Oilers' move downtown leaves hole in Edmonton neighbourhood

There's an old proverb that says a good neighbour increases your property value. For the businesses surrounding Rexall Place, it's as if an old neighbour who once delivered home-baked goods and occasionally threw a great party has moved away, leaving friends and memories behind.

They grew up and matured as family businesses with the Oilers next door - what happens now?

Constantine Stavropoulous is the owner of the Fireside, a restaurant next door to the Oilers' old stomping grounds at Rexall Place. (Trisha Estabrooks)

There's an old proverb that says a good neighbour increases your property value.

For the businesses surrounding Rexall Place, it's as if an old neighbour who once delivered home-baked goods and occasionally threw a great party has moved away and upgraded to a nicer home, leaving friends and memories behind.

And there's no doubt, the businesses near Rexall Place feel left behind — now that the city's hockey teams have moved downtown.

"A lot of memories, it's sad," said Dimitra Scordas, one of the owners of Coliseum Steak, Ribs and Pizza on 118th Avenue, a family-run business whose history is inextricably tied with that of the Oilers. "We are going to miss them terribly." 

The restaurant opened in 1976, two years after the team moved into what was then the Northlands Coliseum. For decades it has banked, at least in part, on nostalgia to sell steak and pizza. Every wall in the place is covered with Oilers' memorabilia, including a painting of Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey and Dave Lumley hoisting the Stanley Cup over their heads.

"There's a lot of nostalgia here, so I think a lot of people will come back," Scordas said during a recent lunch-time rush, the parking lot and restaurant packed with regulars.

Whether or not customers will still come to the neighbourhood on game nights is the biggest question.

Constantine Stavropoulos, owner of the Fireside, already knows the answer to that question — they won't. He built his restaurant in 1973, at the same time that the Coliseum, once heralded as a state-of-the-art sports arena, was rising next door.

"I built it and I'm still here," Stavropoulos said. "I should have left a long time of go. I'm very old."

Semi-retired now, he has been trying to sell the restaurant.

"The Oiler's were good for 40 days when they were here," he said, standing near a painting of Gretzky. "I won't miss the Oilers. I'll miss the people."

Still, Stavropoulos has some pretty good stories. Like the time he served Gretzky a ham sandwich, or the time he gave Dave Semenko heck for eating a huge stack of pancakes before the game.

"I don't do nothing, I just sit on the bench," is what Semenko told him that day, he says.

​From a table inside the Fireside, you can see pigeons landing on the roof of Rexall Place, where the sign was recently replaced with the now more-accurate one, Northlands Coliseum. Right now, Stravropoulos isn't seeing a whole lot of business come through his door, saying traffic in the area is down.

Like other restaurants and businesses that relied on the big neighbour next door, Stravropoulos said it's what comes next that counts

"Right now, people just drive through," he said. "Depends what will be across the street."

The re-think in the wake of Rexall

The closest hotel to the Oilers' old stomping grounds is the Coliseum Inn, where you can rent a room for $81 a night, tax included. Assistant general manager, Alykzandrea Broadbent admitted the hotel now has to change from a party hotel to one that attracts families. Not an easy transition, especially when you don't know what the future holds for the neighbourhood.

"It has kind of changed the whole dynamic of the hotel," she said. "We're no longer going to be that events-based hotel. Even though the games haven't started yet, we're definitely feeling the effects of missing the Oilers. We used to be full and now we're struggling to get people."

The old neighbours, the ones the Oilers have left behind, say they understand why their beloved team opted for extra space and fancy new downtown digs, instead of costly, ongoing renovations. Still, they ask, why didn't the City of Edmonton and Northlands do a better job of finding someone to take the team's place?

"The worst, definitely, would be if they completely tore it down, and left nothing," said Broadbent. "Then, we'd have nothing around us."

In September, Edmonton city council voted unanimously to move ahead with a new sportsplex proposal for the Coliseum arena. The idea, originally proposed by Northlands, still needs approval from the Oilers Entertainment Group. 

Northlands' proposal, not surprisingly, is what business owners near the Coliseum are hoping for. 

Broadbent said she supports the proposal for a multi-rink sports facility that caters to hockey teams and tournaments.

"It's a waiting game right now to see what they're going to do."

For now, the same thing that compelled business owners to set up shop 40 years ago is what has them optimistic for the future of the Coliseum — potential. They still long for the glory days, when Gretzky was king and steak sandwiches were feeding a packed restaurant full of fans.

Though those days are over, they can't help but sneak the occasional peek out their windows, to see if anyone is thinking about moving into the big house next door.