I don’t know about you, but I know exactly what I was doing on the evening of Nov. 10th, 1974, exactly 40 years ago Monday.
I was at a hockey game. Not just any hockey game, mind you, but the very first hockey game ever played in the Edmonton Coliseum, or — to use the exact description used on the Edmonton Oilers Award Certificate that I have saved to this day — the “Magnificent New Coliseum”. Those of you who remember ‘Wild’ Bill Hunter, the man who brought the Oilers into existence, will agree that the use of the word ‘magnificent’ sounds like it came straight from Hunter.
The Oilers at the time were in the World Hockey Association, the mention of which was almost always preceded by the word ‘fledgling’. The WHA (sometimes known as the Wacky Hockey Association by press wags) began play in the 1972-73 season with a dozen teams and one superstar, Bobby Hull. The Oilers, originally known as the Alberta Oilers, played in the Edmonton Gardens, a historic-verging-on-decrepit arena that seated about 5,200. It might have been state-of-the-art when it was built, but being that it was built in 1913, the state-of-the-art was that it had indoor ice. It was rather spartan and utilitarian. Also known as a dump.
Edmonton Northlands finally stepped up and, some $17 million dollars later (you could get a lot of building for $17 million back then), opened the doors on the Coliseum. I was there, and I have the certificate to prove it. I even typed in my name so there would never be any doubt.
I remember being absolutely awed by the Coliseum. For an 18-year-old rube from what was still pretty much of a hick town on the prairies, the Coliseum seemed, well, magnificent. (For historical context, the Eskimos were at the time still playing in 20,000-seat Clarke Stadium, a place so spartan that in lieu of urinals, it had a tiled trough that you would piss into while praying that you didn’t slip in.) It seated 15,423 people, who sat in a kind of awed silence at the splendour of it all. And best of all, Calgary didn’t have a new building! Hell, they didn’t even have a WHA team.
My seat was waaaaay up in the nosebleeds. I remember climbing up what seemed to be awfully tiny steps up, up and up. I remember feeling that I might tip over, the angle of the seats was so steep. As for the game itself, I remember it hardly at all. I know the Oilers defeated the Cleveland Crusaders 4-1, and after some research I discovered the first goal in the Coliseum was scored by Oiler Ron Buchanan. The biggest names on the ice were in the nets. Cleveland’s goaltender was Gerry Cheevers, a real-life NHL great who backstopped the Boston Bruins to the 1972 Stanley Cup. The winning goaltender for the Oilers was none other than the legendary Jacques Plante. Yes, Jacques Plante, the man who introduced the goalie mask to hockey. Plante was, shall we say, somewhat past his prime (he was born in 1929, which would have made him 45 at the time). But he was a living, breathing hockey legend, playing in my home town. And he played well in that game, although the rest of the season wasn’t quite as successful; he played just one season for the Oilers.The Oilers failed to make the WHA playoffs that year, finishing last in the Canadian Division.
Of course, once the bloom was off the Coliseum rose, there were a lot of nights where there were somewhat less than 15,423 fans in the stands. For a long time, it was easy to buy an Oiler ticket for probably about $10. (For some reason, it became a tradition to go to see the Minnesota Fighting Saints come to town on Boxing Day.) I used to go and wander around the building, picking one seat for one period, then another for the second. When the building was only about a third filled, you could sit anywhere. It was even easier when the Edmonton Drillers indoor soccer team was around.
Of course, there was nothing really magnificent about the Coliseum. It was virtually a duplicate of the Vancouver arena, and aside from the fact that it had padded seats and, as one first-nighter noted, you could watch a game in your shirtsleeves, there wasn’t much to it. There were no luxury boxes, no big screens, no opening ceremonies, no hype. Sometime in 2016, the Oilers will move to the unfortunately named Rogers Place, and fans will say good riddance to the old barn just the way they said good riddance to the Gardens, which really was an old barn. And it will be proclaimed …. magnificent.