‘The Magnificient New Coliseum’ turns 40, and I was there.

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.

My 'I was there' certificate to the first Oiler game at Northlands Coliseum.
My ‘I was there’ certificate to the first Oiler game at Northlands Coliseum.

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.

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Someone save me from another NHL season.

So here I am, basking in the late September sunshine, relishing a 27C day. That can only mean one thing — it’s hockey season!

Oh God, no! Didn’t it just finish last month? Or does it only seem like it?

I’ve actually grown to kind of hate the National Hockey League. I hate the grossly inflated size of the league. I hate the way the league has attempted to graft hockey onto any geographical area and arena that will have it. I hate its random, nonsensical approach to discipline for violent acts. I hate the fact the hockey season is spread out over three earth seasons. I hate the fact it only gets interesting when winter is on the way out.

But mostly, I hate how hockey has gone from pastime to obsession, obliterating everything else in its path. Take right now, for instance. Training camps are underway, and already the floundering local rags have devoted hundreds of thousands of words, gallons of ink and God knows how many trees to detailing the minutia of the Edmonton Oilers. From now until they are eliminated from the playoffs, the Oilers will be on the front page of the Edmonton Sun and Car Ad Daily a bare minimum of 100 times. The Edmonton Journal won’t match the Sun’s obsessive coverage, only because it doesn’t have the space. But today’s paper still managed a front-page picture of an exhibition game, and the paper’s only local sports columnist (Canada’s only sports columnist who has no opinions on anything) actually devoted his column to how much promise the Oilers show — after one exhibition game! Every game will be televised with the worst kind of small town ‘hooray for our team’ boosterism usually reserved for Texas high school football. Edmonton hockey fans will fill Rexall Place for every game, paying whatever the team asks for the right to sit on their hands and watch a thrilling tilt between Edmonton and arch rivals, Phoenix, then go out to their frozen cars in -30C weather and spend 40 minutes in the parking lot. They’ll pay whatever it takes for a beer because, hell, they’ve got wads of Fort Mac cash in their jeans, and they’ve got to spend it on something.

I’ll admit that I might get mildly interested in the Oilers sometime around February. I say February because, despite the fact it’s my birthday month, it is the dreariest, shortest-but-longest month of the year, and I always need something to distract me from the spirit-sapping tedium of an Edmonton winter. I hope they’re good — or, more importantly, entertaining. But otherwise, I don’t really care. I don’t care if the Flames are better than the Oilers, I don’t care if Toronto is lousy (although that would be my preference), I don’t care about Montreal, or Ottawa, or Vancouver, or Nashville (they still have a team, right?). Maybe joining a hockey pool would rekindle my interest in the NHL. But that would require actually paying attention to the league and the players, and that sounds like too much work.

I wish I enjoyed the popular obsession with the NHL. In this town, you can carry on hours long conversations with complete strangers if you casually mention the Oilers. But I just can’t bring myself to care about a billionaire’s plaything and his millionaire pawns. Wake me up when — if — they get to the playoffs. By then, it will be spring again.

What does Katz want? Try everything.

Mayor Stephen Mandel professes to be baffled by what Oilers owner Daryl Katz wants in the ongoing agony that is the arena negotiations.

“I can no longer define what Mr. Katz is asking for or what he’s not asking for,” a deeply frustrated mayor said on Tuesday, after Katz gobsmacked city council with a new list of demands, including a $6 million a year subsidy which Katz apparently believes he can get through casino money. (Ignore for a moment that the allocation of casino money is a provincial matter, not a civic matter. Let’s not concern ourselves with legalities here.)

Well, let me help, if I may.

In answer to the question, ‘what does Daryl Katz want?’, the answer is quite simple.

Everything.

He wants everything, because he needs everything to make this crazy venture work.

There, Mr. Mayor, is that so hard to understand?

