Edmonton

Way back WEM: Take a nostalgic trip through West Edmonton Mall history

The right whale statue relegated for years to the basement of West Edmonton Mall — then restored to its place of privilege among the shops — was modelled using real bones from one of the massive sea mammals.

Matthew Dutczak's obsession with WEM inspired new Edmonton AM series

Matthew Dutczak is the mastermind behind Best Edmonton Mall, a website and YouTube series dedicated to the weird and wonderful history of WEM. (CBC)

The right whale statue relegated for years to the basement of West Edmonton Mall — then restored to its place of privilege among the shops — was modelled using real bones from one of the massive sea mammals.

The strange history of the 4,500-kilogram bronze statue is just one piece of little-known trivia uncovered by Matthew Dutczak during years of research on the shopping centre.

Dutczak, 34, doesn't consider himself a "serious shopper" but he is seriously passionate about the mammoth shopping mall.

Part shopping mall, part amusement park, part tourist destination — there is no other place like it, Dutczak said.  

"When I think about it logically, it's kind of ridiculous to be so enthusiastic about a mall," Dutczak said. "But I have to remind myself this isn't just a mall.

"It's always been a part of my life. It's something I'm nostalgic about. It's something where I can remember back to how things used to be."

A self-employed web developer, Dutczak is the mastermind behind Best Edmonton Mall, a website and YouTube channel dedicated to the attraction that spans over 5.3 million square feet.

For more than two years, he has created regular blog entries exploring the mall's most notable attractions, past and present, including peacocks, lemurs and laser shows.

He was inspired to start the blog after speaking to younger friends who didn't remember the mall's history.

"I was talking with people who were younger than me and they didn't remember the stuff that I did. They lived in a world where Galaxyland was always Galaxyland.

"I thought it was kind of neat to show that history."  

Dutczak's obsession will serve as the backbone for a new Edmonton AM series on the shopping centre.  

During a weekly segment on the show, the self-trained mall historian will take listeners through every nook and cranny of the shopping centre. 

'Loved it'

Dutczak's happy place is the indoor lake known as Deep Sea Adventure, where a full-size replica of the Christopher Columbus flagship, the Santa Maria, is permanently moored.

The world's largest indoor lake was constructed in 1985. Four Atlantic bluenose dolphins captured off the Florida coast once swam in its azure-blue waters, in what  Dutczak describes as a fantastic show "back in the day."

The final surviving dolphin, Howard, was relocated to a Florida aquatic park in 2004 and died the following year.

He fondly remembers when peacocks were a common sight and submarines lurked in the lagoon.

"They were deep-sea tested off the coast of Vancouver," he said. "They were real, honest-to-goodness submarines, and they were the first recreational submarines put into operation in the world.

"I loved it but … it was the same ride over and over again, so eventually, they were removed from the mall." 
We are taking you 'way back WEM' on a look at the mall we love to hate. 7:02

The submarines made their final voyages in 2005.

Dutczak is most nostalgic for the mall's glory years in the early 1980s, when the Edmonton Oilers used the indoor skating rink for the occasional practice.

"The championship Edmonton Oilers, year after year just a dynasty, and they used to use this rink," he said.

"People would stand around and watch Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier and countless others practising. And you could get within arm's reach of your favourite stars.

"I haven't lost hope that one day we're going to see the next generation of superstars practising here in the mall, and the kids can get their autographs again."  
Watch as the CBC's Anna Maria Tremonti visits West Edmonton Mall in 1985. 2:04

In its heyday, the mall was hailed as the "Eighth Wonder of the World." Dutczak believes the mall is still worthy of that praise, even if some Edmontonians and tourists have become immune to its charms.

"It's a world-class attraction right in our backyard," Dutczak said.

"It's a location that we take for granted. We think, 'It's just the mall.' But it's one of those things, if you were someone on the outside looking in, you would be blown away."
Wayne Gretzky hits the ice at the West Edmonton Mall for a practice in 1985. (CBC)