The Best Ice in Hockey

Originally published in Eishockey News in 2008

By Lucas Aykroyd

Rexall Place offers superb skating conditions, but has also seen some great hockey history, courtesy of CHL products.

Historically, NHL players have hailed the ice in Edmonton as the league’s best. Since the 2007 debut of the expansion Edmonton Oil Kings, WHLers have also gotten the chance to showcase their speed and passing skills on the tempo-laden 200-by-85-foot surface at Rexall Place. It’s no surprise that ice-making guru Dan Craig originally forged his reputation in the Alberta capital before being hired in 1997 as the NHL’s facility operations manager.

At the 2008 Home Hardware CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, the draft-eligible stars who hit the ice in Edmonton will be flying to impress the scouts. But these young men might also derive some inspiration from the history of magnificent exploits at this 16,389-capacity venue. Whether you’re talking about junior, pro, or international competition, CHL-spawned talent has always stepped up in Edmonton. Here are ten classic examples.

November 10, 1974

Originally known as Northlands Coliseum, the new arena was the brainchild of “Wild Bill” Hunter. The entrepreneur had owned the original Oil Kings franchise and coached it to Memorial Cup glory in the 1960’s. Hunter also spearheaded the entry of the Edmonton Oilers into the now-defunct World Hockey Association in 1972. His strong leadership convinced the Edmonton city council to ante up $15 million toward building the arena. A sell-out crowd of 15,326 showed up on opening night to watch the Oilers beat the Cleveland Crusaders 4-1. “The first night, people got to the rink and just walked around with their mouths open,” said Edmonton back-up goalie Ken Brown. “I was one of them. I was in awe of the place.” It was the start of great things.

January 2, 4, and 5, 1979

In 1978-79, the WHA’s final season, the Oilers acquired a teenage phenom named Wayne Gretzky, and also marched to their only Avco Cup final, losing to the Winnipeg Jets in six games. But Edmonton really cemented its place in league history by hosting a three-game exhibition series with the WHA All-Stars facing Moscow Dynamo. Although the Russian roster featured snipers from the 1972 Summit Series like Viacheslav Anisin and Vladimir Vikulov, the WHA swept the series (4-2, 4-2, 4-3). Mark Howe, the 1973 Memorial Cup MVP with the Toronto Marlboros, scored the winner in the opener, while Mike Gartner (ex-Niagara Falls Flyers) and Serge Bernier (ex-Sorel Eperviers) followed suit in the next two games.

December 30, 1981

When Wayne Gretzky tallied five goals in one night versus the Philadelphia Flyers, he set a record that could be even harder to surpass than his overall total of 92 in that 1981-82 campaign. The greatest goal-scorer of all time honed his craft with the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, potting 70 as a rookie in 1977-78. That number stood until 2006-07, when John Tavares hit 72 with the Oshawa Generals. Tavares is projected as the #1 overall pick in the 2009 NHL Draft.

May 19, 1984

When the Oilers beat the New York Islanders 5-2 to clinch their first-ever title, the leading goal-scorers on each side in Game Five were CHL legends. Both Gretzky and Pat LaFontaine scored a pair for their respective teams. LaFontaine had torn up the QMJHL in 1982-83 with 234 points for the Verdun Juniors, and his 104 goals eclipsed Mike Bossy’s previous rookie mark of 70.

September 18, 1984

Paul Coffey’s most famous play in this international tournament took place in Calgary, where he broke up a 2-on-1 Soviet rush in overtime in the semi-finals and parlayed it into Mike Bossy’s winner. However, the swift-skating former Kitchener Rangers defenseman also got credit for Canada’s title-clinching goal against Sweden in Game Two of the finals in Edmonton (it was actually a Tre Kronor own goal). The 6-5 win restored Canadian pride after an 8-1 loss to the Soviets in the 1981 Canada Cup final.

May 30, 1987

The Oilers dramatically reclaimed the Stanley Cup at home versus Philadelphia after being eliminated by Calgary the year before. Despite losing Game Seven 3-1, rookie Flyers goalie Ron Hextall won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. The fiery 23-year-old had originally blossomed in his native Brandon, playing three seasons with the Wheat Kings. “It’s an honour to win the Conn Smythe, but I’d trade it for the Stanley Cup anytime,” Hextall said afterwards.

May 26, 1988

A 6-3 victory over the Boston Bruins at Northlands Coliseum marked the only time Edmonton ever swept a Stanley Cup final series (although the original fourth game at Boston Garden was suspended due to a power outage). Gretzky, sporting a spiky blonde hairdo, paced the attack with a goal and two assists. His total of 31 assists set a new single-playoff record. After shockingly being traded to Los Angeles in August, the Great One would never suit up for Edmonton again.

January 1, 1995

Edmonton hosted three games at the 1995 World Juniors, including a 6-4 Canadian win over Finland on New Year’s Day. Wheat Kings ace Marty Murray led the gold-destined home team with a goal and three assists, and Jason Allison of the London Knights added four helpers. “The Finland game was great,” recalled goalie Dan Cloutier. “It was nice to see a lot of shots early to get me into it, because I was very nervous.” The Sault Ste. Marie product made 39 saves.

May 10, 2006

Is 116 decibels loud enough for you? That’s the kind of Rexall Place roar that greeted the Oilers when they hit the ice for Game Three of the Western Conference finals versus the San Jose Sharks in 2006. Edmonton triumphed 3-2 in OT, and gritty former Moose Jaw Warriors winger Ryan Smyth set up Shawn Horcoff’s winner, despite having lost three teeth earlier that night when Chris Pronger’s clearing pass hit him in the mouth.

September 20, 2007

His name is tough to spell, but it’ll live forever in Oil Kings lore. With 1.2 seconds left in regulation, J-P Szaszkiewicz gave Edmonton a 4-3 win over Kootenay in the club’s first-ever regular season home tilt. “I wasn’t even trying to score when I threw it on net,” the 19-year-old Edmonton native said about his shot from the corner. “It wasn’t pretty, but I’ll take it.” If the Oil Kings follow the template of Memorial Cup-winning WHL expansion franchises like Kootenay and Vancouver, many more victories could be in store.

Don’t Try This at Home

Not every moment linked to Rexall Place has been glorious.

In 1986, Steve Smith (ex-London Knights) accidentally scored in his own net in Game Seven of the Smythe Division finals, enabling the Calgary Flames to eliminate the Oilers.

Former Oilers owner Peter Pocklington had his father’s name engraved on the Stanley Cup after Edmonton won in 1984, even though Basil Pocklington wasn’t associated with the team. The name was later crossed out with a row of X’s.

Oilers fan Raymond Howarth was jailed for 30 days, fined for $1000, and banned from the arena for five years after dumping beer on Flames assistant coach Guy Lapointe during the 1996-97 season. Digg it Furl iFeedReaders Netscape RawSugar reddit StumbleUpon Yahoo MyWeb YardBarker

Leave a Reply