Farewell, Northlands, and thank you

Rexall_Place_Edmonton_Alberta_Canada_07A_wikicommons

(Photo from Wikimedia Commons, taken by “WinterE229”)

In a real sense, Northlands Coliseum…er, Rexall Place…is a primary reason why I became a hockey fan.

It was the success of the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers that led to the move of the original Oil Kings to Portland, where they became the Winterhawks. My love of hockey was born of being a fan of some incredible teams in the late 1970s and 1980s, including the 1983 Memorial Cup champions.

But as I was learning more about the game in that time, I learned about the Oilers and that the Oil Kings struggled mightily as the WHA team became more successful. At some point, I adopted the Oilers as my pro team, following them vicariously through the sports pages as they went through their final WHA season, then on into the NHL.

While Memorial Coliseum was my local hockey home, it was the Northlands, almost 1,000 miles away, where my focus lay on many nights. As luck would have it, the Oilers made the last WHL Final in 1979, and after a tough first year in the NHL, made the playoffs in 1980 and started the legendary run that led to five Stanley Cups and an amazing amount of memories. I may have been one of the few in Portland (and, later in Seattle) that celebrated those Cups mightily.

Some nights, it was a struggle to get any updates on games. But when all was right, I would get lucky and hear Rod Phillips welcoming listeners to the Northlands and Oilers hockey. While I would get the Canucks, Kings and (after 1980) Flames on a more regular basis on their big AM radio stations, it was when they would play the Oilers when I would do just about anything to listen. When they were in Edmonton, at Northlands, it sounded like, and felt like, a different game.

Much has happened since the dynasty, of course. The Gretzky trade, the Messier trade, various coaches and players who passed through Northlands in the 26 years since the last Cup. The Coliseum has also been through many changes, including to its name (Edmonton Coliseum, Skyreach Centre, Rexall Place). It wasn’t a pretty building on the outside by any means, and it has been rebuilt on the inside a few times, now looking nothing like what it did during the glory years.

There have been times when the Oilers’ future has looked very bleak, of course. There was Peter Pocklington’s flirtation with Minnesota, the near-sale and move to Houston, Daryl Katz’ tour of Seattle…at times it seemed like the Oilers were not long for Edmonton and Northlands. But they’re still there, and the memories of decades of Oilers hockey, the very good and the very bad, are based in that place.

But all things come to an end, and it’s never more so than with sports stadiums. The places where I began my fandom of many teams are just history now. The Pittsburgh Pirates going from Three Rivers to PNC Park, Arsenal shifting from Highbury to the Emirates, the BC Lions from Empire Stadium to BC Place and the 49ers going from Candlestick to Santa Clara. But some places remain, like Portland’s Memorial Coliseum. Some are even still used, such as the legendary home of the Portland Timbers, Providence Park, and Rexall Place in Edmonton.

That changes April 6, when the Oilers play their final game at the legendary arena. No, I never made it there. On a couple of occasions I actually bought game tickets and was ready to head to Edmonton, but circumstances meant I wasn’t able to make it. It’s still one of the things I do regret, that I never made it to Northlands to see an Oilers game. Maybe, at some point, I’ll make it to the new Rogers-named arena in downtown Edmonton and see the Oilers once more in person. Not sure when, but I’ll make it.

And it will always be Northlands to me. Not Edmonton Coliseum, not Rexall Place, and certainly not Skyreach Centre. Some of the best, and wildest, hockey I ever saw was played in that building. The highs of the Cups wins, the lows of the crushing playoff losses, the great teams and the horrible teams, the beauty of hockey being played by legendary players for the Oilers and others…heck, the Winterhawks even won a WHL title in Northlands over the new Oil Kings. So many memories.

And this is where it all ends. Another bad Oilers season is about over, and the new Rogers Place will be open by time the new season begins in October. It’s the end of 42 years at Northlands, not quite as long as the Edmonton Gardens stood, but with all the history one can ever hope for in an arena. It’s the end of a chapter for people in Edmonton, and the end of a major chapter in my hockey life. This is probably just like how Canadiens fans felt losing the Forum, Leafs fans losing Maple Leaf Gardens, Bruins fans losing Boston Garden, etc. History is but a memory, but when it’s good, it’s the best memory of all.

And with that, I raise a glass to Northlands Coliseum. Yes, you’re known as Rexall Place now, and you’ve been called other names, as well. But what happened within your walls, the great and the bad, is a big part of my life as a sports fan, as a hockey fan, as an Oilers fan. Your first name will always be the one I know you as.

Thank you, Northlands. You’ve done well.

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