Here’s what Mandel doesn’t understand. Despite appearances, Katz is not a billionaire with enough money to spare that he bought an expensive bauble called the Edmonton Oilers. No, he’s a philanthropist, a good hearted son of Edmonton who, by golly, saw his hometown team was in trouble, and put everything he had into rescuing the team, all for the good of Good Ol’ Our Town. His wife thinks he’s crazy, he told the Edmonton Journal, his personal Pravda. Gosh, he told 630 CHED (Katz being interviewed by CHED, on a show devoted to all-things Oilers, is like Mitt Romney going on Fox News) he’s just trying to make a go of this crazy venture, and he just can’t do it without a little help from his friends. After all, Edmonton is a “small” market in the NHL, unlike metropolises like Winnipeg and Ottawa and Nashville and wherever the Carolina Hurricanes play. All poor Daryl has is a hockey mad city that sells out every game at top dollar to watch a crappy team play crappy hockey. How is he supposed to make a go of it when he’s been dealt such a lousy hand?

Mandel, clearly bewildered and angry, wants Katz to appear before an open council meeting to answer questions himself about what he wants. So far, Katz’s strategy has been to send representatives to talk to council. But Mandel is tired of hearing from bishops — he wants to hear from the pope. It might be easier to get the real pope to drop by for a chat than to get Katz to talk to an open council meeting.

Now, let’s get serious: Katz has screwed the pooch. Every ounce of goodwill he had — and he had gallons of it — is gone.  He had handled this so poorly, you have to wonder if he’s getting advice from Mitt Romney’s brain trust. My guess it that there are dozens of public relations people in Edmonton who are pulling their hair out, dying to get their hands on this fiasco. Katz, by his high-handed actions and secretive dealings, may have permanently scuttled what was a great deal for his hockey team.

There is no hope now that the arena will be built before the lease expires at Rexall, forcing Katz to negotiate a new deal with Northlands. You’ve got to know that they’re rubbing their hands together with glee at Northlands.

If the arena deal goes sideways, Katz has no one to blame but himself. He’s been arrogant and secretive. Nobody believes his ‘poor me’ whine. Personally, I think the majority of Edmontonians want a new arena, and believe that some sort of public-private partnership is needed – but not at any cost. If Katz has to wait a few more years to get his new pleasure palace so be it.

 

 

Arena over budget. And winter is cold.

The Edmonton arena project is having a hard time reaching its guaranteed cost of $450 million.

Those of you who are surprised by this news, please raise your hand. OK, you, you, and you … I have a Nigerian prince who wants to speak to you. Something about an inheritance.

Yesterday’s news that the arena design is $35 million over budget is one of the least shocking headline in an Edmonton newspaper since “Winter will be cold, forecasters say.”

A city report says that despite cost cutting measures, the future boondoggle is $35 million over budget.  For example, they’ve already gone from a zinc exterior (which, as I recall, is the exterior used on the art gallery) to aluminum; I suspect the next move will be aluminum siding, and when that doesn’t do the job, they’ll consider stucco and try to sell it as a retro 1950s look.

The Winter Garden, which will span 104th Avenue like a pedway on steroids, is $30 million over budget. May I be the first to predict that the Winter Garden will whither and die like, well, a garden in winter.

What are the chances that the arena will come in at the $450 million price? Mayor Mandel says sure, no problem — in fact, we can get it lower, he said. But, he warned “there are value judgments about what we want to put in and what we don’t want to put in.”

Ah, there’s the rub. They’ve already cut out the Oilers souvenir shop, which I’m sure will go over really well with the Oilers. They’ve cut out terrazzo floors in favor of brushed concrete to give it that welcoming warehouse feel.  They’re talking about cutting back on the underground parking by half, which is good news for the thieves at Impark, but bad news for the building’s revenue stream.

I think revenue is going to be the sticking point as they sharpen the pencils and pare down the project. Rick Daviss, the project’s executive director, made this ominous statement: “Whether the revenue streams are still sufficient to allow the hockey club to keep its operation sustainable, that will be the subject of negotiations between the Katz group and the city.”

