Saturday, November 22, 2014

How to Be a Devils Fan In Edmonton


The Devils continued their Western roadtrip last night in Edmonton, beating the Oilers. Although they've reached the Stanley Cup Finals just once since 1990, they will forever be remembered as the team that Wayne Gretzky took into the Meadowlands early in the 1983-84 season, the Devils' 2nd season, and pounded us 13-4, and Gretzky then called us "a Mickey Mouse operation." (This, from a guy who hadn't won a Stanley Cup yet. True, he then won 4 in 5 years, but since 1988, as player, coach and owner, the total is Devils 3, Gretzky 0.)

This time, I didn't even get the Trip Guide finished before the game in question ended. For shame. Once again, I apologize, and hope I will get it done on time next year.

Before You Go. At 53 degrees, 34 minutes North latitude, Edmonton has the northernmost major league sports venue in North America's 4 major sports leagues. And this is late November. It will be cold. The Edmonton Sun is predicting that temperatures will be in the low 20s by day and the mid-teens by night. Bundle up.

This is Canada, so you will need your passport. You will need to change your money. At this writing, C$1.00 = US$1.12, and US$1.00 = C 89 cents. And I advise you to call your bank and let them know that you will be in a foreign country, so they won't see credit or debit card purchases from a foreign country pop up and think your card has been stolen.

Also, remember that they use the metric system. A speed limit of 100 kilometers per hour means 62 miles an hour. And don't be fooled by the seemingly low gas prices: That's per liter, not per gallon, and, in spite of Canada being a major oil-producing nation, you'll actually be paying more for gas up there. So, in order to avoid both confusion and "sticker-shock," get your car filled up before you reach the border.

Edmonton is in the Mountain Time Zone, so they are 2 hours behind New York and New Jersey. Adjust your timepieces accordingly.

Tickets. The Oilers averaged 16,828 fans per home game last season, just short of a sellout. As you might expect from not just a Canadian city, but perhaps the most hockey-mad city west of Toronto (and, yes, I'm including Detroit, America's "Hockeytown"). This is the hometown of Mark Messier and Ken Daneyko.

Oilers tickets are expensive. Seats in the lower level, the 100 sections, are $301 between the goals and $192 behind them. In the upper level, the 200 sections, they're $99. One side of the rink has another level above that, the 300 sections, where tickets are $67. And since that comes from ticketmaster.ca, that's probably in Canadian dollars so they're probably even more expensive to us than that.

Getting There. Once again, I apologize for being too late for this category for this season.

It's 2,409 miles from the Prudential Center in Newark to Rexall Place in Edmonton. Even if I weren't so late in posting this, your first thought would be to fly.

You'll need to get into New Jersey, and take Interstate 80 West. You'll be on I-80 for the vast majority of the trip, through New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio. In Ohio, in the western suburbs of Cleveland, I-80 will merge with Interstate 90. From this point onward, you won’t need to think about I-80 until you head home; I-90 is now the key, through the rest of Ohio and Indiana.

Just outside Chicago, I-80 will split off from I-90, which you will keep, until it merges with Interstate 94. For the moment, though, you will ignore I-94. Stay on I-90 through Illinois, until reaching Madison, Wisconsin, where you will once again merge with I-94. Now, I-94 is what you want, taking it into Minnesota and the Twin Cities.

However, unless you want to make a rest stop actually in Minneapolis or St. Paul, you're going to bypass them entirely. Take Exit 249 to get on Interstate 694, the Twin Cities' beltway, until you merge with Interstate 494 to reform I-94. Crossing Minnesota into North Dakota, you'll take Exit 256 to U.S. Route 52 West, and take that up to the Canadian border.

Presuming you don't do anything stupid that makes Customs officials keep you out of Canada, U.S. 52 will continue as Saskatchewan Provincial Route 39. At Weyburn, you'll turn right on Provincial Route 35. At Francis, you'll turn left on Provincial Route 33. At the Provincial Capital of Regina, you'll take the Trans-Canada Highway, which you'll take to Provincial Route 11. Stay on that after it becomes Provincial Route 16. At Saskatoon, follow the signs to stay on Route 16, and take that into Alberta, where it will remain Provincial Route 16. Take Exit 392 onto Wayne Gretzky Drive. From there, it's a mile to the arena.

