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On the corner of Wayne Gretzky Drive and 118 Avenue sits a concrete shell where only memories reside. Gone are the five Stanley Cup banners and the nine retired numbers that hung from the arena rafters. Gone too is the Gretzky statue that once stood outside the main doors, ushering in game-goers.
The vacated arena was home to the Edmonton Oilers for 42 years — right up until a bigger, better, brighter building opened in the city's downtown core. "Everyone feels like it's a fresh new start," Connor McDavid said after spending his first season in the NHL in Rexall Place. "It's tough to leave, it's sad and all that, but we have a shiny new building to go into, and everyone's excited about that."
The $17 million Edmonton Coliseum had opened on November 10, 1974, after a series of construction delays and labor strikes, and it was still a work in progress on opening night. The players had to dress and shower in the Edmonton Gardens — the Oilers' original home from 1972 until 1974 — because their room wasn't finished, and seats were still being bolted into the stands when the game-goers started to arrive. Some guests were handed their cushions when they walked in.
Yes, there were kinks to work out, but the Coliseum was still a looker in its day, with its spacious interior and $120,000 game clock. "So beautifully functional, the comfortable sightlines from all seats, the wide walkways for meeting friends between periods, even radiating roof supports which glittered high overhead like the Aurora Borealis," local historian Tony Cashman wrote of the venue.
Tickets were $7 in 1974, at a time when the minimum wage in Alberta was $2.25 an hour. A season ticket for the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League would have set you back $47.50. On opening night, in front of 15,326 spectators, the World Hockey Association's Oilers defeated the Cleveland Crusaders 4 — 1, scoring three third-period goals. Jacques Plante, captain Al Hamilton, Ken Brown, and Blair MacDonald were among the players in Edmonton's lineup.
Twenty nights later, Stevie Wonder played in the venue — the first of many concerts to be staged in a building that would become the bedrock for the arrival of the National Hockey League. The Edmonton Gardens was torn down in 1982 — three years after the merger of the WHL and NHL.
"[The Coliseum is] an amazing place, a huge part of hockey history, and it probably housed some of the best teams and some of the best players that ever played the game," said Doug Weight, who spent nine years with the Oilers, two as the team captain. "It's a very special place."
The Edmonton Coliseum was renamed Northlands Coliseum in 1978, was later known as Skyreach Center, and in 2003 it was christened Rexall Place. Through the years, the scoreboard was upgraded, more suites were added, and in 2007 the locker room underwent a $3 million renovation. But the 16,839-seat venue was definitely showing its age by the time the Oilers played their last game there on April 6, 2016, defeating the Vancouver Canucks 6 — 2.
Gretzky was there for the final game, and so were Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, and Grant Fuhr. More than 100 players from the club's past gathered to say good-bye to a building that hosted 1,431 regular-season games, 129 playoff games, and four Stanley Cup celebrations.
The Coliseum also played host to the 1981 Canada Cup, the gymnastics competition of the 1978 Commonwealth Games, the 1996 World Figure Skating Championships, and the 1989 NHL All-Star Game, and it has been home to the Canadian Finals Rodeo for more than four decades. It was even at the heart of a fight between former owner Peter Pocklington and Northlands, which was serving as the arena's guardian, back when both sides were fighting for control of concert and concession revenues.
"Incredible memories," Mark Messier said when he returned for the farewell game. "Building the Northlands Coliseum in 1974 put us on the map."
A Piece of the Past
A battered blue metal door — a storied symbol of past playoff successes — is one of the club's iconic relics that was moved from the old arena. Plastered with decals and pockmarked with dents, it once stood outside the coaches' office, where it was within easy reach of a stick's butt end.
Mark Messier would let the coaches know the players were ready to go out for their warmup by butt-ending the door with his stick, a tradition that was later carried on by the overzealous Esa Tikkanen, who took it over the top, leaving sizeable indentations. "I don't think the first dent was on purpose, but many more followed," Messier said years later.
The Do It stickers that cover the door were holdovers from a fan giveaway early in the team's entry into the NHL. When the team won a playoff game, one of the decals was slapped onto the door, and soon a horizontal row appeared, representing each of the postseason wins. When the run ended with a championship, a silver facsimile of the Stanley Cup went up.
"It was a benchmark, a way for us to visually see where we stood as the playoffs went along. Every time we won a game, we put a sticker up on the door ... it became more of a ritual," Messier said. "It became part of the folklore."
During a 2007 renovation, the door was moved into a hallway that led to the players' lounge, where its viewership was restricted. It now stands in the Hall of Fame room in the downtown arena for all to see.
The Early Years
Edmonton lacks the cachet that comes from sprouting one of the league's Original Six franchises, but there is an abundance of interesting historical links tying the city to the game.
