April 6 marks the fifth anniversary of the Edmonton Oilers’ last game at Northlands Coliseum.
That night, a rookie named Connor McDavid scored twice and had a pair of assists as the Oilers skated past the Vancouver Canucks 6-2, before a spectacular post-game ceremony involving some 150 former Oilers that provided Edmonton fans one last memory at the old barn.
Northlands Coliseum opened in 1974 when the Oilers were part of the World Hockey Association. Over the years it would be known as Edmonton Coliseum, Skyreach Centre and Rexall Place, before returning to its original name. The Oilers were it’s constant.
Few National Hockey League arenas played host to as much history: four Stanley Cup-clinching games; seven jersey retirement ceremonies; too many record-setting performances to count.
To even attempt ranking moments at the Coliseum is a fool’s errand. So what follows is not a “greatest” or “most memorable” list. One of these moments might be your all-time favorite; another might not even be in your Top 99. But in their own right all are great, memorable, and part of the story of the Coliseum and those who made history there.
50 in 39
Oilers vs. Philadelphia Flyers
December 30, 1981
Of all Wayne Gretzky’s records, the one many consider most untouchable is the fewest number of games to score 50 goals.
Gretzky entered the 39th game of the 1981-82 season, against Philadelphia, with 45 goals. To that point, only Mike Bossy and Maurice Richard had scored 50 times in 50 games. No one had done it in fewer than 50 games, let alone 40.
The Great One had a pair of goals in the first period, notched his hat trick goal in the second period, then scored early in the third. Gretzky’s fourth goal had given Edmonton a 6-3 lead, but the Flyers scored twice to make it 6-5. Pressing for the tie in the final moments of the game, Philadelphia pulled goaltender Pete Peeters for an extra attacker.
With less than 10 seconds remaining, Philadelphia’s Jimmy Watson put the puck in front of the Oilers net, where it ended up on the stick of Oilers forward Glenn Anderson. He quickly passed to Gretzky, who took the puck in full stride across the Edmonton blueline. Gretzky made a move on the lone Flyer back, Ron Flockhart, and from just outside the Philly blueline shot the puck into the yawning cage, scoring No. 50 with just 3 seconds remaining.
The Coliseum erupted. Edmonton’s bench emptied as Gretzky’s teammates mobbed No. 99 on the ice. Fans littered the ice a random assortment of items (whatever was available – after all, they’d already tossed their hats earlier in the game), and gave a standing ovation that continued for minutes, through the subsequent face-off and end of the game.
Gretzky went on to score 92 goals in 80 games in 1981-82, setting the record for most goals in a season.
The 50-in-50 feat has since been achieved five more times: Gretzky in 1983-84 (reaching 50 goals in 42 games) and 1984-85 (49 games); Mario Lemieux in 1988-89 (46 games); and Brett Hull in 1990-91 (49 games) and 1991-92 (50 games). Gretzky has said this is the record most special to him.
There’s a New Bunch on the Block
Oilers vs. New York Islanders
May 19, 1984
In the spring of 1983, the Oilers swept the Chicago Black Hawks in the Campbell Conference final advance to advance to their first Stanley Cup championship series in just the team’s fourth NHL season. They were cruising, having won three series while losing just one game in the post-season. And then they ran into a buzzsaw.
The three-time reigning champion New York Islanders destroyed the kids, dispatching them in four games. On their way to the final, the Oilers had scored at least six goals in seven of 12 playoff games. Against the Isles, Edmonton scored six times in the entire series. Essentially, experience trumped youth.
By the time the rematch rolled around, 12 months later in the 1984 Stanley Cup final, the youth had gained experience, and experience had gained years.
The Oilers earned a split from the first two games on Long Island, then blasted the Isles by identical 7-2 scores in Games 3 and 4 to take a 3-1 series lead into Game 5.
Right from puck drop, the crowd was at a fever pitch. Gretzky scored twice in the first period and Edmonton would surge to a 4-0 lead before the second period was five minutes old. Pat Lafontaine had goals 22 seconds apart in the opening minute of the third period to pull the Isles within two before Oilers goalie Andy Moog shut the door. Dave Lumley’s empty net with 17 seconds remaining made it 5-2, and as the final seconds ticked away, Hockey Night In Canada’s Bob Cole announced it to the world:
“Folks, there’s a new bunch on the block in the National Hockey League. The Edmonton Oilers, by name. The Oilers have won the Stanley Cup.”