If you do it right, you should spend about an hour and a half in New Jersey, 5 hours and 15 minutes in Pennsylvania, 4 hours in Ohio, 2 and a half hours in Indiana, an hour and a half in Illinois, 2 and a half hours in Wisconsin, 4 and a half hours in Minnesota, 6 hours in North Dakota, 13 and a half hours in Saskatchewan (believe it, it's over 800 miles), and 4 hours in Alberta. That's 45 hours and 15 minutes. Throw in rest stops, and we're talking closer to 62 hours -- 2 and a half days. You'd have to really love both driving and hockey, and not mind cold weather, to do that.

So, let's suppose, just for the hell of it, that I was writing this with 6 days to spare, last Saturday, and not a day late, this Saturday...

Taking Greyhound takes 64 hours, and you have to transfer in Toronto and Winnipeg. Round-trip fare is $673. The Greyhound station is at 10324 103rd Street NW at 104th Avenue. The Edmonton station for VIA Rail Canada is at 12360 121st Street NW, and this would be your schedule:

Leave New York 7:15 AM Tuesday
Arrive Toronto 7:42 PM Tuesday (2 hour, 18 minute layover)
Leave Toronto 10:00 PM Tuesday
Arrive Edmonton 6:22 AM Friday
Game in Edmonton 7:30 PM Friday
Game ends around 10:00 PM Friday (2 hours to make train)
Leave Edmonton 11:59 PM Friday
Arrive Toronto 9:30 AM Monday (22 hour, 50 minute layover)
Leave Toronto 8:20 AM Tuesday
Arrive New York 9:45 PM Tuesday

NY-TOR US$252
TOR-WIN C$782, or US$696

So the total fare would be $948. For a trip lasting 7 1/2 days. No, the train is no good.

So flying is easily the best way to get there. You can fly Air Canada from Newark to Edmonton and back, changing lanes in Toronto, for $1,130.

Once In the City. Located on the Saskatchewan River, Fort Edmonton, a fur-trading post, was founded in 1795, but not incorporated until 1892, making it the youngest city in all of North American major league sports. (The youngest of the U.S. cities with at least 2 teams is Phoenix, 1881.) Named for a village in England's historic county of Middlesex (now a part of North London), the name meaning Eadhelm's Town, Alberta's capital and 2nd-largest city has over 810,000 people, but adding the suburbs only makes it 1.1 million -- a familiar pattern in Canada, except for its big 3 cities of Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

Edmonton has East-West numbered Avenues and North-South numbered Streets -- the exact opposite of Manhattan. Anthony Henday Drive (named for an English explorer of Western Canada, effectively Canada's "Lewis & Clark") divides the city into North and South. But while there are streets with NW and SW suffixes, there's no NE and SE. And the Alberta Legislature Building, roughly the focal point of the city, is at 97th Avenue NW and 107th Street NW. Go figure. That's like if New York City had the same street grid, but City Hall were at the Willowbrook Mall in Wayne.

The sales tax in the Province of Alberta is 5 percent, and it doesn't go up in the City of Edmonton. The city has buses and light rail, and a single fare is $3.20 (which works out to about $2.94, so it's more expensive than New York's).

Going In. Built in 1975 as the Northlands Coliseum, Rexall Place is, like Commonwealth Stadium, northeast of downtown. The 501 light rail goes from Grandin Station to Coliseum Station, and takes 17 minutes. The address is 7424 118th Avenue at 73rd Street NW. Edmonton EXPO Center at Northlands is across 118th Avenue. If you drove in, parking is C$15.