The Oilers, of course, will want their souvenir shop back. And they’ll want those parking stalls. And food kiosks, and everything else they can make a buck from. And if that means going from zinc to aluminum to stucco on the outside, from terrazzo to brushed concrete to linoleum on the inside, so be it.

If we’re going to build this thing, and we are, we’d better build it right. I sincerely doubt that they’ll be able to get it down to $450 million without significant cheapening of the project — or finding some way to increase the budget.

And speaking of budget, city council … how’s the search for that missing $100 million coming along?

I thought so.

 

Enjoy Nail Yakupov’s tweets while you can, fans.

Hey, Nail Yakupov! Can I hang with you the next time you go to a bar in Edmonton? Preferably someplace on Whyte or Jasper Avenues.

Seriously, dude. I’d just hang around in the back somewhere. You wouldn’t even know I was there. I just want to watch.

Sorry, let me rephrase. I just want to watch the reaction when you walk into a bar full of soused or semi-soused girls. It would be so much fun to watch heads swivel, and see girls collectively say “OhmygodthatsNail”. It would be almost as much fun to watch the reaction from guys as they size up the competition, realize that all is lost, and storm off to another bar.

Nail Yakupov is, of course, the latest first-round draft choice of the Edmonton Oilers. By now, you’d think Edmonton hockey fans would be somewhat blasé about having another would-be phenom joining the team. It’s three years in a row that this sad sack outfit has added a young stud to the lineup, so it’s kind of old news. But Yakupov seems to have a little something extra going for him. Maybe because it’s because he’s Russian, or seems to be a free spirit compared to Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. But it’s probably because the kid seems to be so willing to communicate with his fans.

At last count, Nail Yakupov has 23,557 followers on Twitter. He has Tweeted 634 times, and from what I’ve seen he likes to respond to pretty much any inquiry from fans, particularly of the female variety. These girls aren’t the least bit shy about asking questions: are you a virgin, how big is your …. well, let’s just say ‘hockey stick’. Many are somewhat more benign, such as: ‘Do u like cheese???!!!’. The reply? Ya.

Nail doesn’t seem to have much interest in following other Tweeters, however. He’s only following 40, including one who describes herself as ‘face it im hot i love hockey more then anything and one day will marry a hockey player’, and another who describes herself as ‘a strange combination of a woman and a child. i am your spirit animal.’

Then there are updates on his day, like these …

* Good morning !!)))) Have a nice , great , wonderful , happy , good day today , for every one 😀 KIDS 🙂

* Camp is great $ I can make food 🙂 Ur fans great ) I love u 🙂 Good night for everyone 🙂

Such a nice boy!

I have no idea if Nail Yakupov is going to be a good hockey player, a great hockey player, or a first-round failure. I do have a pretty good idea that he’s going to be fun to watch. I just hope that he keeps a level head. Going from relative obscurity in Sarnia to being a first-round draft pick for a hockey mad city filled with young people with lots and lots of money is enough to turn anyone’s head. I hope he keeps tweeting until the Oilers feel a public relations disaster coming on and pull the plug. If Nail starts tweeting things like: “Enjoyed a fine meal at Sorrentino’s tonight”, you’ll know they’ve gotten to him.

Enjoy your stay in Edmonton, Nail. And seriously, next time you go out, give me a call.

Memo to Katz Group: Screw you.

Memo to: The Katz Group

From: An Edmonton taxpayer

Subject: Screw you

This memo is in response to your recent memo to Edmonton City Council regarding the progress, or lack thereof, in the negotiations towards the construction of a new arena.

If I may be blunt, let me just express my profound frustrations with your tactics by using a common idiom: screw you.

Pardon me for using the memo format, but this seems to be the preferred method of communications for the Katz Group.  Apparently, Mr. Katz considers himself too important to directly address the public about the use of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars he is demanding for a new arena. Seems like a strange way to do business with an organization that you are attempting to enter into an agreement with, but who am I to question how a billionaire operates.