1. The first recorded hockey game in Edmonton was on December 25, 1894, and pit the Thistles and Strathcona.
2. That shiny new downtown arena that opened in 2016? Not the first. That distinction belongs to the Thistle Rink, a 2,000-seat multiuse venue that was built by local businessman Dick Secord in 1902. When it burned down in 1912, it hastened the need for an ice sheet to be installed in the new pavilion being assembled on the fairgrounds of the Edmonton Exhibition Association, later known as Northlands.
The new arena opened on Christmas Day 1913, with 2,000 fans on hand to watch the Dominion Furriers play the hometown Edmonton Eskimos hockey team. A bleacher seat could be had for 50 cents while a box seat was priced at a dollar. Playing goal for the Furriers was Court May, brother of Canadian flying ace Wop May.
Following the Second World War, another 1,200 seats were added to the arena — at a cost of $163,000 — and the name was changed to the Edmonton Gardens. Condemned by a fire marshal in 1966, some necessary renovations only bought the building more time. It continued to operate until the construction of the 16,000-seat Coliseum on the former site of the Hayward Lumber Company. The Coliseum was going to be the new home of the World Hockey Association's Oilers.
3. The first Stanley Cup challenge for Edmonton unfolded in 1908. Teams challenged for the championship back in the early 1900s, and Edmonton's Eskimos made a couple runs at the trophy, which was to be awarded to the top amateur team in the country until professional teams were allowed to compete for it beginning in 1906.
In their first Cup challenge of 1908, the Eskimos — with recruits such as the commanding Lester Patrick in their lineup — lost to the Montreal Wanderers in the two-game set. Edmonton challenged again in 1909 — 10 but couldn't overtake the Ottawa Senators.
By 1923 the Stanley Cup Finals were a three-team contest with the Oilers falling again to the Senators, who had 21-year-old Frank "King" Clancy in their lineup. Clancy played goal for two minutes in the second game of the series after Clint Benedict was sent off to serve a penalty. He didn't allow a goal, but more important, he proved to be so versatile that he played all six positions in the game. Fans who wanted to follow the action stood outside the Edmonton Journal's downtown building, listening to the broadcast through loudspeakers that had been set up for the occasion.
4. The great Eddie Shore — better known then as the Edmonton Express — played for the Eskimos before he left for the NHL. He also wasn't the only one who cultivated his craft in Edmonton while playing for the city's senior and juniors teams. Pat Quinn, Glenn Hall, Norm Ullman, Johnny Bucyk, Glen Sather, Bud Poile, and Al Arbour were among those who eventually graduated to the big leagues.
5. Clarence Campbell — the man for whom the Western Conference trophy is named — also has ties to Edmonton. He attended Strathcona High School and obtained his law degree at the University of Alberta, then supplemented his income by refereeing. A Rhodes Scholar who represented Canada as a lawyer at the Nuremberg trials, Campbell went on to serve as president of the NHL from 1946 to 1977. He even had a hand in building Renfrew Park, which was the first ballpark in Edmonton's river valley.
6. In the Oilers' first season of the WHA, Jacques Plante, who changed the face of modern goaltending, signed on for two seasons, though his agreement — which paid him $150,000 a season — stipulated he would only play home games. He was 46 years old at the time, and played in the first WHA game at the Coliseum on November 10, 1974, against the Cleveland Crusaders and their goaltender Gerry Cheevers. He didn't return for a second season.
7. The Edmonton Flyers were the toast of their hometown after winning the Allan Cup in 1948. Canada's senior men's hockey champions defeated the Ottawa Senators four games to one. They were showered with gifts, collected the key to the city, and were feted in a parade down Jasper Avenue. "The biggest concentration of enthusiastic humanity of its kind in the city's history — estimated at 60,000 — jammed Jasper Avenue, street intersections and Market Square to hail the Flyers," was the dispatch printed in the Edmonton Journal.
Pug Young was named honorary police chief for two weeks. The captain of the team was Gordie Watt, who became a father that week. He named his son Allan. He would become the Oilers' vice president of marketing and communications, a post he held until 2012, when he left for the Edmonton Eskimos football club.
8. And then there were the Edmonton Waterloo Mercurys, who not only represented Canada at the 1952 Winter Olympics in Oslo, Norway, but also claimed the gold medal. It turned out to be an even more notable achievement given it wasn't until 2002 that the country captured another Olympic title.
Few had what it took to go toe-to-toe with Bill Hunter in any sort of hyperbole set-to, but for all his bluster, few promoted the game like Hunter did. This was a man who once called a press conference to announce he was going to have a press conference the following day. A tireless promoter, general manager, and coach, Hunter was also one of the Oilers' founding fathers. He was Edmonton's link to the NHL.