They were all over the ice: players and coaches, staff and media – plus a bunch of fans, but no one – including, apparently, security – seemed to mind; this was a communal victory (this was also a much different time). NHL president John Zeigler presented captain Gretzky with the Cup; Mark Messier was announced as Conn Smythe Trophy winner.
The party went into the night and just kept going. In 2014, all 25 members of the Stanley Cup-winning team returned to the Coliseum for a 30th anniversary reunion celebration.
This would be the first of four Stanley Cup wins at the Coliseum for the Oilers. Only the team’s fifth championship came on the road, at the historic Boston Garden in 1990.
The Great One Becomes the Greatest
Oilers vs. Los Angeles Kings
October 15, 1989
Gretzky headed into the 1989-90 season, his second after being traded to the Los Angeles Kings, needing just 14 points to break Gordie Howe’s all-time record of 1,850. At that point in time, he was putting up 14 points every six or seven games.
Anyone who saw him play knows that Gretzky had incredible timing, so when it was announced that Game No. 6 on the Kings schedule was in Edmonton, the city Gretzky had put on the map, you just knew how this story would go.
Gretzky set skate upon his old Northlands stomping grounds on Oct. 15, 1989, with 12 points that season and 1,849 for his career. Howe, who had been traveling with the Kings during Gretzky’s record pursuit, was in the building, along with 17,053 fans who had come to see history. And it was all of two shifts before Gretzky tied Mr. Hockey’s record, picking up point No. 1,850 with an assist on Bernie Nicholls goal 4:32 into the game.
But Gretzky was held off the scoresheet the rest of the first period, and all of the second period, too. He was still stuck on 1,850 points when Kevin Lowe scored late in the third to give the Oilers a 4-3 lead, and for a moment or two, it appeared Gretzky might not actually do it on this night. But of course, he would.
With just under a minute remaining, Kings defenseman Steve Duchesne knocked down Lowe’s clearing attempt at the Oilers blueline and fired the puck towards the net where it bounced off L.A.’s Dave Taylor and right onto the stick of Gretzky, who back-handed the biscuit past Edmonton goalie Bill Ranford at 19:07 of the third period.
The crowd came to its feet, the loudest reaction you’ll hear to the opposition scoring. After a lengthy ovation, the game was unprecedentedly halted for a 15-minute ceremony celebrating the fresh record. Gretzky received a silver tray from the NHL, a crystal hologram from the Kings, and from the Oilers a gold bracelet encrusted with 1.851 carats of diamonds, presented by Messier who warmly embraced his best friend and predecessor as Oilers captain. There was a speech by Howe, followed by Gretzky, who had to wait for the fans to stop chanting his name before he could speak.
While by this point it had been rendered completely anticlimactic, there was still a game to be completed. After action finally resumed, the teams went to overtime, tied 4-4, where – who else – No. 99 scored the winning goal.
When he retired almost a decade later, Gretzky had amassed an untouchable 2,857 points. Two more players would eventually pass Howe: Messier, who finished with 1,887 points, and Jaromir Jagr, who is second all-time with 1,921 points, 936 behind The Great One.
Worth the Wait (Part 1)
Oilers vs. Dallas Stars
April 20, 1997
1,794 days. Just over 256 weeks. Nearly 59 months.
That’s how long it had been since the last NHL playoff game at the Coliseum, when the Oilers took the ice to take on the Stars in Game 3 of their Western Conference quarterfinal on April 20, 1997. Long enough for the joint to change its name (from “Northlands” to “Edmonton” Coliseum). So long that the team had changed its look (a modernized logo and uniform set).
Back in the post-season for the first time since 1992, the Oilers had split the first two games of the series in Dallas, and were now back home looking to take a 2-1 lead in front of a rabid crowd starved for springtime hockey.
The Stars promptly killed the mood, going ahead 1-0 less than five minutes into the game. Dallas added goals late in the first period and midway through the second period to lead 3-0.