The Blue Mile or the Copper Kilometre is the name given by the local media to the Old Strathcona District's Whyte Avenue during the 2006 Stanley Cup Playoff run, since it closely resembled the events which took place on the Red Mile of arch-rival Calgary 2 years earlier. Following the Oilers' upset victory over the Detroit Red Wings in the 1st round, several thousand Oiler fans flocked to Whyte Avenue and turned the district into a hockey party strip, walking the streets cheering, chanting, high-fiving, horn-honking, and flag-waving for their team. Others surfed the crowd in a grocery-shopping cart, and still others climbed trees and traffic lights.

The rink is laid out east-to-west. The Oilers attack twice toward the east end.

Food. In 2010, Rexall Place -- kind of ironic for a place named after a drugstore -- was cited for multiple health code violations, making it the unhealthiest sports venue in Canada, and possibly in all of North America. (I guess the inspectors have never had the hot dogs at RFK Stadium.)

So, if you dare, the arena website makes these suggestions:

Rexall Place food finders are located at our guest services and food services locations. Concession items include:
  • Chili dog/classic dog
  • Steak burger/ Bacon cheese burger
  • Chicken tenders
  • BBQ Pork sandwich
  • Boston Pizza
  • Perogies
  • Popcorn/pretzels/nachos
  • Fries/onion rings
Additional outlets include: Starbucks- located between NE and NW doors on the main concourse Chef’s corner- located on level 4 North behind section 214 Availability of concessions and outlets varies per event. Cash or credit cards are accepted at all concession stands.

Team History Displays. The Oilers have won 5 Stanley Cups, and reached the Stanley Cup Finals 7 times, winning in 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988 and 1990, and losing in 1983 and 2006. They've won the President's Trophy for best overall record in the regular season in 1984, 1986 and 1987, and 9 Division Championships: 1979 (the last season of the WHA), 1983, 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988, 1990, 1991 and 1992.

The Cup win banners are white with black lettering, the Conference and Division title banners are orange with blue lettering, and the President's Trophy banners are blue with white lettering. The banners are arranged in chronological order, not by type and then by chronology. This makes for a weird color pattern, but it's 24 banners, which is a lot, considering they didn't win their 1st until 1979.

The Oilers have 8 retired number banners at the opposite end. They are arranged as follows: 3, WHA-era defenseman Al Hamilton; 99, center Wayne Gretzky; 17, right wing Jari Kurri; 31, goaltender Grant Fuhr; 7, defenseman Paul Coffey; 11, left wing Mark Messier; 9, right wing Glenn Anderson; and 3,542, for the number of games broadcast by Rod Phillips from 1973 until his retirement in 2011. Hamilton, an original 1972-73 Alberta Oilers (the name was changed to reflect the city instead of the Province after the 1st season), is the only one of these that did not play on a Cup winner.

A statue of Wayne Gretzky holding up the Stanley Cup is outside the arena. The highway to the east of the arena, Fort Road outside of the arena's vicinity, is Wayne Gretzky Drive.

Stuff. Again, from the arena website:

Rexall Place has many points of sale at which you may purchase merchandise at an event. For Edmonton Oilers games you may visit any of the Oilers Store locations- NW concourse level 3, SW concourse level 3, Level 4 south, Level 4 north and in the River Cree Club (west). For concerts or other events, please see guest services locations for the listing of merchandise locations for that event.

You would think that, having had "the greatest player in hockey history" (he wasn't: Both Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr were greater than Gretzky), there'd be a lot of books about the Oilers, especially in their glory years. Not really. No wonder Number 99 left for Hollywood: It was all about him, not the great team around him that, lest we forget, won a Cup without him in 1990 (although not since). K. Michael Gaschnitz published the not-particularly-imaginatively-titled The Edmonton Oilers in 2003.

There is a 10 Greatest Games DVD collection for the Oilers. It contains the 1984, 1985 and 1987 Stanley Cup clinchers, the 1981 game in which Gretzky reached 50 goals in only 39 games, the 1984 Finals Game 1 win that signaled the end of the Islander Dynasty, Gretzky's shorthanded overtime goal in overtime in Game 2 of the 1988 Finals, the overtime win in Game 1 of the 1990 Finals, the 1991 Game 7 Playoff win over the hated Flames, a 1997 Playoff Game 7 overtime winner over Dallas, and the franchise's last Stanley Cup Finals in, the overtime Game 5 over Carolina in 2006.

