Alberta/San Diego, Part 3: The House Gretzky Built Wasn't Good Enough

Red Deer, Viking, Elk Island NP, Edmonton, Alberta (Map)

Winter 2015-16


If I was going to go over to Calgary to visit Geordie & see the Saddledome, then I also was going to go up to Edmonton to visit another old friend, one I hadn't seen in years.

There was also additional motivation because this was the last year that the Edmonton Oilers would play at Rexall Place. With Bettman's focused eradication of every old NHL rink, the Oilers arena was about to go away just like Joe Louis Arena in Detroit.

My friends were both working this Thursday, so I had no incentive to hang around Calgary for Geordie or hurry to get to Edmonton for Meredith. Geordie said I could linger around his house until whenever, but I was far too excited at the prospect of having a rental car, a free day and the freedom to explore wherever I wanted without an ocean limiting my travels.

About halfway up north, I came to Red Deer; and just like there's the QMJHL in Quebec and out east, there is the Western Hockey League out west in places like Red Deer. One of those WHL teams is the Red Deer Rebels and although they sadly weren't playing an afternoon game today, I still had to check if they played in an old arena.

(They don't. They play in the 1991 Enmax Centrium.)

Even though the Rebels play in a newer stadium, I stumbled upon the fact that an older rink was still in use in Red Deer but would soon be demolished. Without ties to Alberta, Red Deer or this particular rink, I still popped by to check it out.

The old Red Deer Arena was built in 1952 and sat 2800 people. It was home to the province's half-century celebration where Premier Ernest Manning spoke. It was also home to the annual Red Deer Remembrance Day celebrations & the arena stuck around a bit longer due to renovations in 1995. Unfortunately the Canada Games are coming to Red Deer in 2019 and much like in other places, this will act as a death knell and a reason for needing a new arena.

Jumping ahead in time, demolition of the old Red Deer Arena started on July 28th, 2016. One thing that lovers of old arenas will appreciate is that they took the time to save the iconic neon sign of the old rink and claim it will be incorporated into their new $21.8 million dollar Servus Arena.

After Red Deer, I stopped for lunch in Camrose because it looked like the last Taco Bell-sized place I'd see in a while. It was outside Camrose that I saw a crappy-looking, modern abandoned house. With long grasses and nowhere to park, I quickly decided against it, with the promise of heading into eastern Alberta where there would surely be many more abandoned places along the way.

But as the day progressed, I was surprised that the only other abandoned thing I came across was this community hall for the village of Avonroy. There were multiple places where it looked like an abandoned house might've once stood, but there was now nothing left but a foundation or a basement, with maybe a shed or chicken coop nearby.

Deciding how far east I'd drive from the kilometer distances on signs, I remembered the town of Viking somehow & figured it would make a good endpoint before heading back towards Edmonton.

It turns out I must've remembered the town name of Viking from some long ago Hockey Night in Canada segment, as it is home to the Sutter family of NHL fame.

Along with the wall of the old Viking Arena that was preserved, the other thing I enjoyed most in Viking was this Anglican church that's now a heritage center. If I lived in the Prairies, one thing I can see doing is photographing a lot of the Anglican & Ukrainian churches out here.

Just outside Viking, the sun started to set, projecting a beautiful glow on the dead grasses and small slabs of snow. I'd always been sort of indifferent towards Alberta, but this was alright.

Enjoying my evening drive, it wasn't long before I was in Edmonton. Meredith still had to work the next day, so after catching up, we walked over to grab some takeout while I laughed at the idea of us getting Cajun food in Edmonton.

Edmonton showed me though, as it was damn good.

(Now I'm not some Crawdad-eating, mmmhmmm'ing, Alligator-wrastling Cajun connoisseur, but I'd recommend giving DaDeO a try if you find yourself in Edmonton.)

Waking up on Friday, I went for a walk around the University of Alberta since it was only a couple kilometres away and I wouldn't see it otherwise.

I checked out the inside of their awesome Clare Drake Arena before continuing to walk around campus, vaguely trying to place where my friend Jeff and I rode bikes over 15 years ago. Then finally I came to it, the museum with the perfect ledge out front - perfect for my teenage self anyway - where I hit it once and then someone in a period costume came out and told me to get lost. Alas, no one's feeble grinding this ledge anymore. (The clip is in the credits of our local video Mortar.)

Once I tired myself out with all of this walking, I returned to Meredith's while she was still at work, lounging on her amazing balcony that overlooks the city. She had bought pretty much the perfect beer that I would buy myself, so chilling up here on a mild March day was not bad, not bad at all.

Meredith had the next day off - it being a Saturday - so it was suddenly up to me to declare what I wanted to see in Edmonton. I struggled with this because I had checked off a lot of things back in 2005, but we eventually decided on driving out to Elk Island National Park, which was about a 1/2-hour east of the city.

While it wasn't Fundy National Park or the Cape Breton Highlands, I enjoyed Elk Island. The marshside embankment paths and deciduous trees reminded me of home in Southwestern Ontario. It also didn't hurt that it was a few degrees above freezing, the sun was shining and the snow wasn't wearing us down. It was a great day to hike the pair of trails that we did.