Now, to address your concerns as outlined in your memo. Your primary concern seems to be that the window of opportunity to get the new arena built by the 2014 hockey season has closed. This should bother me, why? As a taxpayer and substantial partner in this project, I frankly could not care less whether the Oilers get into the building by 2014, or 2015, or 2016, or any other date. You can continue sucking at Northlands just as easily as you can suck in a new building. You have a perfectly good home you can play in for the foreseeable future, so get comfortable.

Second, you say that the option to buy the land is about to expire, and if you don’t act soon, you’ll lose the land. Well, then, do something. Buy it. Just carry on with the purchase. I find it rather amazing that you seem to want everything in place perfectly at your end, but you expect the city to take all the gambles. If you have the land, and you think this is perfect, then buy it. We’re good for it. We’re the freaking City of Edmonton.

Third, you are worried that there is no progress on the non-compete deal with Northlands. Well, again, this was your idea, not ours. How are we supposed to tell Northlands, which is a non-profit that has been around for more than 100 years, that they are supposed to mothball their biggest source of revenue so you can take the whole pie? When you open a Rexall drugstore in a shopping mall, do you insist on a non-compete clause with Shopper’s Drug Mart? No, I didn’t think so. It’s called competition. Look it up.

So here’s the thing, Mr. Katz Group. We’re still $100 million short. You may think that the province is going to kick in the money, but we don’t know that. If you really wanted to move this along, I have an idea… why don’t YOU kick in another $100 million? That would move things along nicely.

Unless we see some kind of goodwill gesture on your part, Mr. Katz Group, then you’ll just have to bide your time. There are hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars at stake here, and a good portion of the population (read: voters) would be mightily pissed if they gave a local billionaire even more money. Every time you put out another memo, you loose more and more public support. Who are you getting your advice from, Donald Trump?

So can your phony deadlines, pony up some more money, or shut the hell up.

Sincerely,

A Taxpayer

 

 

 

 

 

Omark’s antics … good or bad?

On a snowy December morning, today’s topic is hockey.

This being Edmonton, hockey could be the topic on a snowy Sunday morning, or a blistering August night. It’s just more appropriate right now.

The talk of the hockey world right now is Oiler Linus Omark, whose shoot-out goal Thursday night has, I assume, become a YouTube sensation. This isn’t as big a deal as it’s cracked up to be, since kittens playing with yarn can become a YouTube sensation. But plenty of people are talking about Omark, the Swedish rookie making his first appearance of the regular season. Omark is no regular rookie; he’s a human highlight reel, with ‘look at me’ goals in Sweden and with the Oilers minor league team, the Oklahoma City Bumwads, or whatever they’re called.

So Omark, somewhat surprisingly, get to take a shot in the shoot-out, and he throws in some razzle dazzle. Instead of skating straight towards the Tampa Bay goaltender (why does Tampa Bay, Fla. have a hockey team?), Omark goes wide, then does a spinerama (as Danny Gallivan used to call it), a full spin that would have made Elvis Stoyko proud. He then bears down on the Tampa net, fakes a shot, slaps his stick on the ice, then takes a shot that somehow gets through (truth to tell, it’s a pretty lousy shot). The crowd, hoping for something exciting from Omark, gets its wish, and goes wild.

So does hockey. Tampa players are royally pissed, angry at the showboating. So does a lot of the hockey world.

How dare, they say, a punk like Linus Omark sully the purity of the shoot-out gimmick by having some fun with it? Hockey is serious stuff; this isn’t the NBA, after all, where it’s so easy to score, the players have to do something creative to keep the fans from dozing off.

Hockey has been dominated by guys Wayne Gretzky and Sydney Crosby who, while absurdly talented, would never do anything showy like that to draw attention to themselves.

That’s not the hockey way. That’s not the CANADIAN way.

The hockey world is no doubt divided, but I saw good on Linus.