During the Game. If you were wearing a Calgary Flames jersey, you might have a problem. Maybe a Vancouver Canucks or Toronto Maple Leafs jersey. Other than that, I don't think Edmonton fans will bother you. You should be safe.

Mark Lewis has been the public-address announcer since 1981. I don't know if that makes him the longest-serving in the NHL, although with the death of Budd Lynch in Detroit, it might. He is certainly one of the most admired in the game. He, his wife, and 2 business partners own an Edmonton restaurant, Café de Ville. Also starting in 1981 was Paul Lorieau, an optician by trade, who sang the National Anthems at Oilers games. However, he retired in 2011 due to a battle with cancer, and died 2 years later.

The Oilers' goal song is "Don't Stop the Party" by Pitbull. You can't get much more of a shift in climate, at least not in North America, from Pitbull's Miami to the Oilers' Edmonton. Oilers fans don't have much in the way of chants, sticking with the easy "Let's go, Oilers!" No, they do not add, "Flames suck, Canucks swallow!" Don't give them any ideas.

Until 2010, none of the NHL's Canadian-based teams had cheerleaders/dancers/Ice Girls. That changed when the Edmonton franchise added a group called Oilers Octane. There are 19 of them, and the reaction to them has been mixed: Some fans like them, some hate the very concept and take it out on them.

After the Game. As long as you don't go out of your way to praise the Flames, you'll be safe on your way out. Edmontonians are good hockey fans, and not goons.

Just to the east of the arena, on Wayne Gretzky Drive, are the Coliseum Inn and the Flow Lounge & Grill. Other than that, unless the Edmonton EXPO Center across 118th Avenue is still open, there's not much around the arena, so your best bet may be to head back downtown.

Sidelights. If Americans know one thing about Edmonton, it's Gretzky. If they know another, it's the world's largest mall. Except it isn't the world's largest anymore. Here are some things you should know about Edmonton, especially if you're a sports fan:

* Site of Edmonton Coliseum. Edmonton's 1st arena was across 118th Avenue from the Northlands Coliseum/Rexall Place, in what's now a parking lot for the Edmonton EXPO Center. It opened in 1913 and was demolished in 1982. It was home to a succession of minor league teams, including the Edmonton Oil Kings, who became and remain a farm club of the Oilers, who played their 1st 2 seasons there, 1972-74.

Despite years of complaints that it was outdated and "a disaster waiting to happen," two attempts to demolish the Coliseum by dynamite failed, and they had to use a wrecking ball. They knew how to build buildings in those days, especially sports venues.

* Rogers Place. The Oilers hope to move into a new arena, currently under construction, for the 2016-17 season. Unfazed by the fact that the Toronto Blue Jays already play in the Rogers Centre (formerly the SkyDome), and the fact that one of their big rivals, the Vancouver Canucks, already play in the Rogers Arena (formerly General Motors Place), the Oilers are calling it Rogers Place.

It will be downtown, along 104th Avenue at 103rd Street, across from the Greyhound station. A light rail station is being built to service it. So it will be much more convenient than the current arena, beyond simply being newer and more comfortable.

* Commonwealth Stadium. Not to be confused with the football stadium of the same name at the University of Kentucky, this stadium was built to host the 1978 Commonwealth Games, the British Commonwealth's sub-Olympic Games. (Previously known as the Empire Games, and Vancouver's old Empire Stadium was built for them.) Having once had a capacity of over 60,000, it's now at 56,302.

The Canadian Football League's Edmonton Eskimos have played here since it opened, and have won 9 Grey Cups, the CFL's Super Bowl, since moving in: 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982, 1987, 1993, 2003 and 2005. Yes, they won 5 straight, led by quarterback Warren Moon. Yes, that Warren Moon. It's "the Pro Football Hall of Fame," not "the National Football League Hall of Fame."