Working off some of that Cajun food and some of those Grasshopper Wheats, I was more than happy with my decision to visit this not so well-known national park.

On our way back into town, we went downtown to drive by the rink that would be replacing Rexall Place. Look how shiny and overwhelming it is!

As Meredith and I stood atop a neighbouring parking garage, I was curious what would happen to the A&W/Greyhound Station in this picture & assumed the Greyhound Station would go away because you can't have a Greyhound station next to a new "ice district". Sure enough, the 2016 StreetView shows the block flattened.

As I've also seen the new Minnesota Vikings stadium up close, I have to admit that these new places are insane. I mean, look at this ice hockey arena! It curves and takes up 3 city blocks in its L-shape!? I laughed and shook my head when I heard people were paying $80 just for the privilege to stand in the concourse and drink $14 beers while watching the flatscreen TVs, but I guess they're happy.

It looks like professional stadiums are at the forefront of our cities morphing into the cityscapes of Total Recall. Colin Farrell could definitely battle with some bad guys or run into a 3-boobed lady here.

Thankfully I made it to Edmonton before I would be forced to watch a game in the futuristic Rogers Place. So after a nice dinner of delicious cod tacos and draft Leffe in a restored train station near Meredith's, it was time to head over to Rexall Place, once known as Northlands Coliseum.

The Edmonton Oilers started their history in the amazing Edmonton Gardens, a relic from 1913 that was originally a livestock pavillion. Being forced to renovate to satisfy fire inspectors and avoid having the building condemned, it only sat 5200 people afterwards. I personally salivate at some of the old quotes about the Gardens, like "the old house, with its obsolete lighting fixtures, oily wooden floors, and sordid washrooms, is an eyesore to hockey fans" (Edmonton Journal, 1966) or media calling it a "dirty, obsolete & rickety building."0

Northlands Coliseum opened in 1974 and replaced the Gardens, providing Edmonton with a professional-level rink that was a point of pride for the city. Where nowadays you have people calling it a dump, the president of the WHL at the time called the arena the "Taj Mahal" and Terry Jones reminisces that it was the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, but done right.

0 - The Edmonton Gardens was torn down in 1982.

As I mentioned in my Detroit Red Wings arena update, I thought the Red Wings had enough cherished memories to possibly keep Joe Louis around - but it was in learning of Rexall Place's fate that I realized dynasties (the Oilers won the Stanley Cup in 1984, 85, 86, 87 and 88) and superstars like Gretzky, Kurri, Coffey and Messier mean jack shit for keeping an arena around. People reason that the memories are stored in their brain and the building was just a building. That the building was nothing special and that it has a set, short lifespan before it needs to be replaced.

In reading the comments for articles about both Rexall Place and Joe Louis, it actually seemed like more people loved Joe Louis. Often it seemed like Edmonton needed a new arena to be a world-class city, while Detroit knew that Joe Louis was fine and Detroit was a great city without building a new Total Recall Coliseum.

Entering the arena, Meredith had repeatedly told me that her shared work tickets weren't good, but I was more than happy in the second to last row. Up here we were right next to the top concourse and had a cool view of the reporters' catwalk - how could I complain about this?! (Plus the price was more than right, haha.)

It didn't take long to go for a walk around that top concourse, going up and down stairs and through narrow corridors between the last seats and the arena back wall. All the while observing the standing room assigned squares marked with painted numbers behind the seats. I couldn't help but think about how tight this concourse would be during a playoff run in a city that loves its hockey like Edmonton.

It didn't take me long to circle the arena and return to our seats. We went back into the concourse and I laughed as Meredith pointed me towards the "fancy beer stand", which had Rickards Red and Original Coors, unlike the Coors Light and Molson Canadian of the normal stand.

I appreciated the Rickards but eventually went with a draft Canadian - even as some engineer failed when he made the 16oz stadium cups. Sure they give you a thoughtful lid, but it's squeezed onto the top of the precisely 16oz cup, constricting the cup and spilling beer all over your hands and the arena floor. (Or maybe that was the whole point: to extract an extra $10 beer out of ya!)

I also appreciated how the beer stands were clearly overwhelmed during the intermissions, so they fought this by having someone fill up maybe 40 or 50 cups during the last few minutes of play. That way the cashier simply turned around and handed the customer a beer from the table instead of waiting on a draft pour.

As for the actual game, the Oilers were playing the powerhouse Arizona Coyotes. While I was excited enough to see OEL - scratch that, he wasn't playing! - I mean Viktor Tikhonov, I have to admit it was exciting to see Connor McDavid in person too.

The Oilers ended up getting stonewalled by Mike Smith to the tune of 4-0. Viktor Tikhonov outscored Connor McDavid in the game.

Reporters & their catwalk above the ice.

I sort of blindly went into this visit expecting a place like the New York Islanders' Nassau Coliseum because I'm dumb and Rexall Place also used to be a coliseum (Northlands Coliseum). I had trouble comparing the two though, as I sat second row from the glass on Long Island but second row from the top in Edmonton. The whole experience in Edmonton felt more like the Igloo in Pittsburgh, but that's entirely because I sat in the last row at the Igloo.