Better known as Wild Bill — a name he inherited from a referee after a heated dispute, but one he claimed he wasn't all that fond of — there was no dismissing Hunter's fiery nature. He often fired his coaches, even dismissing Bill Gadsby during a playoff run. One of his favorite retorts if anyone questioned him was: "If you don't believe me, you're a goddamned liar." And he once told his players, who were waiting to board a plane: "We'll board last, men, so we get our choice of seats."
"In the hockey circle, especially in Edmonton, [Wild Bill] should be immortalized," Kevin Lowe, the Oilers' tie to the past and present, once said. "The greatness of Gretzky and Messier and the championship teams ... maybe one of the greatest teams of all time ... is linked to him, because if it wasn't for his efforts, the team wouldn't have been there. And it's more than that. It's just the legend, and all the things he did. I said to someone my goal is to win the Stanley Cup, but it would be nice to orchestrate the media the way he did."
Instrumental in the formation of the World Hockey Association in 1972, as well as Edmonton's entry into the new league, Hunter campaigned for a new arena for his Oilers, and never dismissed the dream of his team one day playing in the NHL. The Coliseum, the rink Hunter pushed so hard for, opened on November 10, 1974. He was there, of course. And he was there the night the Oilers played their first NHL game — as a guest of owner Peter Pocklington.
"It was Bill who is the reason it all happened, and you forget about that. The Oilers are here, and that's that. But somebody went to an awful lot of aggravation to make it happen. Hockey fans and Oiler fans and the community owe Bill Hunter such a debt of gratitude," said Cal Nichols, who chaired the ownership group after Pocklington's era.
Edmonton hadn't had a pro team since the Edmonton Flyers were shuttered by their parent team, the Detroit Red Wings, in 1963, so when Hunter brought the Alberta Oilers to Edmonton in 1972, it ended a long absence. Their first game, in Ottawa against the Nationals, was televised on CBC — one of six WHA games to be broadcast that season. The Oilers won 7 — 4.
The mission of the World Hockey Association was to compete against the National Hockey League by bringing professional hockey to new markets, and it took root after the Winnipeg Jets lured star Bobby Hull away from the Chicago Blackhawks with a $1 million signing bonus. All the WHA teams anted up to pay a portion of the contract to ensure credibility, and ticket sales. There was also the draw of watching Gordie Howe playing on the Houston Aeros with his sons Mark and Marty, but even the star power failed to trump the league's money issues.
There were unpaid bills, franchises that folded or relocated, and lawsuits, and even though the Oilers were one of the more stable franchises, eventually Hunter's tenure ran its course as well. Shortly after he was directed by his business partners to step down as GM, the team was sold to Nelson Skalbania, who then flipped the team to Pocklington.
In 1979 the Oilers, Quebec Nordiques, Jets, and New England Whalers gained entry into the NHL, and the WHA folded after the Jets defeated the Oilers for the Avco Cup. Dave Semenko scored Edmonton's last WHA goal.
Hunter, meanwhile, didn't slow down. After spending a year as the advertising sales director of the Edmonton Sun, Hunter, the man who helped orchestrate the 1974 series pitting the WHA All-Stars against the Soviets, moved on. He was behind a bid to bring the NHL's St. Louis Blues to his hometown of Saskatoon, recruiting backers to build the town's 18,000-seat arena, which stands as a testament to how close he came to seeing that plan through. The NHL eventually refused to transfer the Blues to such a small market. But Hunter's reach was that long.
"He meant a lot to Edmonton and to our family. He's an inspiration to all of us," local product Mike Comrie said in 2002, adding that one of the reasons he signed in Edmonton was because of Hunter. "It's unbelievable the life he lived ... he [is] the main reason the NHL is in Edmonton. He was an unbelievable man." He led an incredible life indeed. After flying with the Royal Canadian Air Force in World War II, Hunter dabbled in the broadcasting business before opening a sporting goods store in his home province. By the age of 23, he was the owner, manager, and coach of the Regina Capitals hockey team. What followed was a tireless undertaking as a coach, general manager, and owner of numerous teams and organizations.
In the mid-1960s he accepted an offer to run the junior Oil Kings and was soon behind the formation of the Western Hockey League, in spite of resistance from the NHL. He even took over ownership of the club from the Detroit Red Wings, setting up an office in Edmonton's Hotel Macdonald. One of his first orders of business was to move the team from the Jasper Place Arena (now the Bill Hunter Arena) to the Edmonton Gardens so he could sell more tickets.