The Grey Cup has been played there 4 times: In 1984, 1997, 2002 and 2010. Like the Super Bowl, its site is chosen in advance, in the hope of getting a neutral site; but, having only 9 teams, the chance of a host team playing in it is a lot higher than in the Super Bowl. The Eskimos have hosted it, in 2002, but lost to Montreal. Edmonton also hosted Montreal in a hockey doubleheader at Commonwealth Stadium, the NHL's 1st outdoor game, preceded by an old-timers' game between the 1980s Oilers and the 1970s Canadiens -- 11 Stanley Cups between them. The Oilers won the old-timers' game, but the Canadiens won the regular game, best remembered for Montreal goalie Jose Theodore wearing a "toque," or a ski cap, with a Canadiens over his regulation helmet. (Apparently, he checked with the NHL office, and was allowed to wear it during a game.)

The Edmonton Drillers of the old North American Soccer League played there, and FC Edmonton now uses it for games that exceed the capacity of Clarke Stadium. It will be one of those venues for Canada's hosting of the 2015 Women's World Cup. 11000 Stadium Road, at 112th Avenue. Stadium station on the light rail.

* Clarke Stadium. Built in 1938, this was the first home of the Eskimos, from 1946 to 1977. They won 4 Grey Cups here: 1954, 1955, 1956 and 1975. So they won the 1st 3 Grey Cups after the CFL was founded, and the 1st 5 after they moved next-door into Commonwealth Stadium.

The original stadium was demolished, and a much smaller stadium, with 6,000 seats, was built on the site. FC Edmonton of the new North American Soccer League uses it for most home games, but would likely have to use Commonwealth if they want to think about moving up to Major League Soccer.

* Telus Field. This 10,000-seat ballpark, named for Canada's largest phone company, opened in 1995, for the Edmonton Trappers of the Pacific Coast League. However, it has been without a permanent tenant since the close of the 2011 season. 10233 96th Avenue at Rossdale Road, at the southern edge of downtown, east of the Legislature. Number 9 bus.

* Old Strathcona. Once the commercial core of the separate city of Strathcona, the area is now Edmonton's main arts and entertainment district, as well as a local shopping hub for local residents and students at the nearby University of Alberta. Many of the area's businesses are owner-operated, but chains have also made inroads in the neighborhood. A good proportion of Edmonton's theaters and live-performance venues are also located in the area. The district centres on Whyte Avenue, formerly 82nd Avenue.

* West Edmonton Mall. From 1981 until 2004, this was the largest shopping mall in the world. It's still the largest in North America, ahead of even the Mall of America outside Minneapolis. It includes theme parks Galaxyland, World Waterpark, Sea Lions Park and an NHL-sized rink called the Ice Palace. The Oilers previously used it as a practice facility. 8882 170th Street NW.

Edmonton is not big on skyscrapers: The 15 tallest buildings in Alberta are all in Calgary. The tallest building in Edmonton is the EPCOR Tower, at 10423 101st Street NW ad 103rd Avenue, and it isn't even 500 feet tall (490). Nor is the city big on museums: The most notable is the Royal Alberta Museum, the city's version of New York's American Museum of Natural History, at 12845 102nd Avenue at 129th Street.

Edmonton has never produced a Prime Minister. The Province of Alberta has, 3 of them. But 2, R.B. Bennett in the 1930s and Stephen Harper currently, represented ridings in Calgary, and Joe Clark was from Yellowhead, in the western part of the Province. So there's no historic site relating to any of them anywhere near Edmonton.

There have been a few movies with scenes shot in Edmonton, including the Ginger Snaps films and Good Luck Chuck. I didn't say good movies... (Even Jessica Alba couldn't save the latter.) And any TV shows set there would be shown on Canadian TV only, and would be unfamiliar to U.S. audiences.

*

Edmonton has hockey, a big mall, and the Royal Alberta Museum. That's about it. Maybe next year, I can get this essay updated in time for you to take a look.

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