Farewell to Rexall Place, Oilers home ice for 42 years

Wednesday night marks the end of an era in Edmonton. When the Oilers host the Vancouver Canucks it will be the last NHL game in 42-year-old Rexall Place. While there are fond memories of games and triumphs in the building, few are sad to see the team move to its gleaming new home in downtown Edmonton.

Oilers move from one of the oldest and dingiest rinks to Rogers Place, touted as NHL's best facility

Drummers from the Alexis Nakota Cree Nation provide their support for the Edmonton Oilers outside Rexall Place before the final Battle of Alberta against the Calgary Flames. (Richard Marion/CBC)

On an unusually warm  April evening the sound of native drumming and chanting reverberates through the parking lot of Edmonton's Rexall Place. It is the final battle of Alberta, Oilers hosting the Flames, and the drummers from Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation are welcoming arrivals.

"Let's go back to the good old days, let's go back to the Gretzky days," they sing in a mashup of ancient ceremonial drumming and modern stadium chanting.

In a way, the Oilers will be going back to the good old days when they move into the gleaming new hockey shrine, Rogers Place this fall. It will be a young team anchored by an emerging superstar, playing out of a state-of-the-art building, just like it was in 1974 — the good old days.

Fans stream into Rexall Place for the final Battle of Alberta. (Richard Marion/CBC)

Rexall Place today is the second oldest building housing an NHL team, behind only the venerable Madison Square Garden, a piece of New York history. What is historic about Rexall are the memories of what went on inside. The building itself is unspectacular compared with today's modern sports facilities, a concrete structure surrounded by surface parking lots, major roadways, rail tracks and 1940s-era neighbourhoods.

Thanks for the memories

But what memories. It was in this building that the Edmonton Oilers won four of their five Stanley Cups and where Wayne Gretzky shattered longstanding records and set a new standard of hockey superstardom.

It's also where in 1995 about 15,000 people donned tuxedos or ball gowns to enjoy an evening with one of the greatest tenors of all time, Luciano Pavarotti. Others would cite Pink Floyd's The Wall tour or the Eagles' reunion concert as great moments in the old barn.

Its long history is diverse enough to contain a memorable event for nearly every taste.

When Northlands Coliseum opened on Nov. 10, 1974, it was designed to match the best buildings in the NHL, even though Edmonton did not yet have an NHL team. The Oilers played in the World Hockey Association, a short-lived rival league that folded in 1979. Four of its teams were absorbed into the NHL, including the Oilers.

"It was a great building in 1975, but it's now 2016. It was time to replace the building," says Rod Phillips, the longtime play-by-play voice of the Oilers.

As Phillips travelled with the team he could see times were changing. "They had a new building in Vancouver, a new building in Los Angeles, a new building in San Jose, a new building in Denver. You know there are new buildings all around the league."

Rogers Place is in the heart of downtown Edmonton. It will be part of a new Ice District, which features new restaurants, nightclubs and bars, along with a new luxury hotel. (Ice District)
Today, only four NHL rinks predate 1993. After Rexall, and next year's closure of Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, that list will be whittled down to two: the Calgary Saddledome and Madison Square Garden.

Edmonton's new Rogers Place will stand in stark contrast to its predecessor. It's a modern and stylish high-tech hockey hub in the heart of downtown, part of a 10-hectare development called the Ice District, which includes new luxury hotels, a casino, nightclubs and restaurants. It is transforming Edmonton's downtown.

Long, bitter debate over downtown arena

But it didn't come easy. Six years of acrimonious debate led up to city council's April 2013 decision to go ahead with the project.

Longtime Oilers play-by-play announcer Rod Phillips says Rexall Place was showing its age, while most other cities were getting new arenas. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)
"There was a lot of controversy about it at the time because it's expensive," said Phillips. "But I still think for the good of the city and for hockey fans and for the country Edmonton is a great franchise in the NHL, and with a new building it's just going to be that much better."  

Where Rexall Place was a building with not much around it, Rogers Place will be surrounded with places to eat and drink, before and after the game. It has a critical mass the old place sorely lacks. So while Edmontonians share fond memories of what they experienced there, the move from Rexall Place is accompanied not so much by a sense of loss as a feeling of moving on to something bigger and better.

"There's always going to be memories of Rexall," Phillips says, "But starting next year they're going to start building some new memories in Rogers Place. It's from the old to the new. That's the way I look at it."

And for Oilers fans it brings hope of new glory days, with talents like Connor McDavid, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall to lead them into a new era.