(For reference, Nassau Coliseum on Long Island was built in 1972, Rexall of course in 1974 and the Igloo in Pittsburgh in 1961. You can see how Nassau & Rexall would be similar.)

In the end, and with the help of looking back at some pictures of the Igloo & Nassau Coliseum, I wouldn't say Rexall Place was like either of those rinks. It was its own unique place & one I thought was a pretty good place to watch a hockey game.

We finished up our visit by popping into the lower bowl for a few more pictures and to check out the view from down there. An usher came over to chat, lamenting that the arena is more than fine, well taken care of & doesn't need to be replaced. I couldn't have agreed with him more, but I also knew we're in the minority for having this opinion.

As for the future, it was said all along that the plan was to retrofit Rexall into a four rink community arena and a place for Hockey Canada. These plans were repeatedly mentioned, as they are when people wonder what's going to happen to a beloved building, but apparently no one looked into the cost of such a retrofit.

And of course, in 2017 it would be announced that the price was way more than any of the councillors envisioned (zomg really?!?) and that Rexall Place/Northlands Coliseum would be shuttered in 2018.

The push now it to tear down the whole thing & maybe save a small piece of wall, where they can then build a modern, cookie-cut, cheap, 4-rink arena like everywhere else. Why put in the effort to put 4 rinks in Rexall Place when you could just tear it down and build 4 rinks in a forgettable building for cheaper?

The next day my flight wouldn't leave Calgary until later that night, so I had a bit more time left to spend in Edmonton. Faced with a dreary morning, we made the best of it by going to a cupcake shop (haha), then also going to the Alberta Legislature Building (the provincial capital building in American terms).

(I can't lie, the little fluffy, frosting-covered tart thing I got at the cupcake shop was delish.)

I'd never toured a provincial capital building before, although I had been around the outside of this very building on an evening walk in 2005. (I was excited because we found the gap Mike Aitken jumped in FitLife.) Going inside, we both laughed at how we were the only two people showing up for a tour on a rainy day in early March in Edmonton. Everyone else's loss I say!

On the tour we saw the first sceptre of the province, which included vest buttons, a toilet float and mermaid mug handles. This is because the government at the time, doing things like governments do, went to a local jeweller with only a few weeks remaining and $150 to come up with a provincial sceptre. This "fake" mace would last an amazing 50 years, right up until that golden jubilee they celebrated at the old Red Deer Arena, before finally being replaced with a more normal mace.

Another thing I liked was how there was wall after wall of Lieutenant Governors who all looked the same and had similar portraits, except for one. Since the stance was that you pick your style and painter for your own official portrait, when Lt. Governor Ralph Steinhauer was appointed, he decided to go with something that was a little more him and honoured his Cree roots.

The coolest thing was the palm trees that grow up in the dome of the capital. Amazingly, the windows of the dome and heating systems of the capital mean that it actually gets hot and humid enough for palm trees to grow and flourish, high above frigid Edmonton.

That's not the most interesting part though. What's most interesting is that no one is quite sure how these palm trees found themselves in the Alberta capital. People have postulated that it could have come from a visiting official from California or from back in the time of greater British holdings in the Caribbean, but no one has been able to pin down the exact story.

You used to be able to go right up into the humid palm tree garden, but health and safety officials came along and saw the steep ladder that the general public were using and then unfortunately shut that down.

By the time we came out of the capital building, the sun had come out and it was going to be another fine March day out west. We finished up the visit with a walk down by the North Saskatchewan River, where we stumbled upon the oldest standing house in Edmonton.

The John Walter House was built in 1875 and is also the 4th oldest building in all of Alberta!

Following that, I thanked Meredith for the accommodations and tours, then hit the dusty trail, er 8-lane highway, back towards Calgary.

Along the way there was the most beautiful sunset in Red Deer. I sat there and realized that this must be how people in Corner Brook feel about sunsets with grey rocks and uninterrupted trees.

Just gorgeous scenery.

Speaking of Newfoundland, I was able to take a flight out of Calgary at night because I wasn't heading back to The Rock just yet. I was flying only to Toronto and then taking the Greyhound down to Windsor instead!

And in all of my nostalgia and longing for home, I booked the local bus instead of the Express with dreams of slow, yellow grass traverses through the Thamesvilles, Bothwells & Chathams of my youth. The only problem was that the windows were caked with early spring grime and salt! My romantic vision I booked back home in wintry CB, well, it wasn't here. Haha.


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1 - Northlands Coliseum was once called the impossible dream, Catherine Griwkowsky, Winnipeg Sun, November 9, 2012
2 - Edmonton Gardens, Wikipedia
3 - Jones: Many buildings and many memories recalled as the Oilers leave Rexall Place, Terry Jones, Edmonton Sun, April 5, 2016
4 - End of an era: Arena demolition begins, Red Deer Advocate, Jul 29, 2016

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