He’s a guy making his NHL debut, with a chance to win the game, who takes a chance on doing something risky and entertaining. He could, of course, have fallen while doing his spinerama, which would have been a YouTube sensation of a different sort, and marked him for life as an overconfident showboat who made an ass of himself. He took a chance — a big chance — and succeeded. (Coincidentally, Omark’s antics will make it that much tougher for the Oilers to send him back to the minors when Shawn Horcoff makes his sadly inevitable recovery. Don’t think that Omark wasn’t thinking that exact thing.)

So for all you haters our there, you ‘don’t disrespect the game’ types… lighten up. The guy took a chance, succeeded, entertained the fans and had some fun.

Of course, if he flopped, it would have meant a one way ticket to the Bumwads. But he didn’t, so way to go Omark.

Just don’t do it again.

Oiler cheerleaders? Sis, boom, blah.

Last week, word emerged that the Edmonton Oilers will become the first Canadian NHL team to have cheerleaders at their games.

Now in Edmonton, where anything the Oilers do becomes front page news (“Dump was ‘epic’, Hall says. Oiler future star credits Mexican restaurant for bowel movement ‘for the ages’.”) and fodder for thousands of on-line comments, this has become reasonably big news.

Cheerleaders are not unknown in the NHL. Cheerleaders exist in 23 of 30 NHL arenas, according to the Oilers. I suspect in a lot of U.S. cities, adding cheerleaders makes it look like there are more than 5,000 fans in the stands; they probably use them to pad their attendance statistics. But here in Canada, where hockey tickets are prized, we prefer our hockey pure and unsullied by distractions like underdressed gyrating cheerleaders; after all, that would distract us from the serious business of discussing plus-minus statistics.

Oiler president Patrick LaForge says the cheerleaders will “enhance the in-game experience” (is there an out-of-game experience?). In that regard, I can’t complain. I haven’t been to an Oilers game for years, but my recollection of the “in-game experience” was that it approximated that of a lively funeral. Sure, the Oilers do what they can: endless distractions on the video screen, and wretched music played at high decibels. But Edmonton fans (outside of the playoffs, as some of you may recall) are notoriously quiet. We take our hockey so seriously, we tend to suck the fun right out of the game. So in that regard, maybe a few cheerleaders isn’t such a bad thing.

After all, cheerleaders have a long tradition in sports. They originated in football, apparently way back in 1898. It was somewhat more sedate in those days. A “cheerful personage” would tap a fellow fan on the shoulder, and inquire: “Pardon me, dear sir, but would you care to join me in a rousing ‘huzzah’ for the home team?” In time, women were recruited to lead the cheers, but that experiment nearly came to an end in 1913 at the Princeton versus Harvard game when a “cheerleaderette” inadvertently flashed some ankle, resulting in a near riot. (I am, of course, making this up.)

Cheerleading today varies from city to city. Here in Edmonton, the Eskimos have opted for an athletic troupe that does a lot of quite impressive, college style stunts. This is an evolution from earlier Eskimo cheerleaders, who were hired more for their measurements (anybody remember ‘second chick from the left’?) than their athletic abilities. Please note I said ‘evolution’, not necessarily ‘improvement’.

The National Basketball Association has cheer teams, which, as I could see from a few clips on YouTube, are somewhat more R-rated. And by that I mean skanky.

Potential Oiler cheerleaders won’t be able to do the kind of act you see in the NBA. For starters, they can’t go on the ice, although that would provide hilarious entertainment. Cheerleaders would be restricted to the stairs, which would limit their movements appreciably. The stairs at Rexall are very narrow, with barely enough room for one fat guy at a time. This would also bring hot (we hope), undulating, tightly and/or scantily clad females in close proximity to 25-year-old rig pigs from Fort McMurray who have just spent $50 on beer and will expect something in return other than another putrid Oiler performance. Hey, nothing can go wrong there.

I’m a traditionalist in just about everything — I am old, after all — so I’m opposed to Oiler cheerleaders. The best way the Oilers could enhance the “in-game experience” is to provide a winning team that might actually get the fans to rise out of their too-small seats to cheer. Cheerleaders are no substitute for a winning team.