here are some of the many memories I witnessed firsthand:
- February 3, 1984. Flames vs Oilers. My first ever visit for my first ever NHL game on my ninth birthday. The previous game, Wayne Gretzky’s NHL record 51-game point scoring streak had ended, and as he had played the last few games of that streak while injured, he and star linemate Jari Kurri took this game off. I was crushed. However, that disappointment quickly vanished once we got to the rink. It was a giant palace to my young eyes. I remember being amazed by the out of town scoreboards dotted around the arena. I could find out the scores of other games while they were happening, a novelty in that pre-internet, pre-sports network days. (Those same scoreboards remained until 2016, a definable link to the past). Once the game started, Gretzky’s absence was barely felt. Little known third liner Pat Hughes tied a team record by scoring five goals in a 10-5 Oilers win. Check out the Oilers team records for most goals in a game, amongst Hall-of-Famers Gretzky and Kurri, sits Hughes:
- January 26, 1985. Penguins vs Oilers. Wayne Gretzky’s 24th birthday, and he scored goals #49, #50, and #51 in a 6-3 win. We sat in section ZZ, the very last row of seats in the building. I swear that we could have stood on our seats and touched the ceiling.
- The 2000-2003 playoff runs. Magical, amazing, intense times against Dallas.For most of these games, I was only able to get standing room tickets, but I turned this into an advantage as I brought my drum to these games and ran up and down the stairs in Section 202 to get the crowd going. They didn’t need much encouragement. If a lull happened, all I had to do was go BOOM BOOM BOOM-BOOM-BOOM on my drum, and the entire half of the arena I was standing would respond with “LET’S GO OILERS”. During a particular intense overtime in Game 4 of the 2001 series, I could tell the fans were nervous, so I ran down to the bottom of the section, faced the crowd, and banged the drum. The crowd immediately leapt to the occasion to be distracted from their worry, and became louder. Oilers’ defenceman Tom Poti made a dazzling rush that resulted in him hitting the post, but seconds later, Mike Comrie scored the OT winner and the building erupted. It would be the last game the Oilers would win that series, but it was incredible to be a part of it.
- Edmonton Oil Kings Playoffs, 2014. Shortly upon moving to Edmonton, my wife (and newly converted hockey fan) Erika was looking over my shoulder as I was looking at an offer that the WHL Edmonton Oil Kings had for the 2014 playoffs. $99 playoff pass to see all the games that the Oil Kings would play that year. We knew they had a pretty good team, so it would probably be a wise investment. To my great surprise, Erika pushed us to buy them, so we witnessed the entire playoff run for the Oil Kings that year as they marched to the final and eventually won the WHL championship and the Memorial Cup. But more importantly, it was a way to welcome Erika to life in Edmonton, to be embraced by Canada, and to appreciate the game of hockey. She cried during every performance of the Canadian national anthem. It was beautiful.
- I was lucky enough to play several times on Coliseum ice, both before and after the 1994 renovation. I was also lucky enough to have some pretty great games there. With my rec league team, the Bee Sharps, I scored five goals in a pickup game against another team. Sure, it was just a pickup game, but when you score five goals in that rink, you remember it. But what struck me about playing there were the sights and sounds of being on the ice instead of in the stands. When the puck hit the glass, the sound seemed to die instead of ring out through the empty building. The ice was surprisingly soft compared to the rock hard ice surfaces of the various community rinks I had played in. (It was also a lot warmer than those community ice boxes, which may have explained things.) We took pictures standing in front of the Oilers dressing room door (which was a nondescript blue door with an Oilers decal on it in 1993). But what I was most touched by was the Oilers bench. The names of several Oilers greats were welded on the inside of the boards on the steel support structures. Wayne Gretzky’s name was right next to Dave Semenko’s. I saw Mark Messier’s name there, too, and I think Glenn Anderson’s was written vertically along the beam right beside the door. I was also happy to see the same welded names transferred to the Oilers bench after the renovations were done. It was a personal connection to the greats that I had grown up watching.
- October 21, 2015. My last Oilers game in the Coliseum, there to see Connor McDavid’s first. He scored one of what will be many gorgeous goals in a 3-1 win over the Detroit Red Wings.
And there are so many other memories of games, of moments (I saw many concerts in that building, too), of history. It didn’t look like much, but the Coliseum, located in a less-desirable part of town, was a cinder box palace of memories. Of hopes. Of dreams. Here’s hoping that the shiny new Rogers Place can mean as much to a new generation of fans, and to this old generation looking to recapture those same hopes and dreams.