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End of an era: Northlands Coliseum will soon be no more

Longtime Edmonton sportscaster Bryan Hall, 'Hallsy', waxes nostalgic about the importance of the memory-filled building.

The Coliseum is now officially closed and locked up. It’s slated for demolition, starting in 2025. Anything that can be recycled is being collected before the building is torn down. The seats have already been removed, some taken by long-time Oilers season ticket holders. The massive scoreboard is no longer suspended above what was centre ice. The Oilers' dressing room is empty; the lockers long removed. A few old concert posters still hang on the walls of the concourse, harkening back to the music of decades past.

Bryan Hall was broadcasting in Edmonton long before the Northlands Coliseum was built in the 1970s. But as he recalls, the arena was pivotal to Edmonton’s golden era as a sports city and shares about the cagey ruse that was used to get the facility built.

That's one way to get a new arena 

Hall, known by his peers simply as “Hallsy,” remembers when the World Hockey Association (WHA) was formed in 1972 and league founders recruited local hockey legend “Wild Bill” Hunter to help build the fledgling organization. The result was a newly minted Edmonton Oilers being one of the initial twelve teams in the WHA.

At the time, it looked like the Oilers would have to play out of the Edmonton Gardens which, despite a million-dollar renovation, still was inadequate for a professional hockey team. A new arena was needed.

According to Hall, that’s when Bill Hunter and Edmonton Eskimos general manager Norm Kimball concocted a story to get the ball rolling on a new sports facility.

“They started a rumour that there was going to be a big complex built that would involve a hotel, an arena and a football stadium; a massive development east of Labatt’s Brewery around Argyll Road and 99th street," said Hall, adding execs with the Edmonton Exhibition Association got wind of the idea and became worried the fictional new sports complex would be a disaster for the Association's operations in the city's northeast. They concluded they'd better build a new arena, and fast.

“Well, it takes time for architect's drawings, right?” said Hall. “What did they do instead? They went and grabbed the plans of the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver.”

The new Edmonton Coliseum went up in record time and was finished just ahead of the Oilers’ opening game on November 10, 1974, against the Cleveland Crusaders.

A golden era for Edmonton as a great sports city

Hall says looking back, the building and opening of the Coliseum was pivotal in Edmonton’s development as a city. He credits the success of building the Coliseum and getting the Oilers in the WHA with encouraging community leaders to seek the Commonwealth Games, which the city hosted in 1978 and led to construction of Commonwealth Stadium.

From Hall’s perspective, these events heralded a golden era for Edmonton as a great sports city.

“There was so much going on. We had Triple A baseball. We had auto racing. We had Speedway Park and Formula One happening here. It wasn’t just hockey. It was a vibrant, alive city.” For Hall, the 1970s were ‘the glory years.’

“Horse racing was fantastic. We had a lot of million-dollar days at the races. I know. I was there calling the races for ten years--the decade of the seventies.," he said. And, for Hall, it all comes back to the Coliseum.

“Building the Coliseum gave us an entry to the Big Time, to the Big Leagues: You have to have the facility," he added. "It was the key that turned the lock that opened the door to the Big Time. That’s what it was. There was so much that happened because of that Coliseum being built.”

The Big Time included the Edmonton Oilers moving into the National Hockey League (NHL) and winning five Stanley Cups between 1984 and 1990. The Coliseum also hosted such major events as the Canada Cup tournament, both the Canadian and the World Figure Skating Championships, the World Junior Hockey Championships, the World Curling Championships, Davis Cup tennis, as well as a multitude of major entertainment acts.

Even good things must come to an end

Eventually and inevitably, the Coliseum reached its ‘best before’ date. The arena came to be considered too small and out-of-date for a modern NHL venue. By 2010, the Oilers’ owners, the Katz Group, were proposing a new arena. The new Rogers Place arena in downtown Edmonton opened in September 2016. The Coliseum finally closed in 2017 and last December City Council voted to demolish the building.

Today, the Coliseum is home to populations of mice, pigeons and bats. To walk through the building, and to stare up into its darkened dome, is to feel that it is haunted. And, if one listens closely, it’s even possible to hear the faint roar of full-throated fans in days gone by, wildly cheering on their hockey heroes. As Hallsy says, it was a golden age.