Should We Preserve The Shrines?

For fans, sports is about shared memories, where beloved teams and players make history. But with many buildings and stadiums now gone, Edmonton is lucky to still enjoy Rexall Place, at least for now.

Andy Grabia
5 min readMar 19, 2024
Construction of the Edmonton Northlands Coliseum, 1975. Image via the Provincial Archives of Alberta.

On May 5, 1999, I had the pleasure of seeing a baseball game at Fenway Park. The Sox got beat up, some college students near to me got arrested and thrown out for celebrating Cinco de Mayo a bit too thoroughly, and the men’s bathroom looked like something out of the movie Trainspotting. It should have been a rough day.

It wasn’t. I was at Fenway Park, and I was in awe. “The best part of Fenway Park, however, remains its history,” ESPN writer Jim Caple wrote last year, in an article comparing the improved Fenway Park and the soon to be demolished Yankee Stadium. “You just can’t replace that type of history, no matter how much money you squeeze out of the taxpayers and tourists renting cars. It’s just a shame the Yankees didn’t realize that. Frankly, any stadium in which the Babe hit a home run should be protected by federal statute.”

Such protection should have also been afforded to Ebbets Field, former home of Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers. I’ll never be able to step foot in the stadium where Robinson played baseball. I’ll never be able to point out to my son the home base he stole on Warren Spahn in 1948, or the green grass on which he first integrated black and white in 1947. Ebbets Field was demolished in February of 1960; all that remains now is a plaque and some run-down apartment buildings.

It’s the same for fans looking to visit or attend games at historic NHL stadiums. The fact of the matter is that you can walk into very few arenas in the NHL today and instantly be a part of history. NHL teams, for the most part, have destroyed or abandoned their built heritage. The Stanley Cup has been awarded seventy-nine times to eighteen different teams since the 1926–1927 season. Yet, sadly, most of those Stanley Cups have been won in arenas that have either been demolished or are no longer in use by NHL teams. Sixty-one of seventy-nine Stanley Cups, or 77%, to be exact.

A fan can’t visit the stadiums where Howie Morenz, Jean Beliveau, Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr, King Clancy, Bobby Hull, Gump Worsley, Marcel Dionne, Gilbert Perrault, or Bobby Clarke played their home games. Those cathedrals are empty, otherwise occupied, or long, long gone. A fan can’t walk into the Montreal Forum and imagine the atmosphere on March 17th, 1955, the night of the Richard Riot. Nor can he walk into Boston Garden and picture May 10th, 1970, when Bobby Orr scored an overtime goal on Glenn Hall, giving the Bruins the Cup. Opportunities like that are no longer available to fans in the majority of NHL cities.

But it can still be done in Edmonton. In Edmonton, you can walk up to the arena knowing that within those walls the last hockey dynasty was born, out of the ashes of another. The Oilers have won five Stanley Cups in seven appearances, and four of those Stanley Cup wins came at Northlands Coliseum, now Rexall Place. Twenty Stanley Cup Finals games have been played at Rexall Place, the most of any active arena in the NHL.

In Edmonton, you can look at the Stanley Cup, President’s Trophy, Smythe Division, Campbell Conference and Western Conference banners hanging from the rafters and know that they were actually earned on the ice below.

You can stand in the arena where a young Wayne Gretzky scored his 50th goal in his 39th game, blowing away a record previously set by Maurice Richard. Or where, Gretzky, then a member of the Los Angeles Kings, scored his 1,851 career point, breaking the all-time record set by Gordie Howe.

You can sit in the stadium where Glen Sather and Badger Bob Johnson would scream at each other during heated Battle of Alberta contests. You can walk around the arena where Glenn Anderson would drive to the net on Billy Smith, who would then slash him with his lumber.

You can lean over and talk to a season-ticket holder who has been in the exact same seat for twenty-five years, and she’ll tell you about the infamous 1984 Canada Cup round-robin game between Team Canada and Team U.S.S.R., when Mark Messier rearranged with his elbow the face of Vldimir Kovin.

You can hear, if you listen, the unaccompanied Rexall crowd sing the Canadian national anthem before Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals in 2006.

You can show your daughter the retired numbers up above, and tell them that Gretzky, Messier, Kurri, Coffey and Fuhr became Hall of Famers right there, right there, in front of an admiring audience’s eyes.

You can drive up Wayne Gretzky Drive happily, knowing that at its end is sacred, and holy, ground.

You can do all that at Rexall Place, in Edmonton. For now.

It’s funny that, in a city so proud of its hockey traditions, a city that mythologizes its hockey history, there has been so little talk about preserving a building precisely because it is where some of the game’s greatest moments have occurred.

Some will say that we should just move on, that fresh memories will be made in a new, improved, and therefore better, facility.

Yet looking at how few of the old arenas still exist, at all the ghosts that have been exorcised and all the memories that have been exploded, I can’t help but feel that we as a city have an obligation to ourselves, as well as to the game, to find a way to keep our team playing in that stadium.

So much of the value in sport is tied into its ability to create history, generate nostalgia, and form traditions. So much of its value is in connecting generations through a shared, and common, experience. That value should be promoted and protected. Are any of us really keen on staring at a plaque or a dilapidated building, twenty years from now, and saying to our children or grandchildren, “this used to be The Rink That Gretzky Built?”

Active NHL Arenas That Have Hosted a Stanley Cup Win

Rexall Place (1984, 1985, 1987, 1988)

Nassau Coliseum (1980, 1981, 1983)

Madison Square Garden IV (1972, 1994)

Joe Louis Arena (1997, 2002)

Pengrowth Saddledome (1986)

Verizon Center (1998)

HSBC Center (1999)

Pepsi Center (2001)

St. Pete Times Forum (2004)

RBC Center (2006)

Honda Center/ Pond (2007)

Originally published in the Edmonton Journal on January 19, 2008. Based on a blog post from The Battle of Alberta, posted on January 9, 2008.