EDMONTON, Alberta – Their numbers are in the rafters and some of their pictures are on a commemorative poster of Oilers captains adorning a wall of Rexall Place. The names read like a who’s-who of Edmonton hockey in the 1980s: Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Kevin Lowe, Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr.
The NHL’s second-oldest building has hosted seven Stanley Cup finals and innumerable great moments in its 42 seasons, but the end is near for the spartan rink best known from the glory days as Northlands Coliseum. The Oilers are moving downtown next season and Sunday night’s opener to a Western Canada road trip was the Buffalo Sabres’ final visit here.
Rexall Place opened in 1974 and carried the Northlands name through its glory years and until 1995. Among NHL arenas, only New York’s Madison Square Garden is older, opening in 1968. But MSG, remember, has just gone through a three-year, $1-billion renovation that essentially made it a new facility.
When the Oilers opened here in 1974, they were still in the World Hockey Association and five years away from joining the NHL. Edmonton won the Stanley Cup here in 1984, 1985, 1987 and 1988, and captured its 1990 championship in Boston.
The Oilers lost the Cup final in 1983 and 2006, with that seven-game defeat to Carolina marking their last trip to the playoffs. The building hosted Canada Cup games in 1981 and 1984, World Junior Championship games in 1995 and 2012 and the 1995 NHL Draft.
It was here in 1988 after a sweep of the Bruins was completed that Gretzky started the tradition of the championship team huddling on the ice around the Stanley Cup for a giant group picture before retiring to the dressing room. That’s been an integral moment of every Cup celebration since.
“I tucked my jersey in, had powder on my tape like ‘Gretz’ and my linemate was ‘Jari Kurri’ in my amateur hockey days,” a smiling Sabres caoch Dan Bylsma said before the game. “I spent a lot of time watching and emulating Wayne and my linemate was called ‘Jari.’ I was a young kid, 7-8-9-10 years old. Playing in the back yard. So coming here the first time as a player was very special.”
Bylsma, in fact, scored the first of his 19 NHL goals in Rexall Place while playing for Los Angeles on Nov. 27, 1996.
“It was a faceoff shot from the point, second-chance rebound and I dove in the net,” Bylsma said. “I dove kind of behind the goalie to get it so I ended up in the net and I just remember Ray Ferraro picking me up off the ice in the net out of celebration.”
“There’s a lot of history here and it’s a fun building to play in,” said Sabres winger Jamie McGinn, a regular here from his days with San Jose and Colorado. “The Edmonton fans are loud and very passionate about hockey and they want to win.”
Rexall Place always had a reputation for some of the best playing conditions in the NHL, which certainly helped the Oilers’ high-powered attack.
“It’s always hard ice, good to skate on. They do a really good job here,” said McGinn. “When you’re going out there, you have to worry about your game and not the ice. It’s definitely one of the tops in the league here.”
The Oilers are moving to the $480-million Rogers Place next season. It will seat 18,641 for hockey, more than 20,000 for concerts and feature all the amenities fans and business clients come to expect from new facilities that simply aren’t part of the experience now.
There are still discussions going on about the future of Rexall Place, either demolishing it and redeveloping the land, or repurposing it into a smaller facility. That’s what Long Island is doing with Nassau Coliseum, the former home of the New York Islanders.
There are eight retired banners in the building, including one for longtime broadcaster Rod Phillips and another for former Sabres defenseman Al Hamilton, a stalwart from the WHA era. The Oilers will raise their ninth and final banner on Friday night to honor longtime coach Glen Sather, and many of the Hall of Famers of the past will be in attendance. The final home game is April 6 against Vancouver.
The Sabres were to leave immediately after the game for Vancouver, where they will meet the struggling Canucks Monday night in Rogers Arena. Vancouver started the season 6-2-4 but has skidded to a 3-9-4 mark in its last 16 games.
The Canucks have slipped into complete crisis mode in their last five games, going 0-3-2 and suffering a 4-0 home drubbing at home to Boston on Saturday night.
At 9-10-8 overall, the Canucks are tied for the fewest wins in the league. Former Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller is the likely starter and his stats have slipped to pedestrian status after a strong start to the season. Miller is just 7-9-6, 2.59 and .910. Backup Jacob Markstrom took the loss against Boston.
It will be the first game in his hometown for Sabres winger Sam Reinhart, who grew up in North Vancouver and played his minor hockey in the city. Reinhart played junior in Kootenay, B.C., about 500 miles to the east.
The Sabres did not change their lineup from Friday’s game against Arizona, meaning Cal O’Reilly sat as a healthy scratch after joining the team here Saturday. So the debut of Ryan O’Reilly’s older brother with Buffalo remains on hold.
“I don’t know at this point,” Bylsma said when asked if O’Reilly will play on the trip. “We have three games in five days. He is the extra forward right now. We needed to have an extra guy on the trip. Right now, it’s just for tonight.”