That score stood until four minutes remained in the third period, when Doug Weight spoiled the shutout bid of Stars netminder Moog, putting the puck behind the one-time Oiler to make it 3-1 and wake the crowd up. Then Dallas defenceman Sergei Zubov took an interference penalty, and Edmonton’s Andrei Kovalenko capitalized with a power-play goal at 17:44. Suddenly it was 3-2. Twelve seconds later, Oilers rookie Mike Grier scored and before anyone could comprehend what was happening, the score was tied and the place is going nuts.
The game went to overtime, with both teams trading great chances until captain Kelly Buchberger, off of a nifty drop-pass from Mats Lindgren, beat Moog 9:15 into sudden-death, sending the Coliseum into a state of rapture, five years in the making.
It ranks as one of the greatest comebacks in history. So captivating is the scene at the Coliseum that after watching on TV, Messier, then captain of the New York Rangers and six years removed from his last game as an Oiler, phones into the Edmonton locker room to congratulate his old teammate.
“Bucky, it’s Mess. What a comeback. I had to call. Way to be buddy. You stole my shot on that winner.”(From “Oilers Never Say Die”, Edmonton Journal, 04/21/97)
Edmonton would go on to win the series 4-3, with Todd Marchant scoring one of the most famous goals in Oilers history, in overtime of Game 7.
Worth the Wait (Part 2)
Oilers vs. Carolina Hurricanes
June 10, 2006
If that wait for the playoffs sounded long, it was nothing compared to the length between Stanley Cup games at the Coliseum.
After more than 16 years, the championship final returned to Edmonton on June 10, 2006, when the Oilers hosted Carolina for Game 3 of the series, trailing 2-0.
The Oilers had gone on a Cinderella run that spring. Entering the postseason as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, Edmonton knocked off the President’s Trophy-winning Detroit Red Wings in the first round, then defeated the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Mighty Ducks to reach their first NHL final since capturing Cup No. 5 in 1990.
The Alberta Capital was awash in Oilers fever; for a generation of fans, this was their first chance to experience what their parents had always spoken of but they could barely imagine. And older fans that were spoiled during the 80s glory years were so much more appreciative of the experience, knowing it was something rare not to be taken for granted.
All that joy flooded the Coliseum, juxtaposed with the sobering fact that the home team was already down two games and a loss on this night could bring a quick end to the party.
With urgency befitting, the Oilers stormed out of the gate as Shawn Horcoff scored just 2:31 into the game to put the home team in front early. Edmonton’s lead stood for nearly two and a half periods before Carolina’s Rod Brind’Amour tied the game 1-1 midway through the third, and suddenly the Oilers were in desperation mode again.
Leave it to Ryan Smyth, the toothy (he’d lost three of them earlier in the 2006 post-season) face of that Oilers era, to save the day as only he could.
With just over two minutes remaining, Smyth crashed the Hurricanes net while Edmonton’s Ales Hemsky fired a shot on Carolina goalie Cam Ward. The rebound appeared to deflect off Smyth’s chest and his stick’s shaft into the back of the net. After an officials’ review, the goal stood, and so would the lead for the Oilers, who went on to win the game 2-1 and make the series 2-1.
While Carolina ultimately captured the Cup in seven games, the Oilers’ 2006 run was a generational event in Edmonton; The Oilers won as many series in that single post-season as they have in all other years combined since 1993.
The ceremony following the final game in April 2016 ended with the lowering of a farewell banner that Gretzky and Messier handed to the late Joey Moss. The beloved Oilers locker room attendant, who passed away last year, carried it off the ice to tremendous applause.
Since 2016-17, the Oilers have called Rogers Place in downtown Edmonton home. Northlands Coliseum closed on Jan. 1, 2018, and seemed destined for demolition, but nearly three and a half years later, it’s still standing; in November, Edmonton city council voted to delay its demolishing and explore re-purposing options.
But regardless of whether the old barn survives, its memories will never die.
What are your favourite Northlands Coliseum memories? Leave a comment below!
Brian is an Edmonton-based sports writer and broadcaster. His experience includes working as a sports reporter for the Edmonton Sun, where he covered the Edmonton Oil Kings 2013-14 Memorial Cup championship season.