The Oil Kings won two championships in Wild Bill's first go-round, but the club was not nearly as successful the second time around. Hunter had rustled up a partnership deal with Vic Mah and Wayne Tennant to bring back the Oil Kings after his time had expired in the WHA. The group couldn't make a go of it, and the team was sold.
But when he later joined forces with ownership partners Dr. Charles Allard and Zane Feldman to bring the Alberta Oilers to Edmonton, he sold the city on his dream, taking out billboards that shouted: World Hockey Comes to Town and Follow the Crowd. Buy Now.
He managed to sign goaltender Jacques Plante to a two-year contract, and when he inked center Jim Harrison to a four-year contract with a bonus of $75,000, he arranged for a photo op in which the center was pushing a shopping cart full of cash. That was Hunter.
Excerpted from "100 Things Oilers Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die"
Copyright © 2017 Joanne Ireland.
Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword Ryan Smyth xi
1 Memory Lane 1
2 The Early Years 4
3 Wild Bill 7
4 Humble Beginnings 11
5 Edmonton, Meet Stanley 14
6 Magic Moments 18
7 The Architect 22
8 The Night(s) the Lights Went Out 25
9 The Day That Changed the Game 27
10 Of Moose and Men 32
11 The Next One? 34
12 First Time for Everything 38
13 1 + 1 + 1 = A Lotto Luck 41
14 An Endearing Link to the Past 42
15 The King of Kings 45
16 Playoffs Were Coffey's Stage 48
17 The Great Goal Gaffe 49
18 The Cup Runneth Away 51
19 One More, for Old Times' Sake 54
20 First Say "Stanley," Then Say "Cheese" 56
21 Take a Stroll in the Hall 57
22 Mr. Freeze 61
23 What's in a Name? 63
24 Leaders of the Pack 64
25 A Shrewd Eye for Talent 66
26 Misery on Manchester 69
27 Crowning the King on His Former Stage 71
28 Cool Hand Fuhr 74
29 The Grate One 76
30 Troubled Times 78
31 Ted Green Has a Terrible Assignment 83
32 Swiss Billionaire Story Full of Holes 85
33 The Comeback Kids 86
34 Seeing Stars 89
35 Just Win, Baby 92
36 The Year of the Underdogs 94
37 Roloson Saves the Day 96
38 The Stars Were Bright, Fernando 99
39 Murray's Return Engagement 102
40 Pronger's Early Exit 103
41 No Thanks, I'll Wait for Stanley 106
42 With Glowing Hearts 108
43 Big Money Trumps Small Market 110
44 What Prompted Todd McFarlane to Buy In? 112
45 And with the Sixth Pick, the Edmonton Oilers Select 114
46 An All-Star Moment 115
47 Play Ping-Pong Like an Oiler 117
48 Devilish Repartee 119
49 Shorthanded, Long Reach 121
50 The Battle of Alberta 122
51 And in This Corner…Muhammad Ali 125
52 The Royal Wedding 127
53 Good to Know 129
54 The Ultimate Fan Experience 132
55 An Enhanced Stat on Mr. Corsi 133
56 Canada's Gold Medal Custodians 136
57 Push Worth Its Weight in Gold 138
58 A Lucky Loonie, Eh? 140
59 Hold Your Tongue! 142
60 On Frozen Pond…Ahem, on Frozen Ground 144
61 The Stories They Could Tell 147
62 A Tour of the Town 150
63 The Ties That Bind 152
64 Suit Yourself 154
65 Sharing the Wealth 156
66 Yet Another Record 158
67 15 Minutes of Fame 160
68 A Stick-y Situation 163
69 Hat's Off 165
70 Take a Road Trip 169
71 The Go-Between 171
72 Economy Class Citizens No More 173
73 Passing the Bar 176
74 Minor League Moments 177
75 The Long Good-Bye 179
76 An Endurance Test 182
77 Eight Was Enough 185
78 The Hot Hand 187
79 A Wing and a Prayer 189
80 Mistaken Identity 190
81 The House Gretzky Did Not Build 192
82 Tough as Nails 194
83 Save This Moment 197
84 Long Droughts, Short Good-Byes 200
85 The Injury Bug Bit Hard 203
86 Music Box 205
87 Open Net Eludes Stefan; Play Lives in Infamy 206
88 Pound for Pound 207
89 Finally, a Big Fish 209
90 Changing Tides 211
91 A Hoc Ticket 214
92 Frozen in Time 215
93 Giving Back 219
94 Casting Call 221
95 They Said It 223
96 Desert Drought 227
97 #timeshavechanged 229
98 A Seasoned View of It All 231
99 Chasing the Calder 233
100 Home Sweet (New) Home 235
Acknowledgments and Sources 239