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Home: Canadian Construction News: Edmonton Oilers Alumni Say Goodbye to the House that Gretzky Built

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Edmonton Oilers Alumni Say Goodbye to the House that Gretzky Built

Written by; Chad Simco / TCCN Staff Writer
Added on: Sat Mar 26 2016

  


Since its inception in 1974, the Northlands Coliseum, also known as Rexall Place, has seen the triumphs and tragedies of the Edmonton Oilers hockey club. The Oilers brought home 5 Stanley Cups and to this date two Oilers players are in the top 10 leading goal scorers in NHL history; Wayne Gretsky (holding down the #1 leading goal scorer spot) with 894 goals and a total of 2857 total points, and Mark Messier with a total of 694 career goals.

On April 6, 2016, fans, workers, players, owners, coaches and alumni will bid a fond farewell to the oldest arena in hockey,

Rexall Place will always be thought of as "The House That Wayne Gretzky Built." The Edmonton Oilers had built a dynasty with the legendary "Great One" as the heart and soul and Northlands Coliseum, as it was named until 1995, was their home. The Oilers will give a long goodbye to the oldest rink in the NHL with a game on April 6, 2016 against their Pacific Division rivals the Vancouver Canucks.

Next season the team will start fresh in the newly build Rogers Place, a luxurious $480 million (CAD) arena, located in downtown Edmonton, in the heart of the city and several northern Alberta hockey fans say thats it 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 deeply personal for those who were there.

The Edmonton Oilers and Northland Coliseum alumni fondly share their memories from "The House That Wayne Gretzky Built".

Don Clarke Northand Coliseum

Don Clarke (83, a former Edmonton police officer, hired as events manager by the Edmonton Exhibition Association in 1972):

"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."

"The Oilers played their first WHA game in the coliseum against the Cleveland Crusaders on November 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 "

On bringing in entertainment to the arena:

"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."

"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."

"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."

Peter Pocklington - Owner of Edmonton Oilers

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."

"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."

Neil Campbell - operations manager of the Northlands Coliseum

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."

"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."

"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.'"

"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."

"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."

Gord the organ guy for the Edmonton Oilers

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."

Henry Stainthorp - Edmonton Oilers Ice Maker

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."

"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."

"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."

Mark Lewis - Edmonton Oilers public-address announcer

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, 2016):

"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."

George Waselenchuk - operations manager at Rexall Place

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."

Susan Darrington - Vice President Rogers Place

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."

"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."

Dave Semenko Edmonton Oilers

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 practicing 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."

"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."

Kevin Lowe Edmonton Oilers Entertainment Group

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."

Grant Fuhr Edmonton Oilers

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."

Pat Hughes Edmonton Oilers

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, Michigan):

"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."

Marty McSorley Edmonton Oilers LA Kings

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."

Wayne Gretzky Statue Rexall Place Edmonton

Wayne Gretzky Statue at Rexall Place

Twenty seven years ago "The Great One" Wayne Gretzky himself returned to Edmonton for a special ceremony honouring his contributions to the Edmonton Oilers and hockey at large.

The ceremony was held August 27, 1989. As thousands of hockey fans looked on, a giant bronze statue of Gretzky was unveiled to mark the occasion.

The life sized bronze statue of #99 hoisting the Stanley Cup over his head will be moved the new Rogers Place arena in time for the 2016-17 NHL season.

Until then, the statue remains as the final reminder of "The House that Wayne Gretzky Built".

  

Copyright: 2016 TCCN.ca










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