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A night out at Rexall Place

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Maybe it was the renewed intimacy of sitting in the lower bowl, but last night's experience at the good old hockey game seemed a little richer and more intense than usual. My detailed game report focussed on the action between the boards, but my night out at the ol' Coliseum encompassed much more.

I dropped my wife as close to the door as possible and circled 'round to the parking spot. I daresay it's not every city in the NHL where one can park for free less than 10 minutes walk from the arena. I've parked in the same spot since 1977 and never have paid a dime (though I had my tires slashed during the '87 Stanley Cup Finals). No doubt that's another of those untapped revenue streams that are driving the thirst for a new arena since there is currently something less than 100%, uh, penetration of the parking customers.

I like the old arena just fine. I've made this same walk hundreds of times, down the alley, across the field, through the bus terminal and down the stairs into the LRT station, joining the copper-and-blue-clad throngs coming off the train. Game night atmosphere grows ever more tangible: my favourite busker, the bearded guy with the wonky eye playing an Irish whistle in the tunnel; just outside the station doors the regular scalper asking his familiar "Anybody need tickets?" or "Who's got tickets?" or frequently, both. I've never once seen this dude inside the arena, but have walked by him at this spot virtually every time I've gone to an NHL game since 1979. He started out as a teenage kid and still looks young to my eye. I rejoin my bride in the lobby and into the house of hockey we go.

We've cut it a little close, so Paul Lorieau is already singing as we arrive at our section. I partake in my usual anthem custom of looking not at the flag but at the banners: the 23 championship banners directly above us, all but one of which were unfurled back in the days we had season tickets; and at the far end, the row of 7 retired numbers, all odd, of the heroes of yesteryear. This always puts me in a good headspace for the game at hand, reminding me of all the legendary hockeyists and important games I've seen over the years. Win or lose tonight, it really won't change a thing. Game on!

It's a rare weekend game -- Oilers play just 10 of their 41 home dates on a Friday or Saturday this season -- and there's a party atmosphere in the building despite the long losing streak and the hopelessness of the locals' situation. Alas, the local Hall of Famers are all enshrined in those banners, and there's nothing resembling one on the ice, at least not wearing the fabled blue-and-orange that has returned to favour in recent years. 

The visitors, the all-too-familiar rival Dallas Stars, are struggling through a losing streak of their own although their own season is not yet a write-off. Predictably both teams come out motivated, and flying. The early minutes feature a few thundering hits and soon enough, a spirited fight. Seen from the lowest vantage point (Row 13) I've had in some years -- I used to sit down here every night when tickets were less than a tenth of their current cost -- the speed, the colour, the violence, the urgency of the game all seem a little more immediate. So does the unending din emanating from the speakers and the big screen, endless product shilling passed off as "entertainment". Old fogey that I am, I long for a simpler time of less contrived cheers and fewer flashing lights; of organ music between whistles and occasional actual silences that allowed the  leatherlungs to participate directly. Those days are long gone; nowadays it seems as if the paying customers are charged by the decibel and every second must be filled with sound and fury signifying nothing. The quietest moments occur when the game is actually in progress.

Soon enough the frenetic action below results in a misplay by the local heroes and the all too familiar groan as the puck enters the net. Things go from bad to worse as the referees get involved, and voices rise in anger as the Oilers seem to be unfairly targeted. Soon that evens out, a powerplay goal scored at each end of the ice with lots of action in the process. By the end of the first it's clear we're in for a good game.

A special pleasure occurs during the intermission when I connect with two friends I've never met except as names on the Oilogosphere. Both "Woodguy" and Jordan (f.k.a "Unleaded") have read that I'm coming tonight, initiated contact, and come down to our section for a handshake and an animated discussion on the game. They feel like old friends -- we just get right into advanced hockey talk with no need for preamble.

All too soon the players return to the ice. Dallas takes the zone right in front of us, and for a time I concentrate on the visitors. The injury-depleted Oilers may have relatively few charismatic players but the Stars are chockablock with them. There's Marty Turco, accomplished goaltender and entertaining showman. Here's gritty Stephane Robidas, wearing a full cage yet again after presumably absorbing yet another bop in his battered beak; shocking to see how little this guy is (5'11, 190) for someone who is involved in more hits, give and take, than any player in the league. Over there is the former Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards of Murray Harbour, PEI, returning to form with an excellent season. On his wing, the emerging power forward James Neal is the apple of knowing eyes. And that can only be Mike Modano flying down the wing, his sweater billowing behind him à la Guy Lafleur. One of just three remaining relics of the 80s (along with Mark Recchi and Rod Brind'Amour),  Modano has achieved the rare status of a four-decade player. I think back to that night on January 2, 1980, when the extraordinary Gordie Howe officially became a FIVE-decade player in a game right in this same building. No gimmicks, either: Howe was still a legitimate player, and I remain in awe of his feats of longevity.

The game swirls on below us as described in the game report. Emotions ebb and flow as the Oilers fall two behind, then get back into the game with a beautiful goal very late in the second. The crowd seems really into it, beginning a number of spontaneous "Let's Go Oilers" chants to rally the troops. The Stars are on the ropes, tiring, relying on Turco's thumbs to plug the dyke. The minutes tick down until the Oilers pull the goalie in a final desparate act that never works any more. Tonight, unbelievably, it does, as Modano of all people accidentally kicks the puck into his own net. The crowd rises, roars; the Oilers are carrying the play, and at long last victory seems at hand. Or is it? With the score finally tied for the first time since the opening minutes, the Oilers fall apart, mess with their lines, fumble the puck, lose their man, and into the net it goes for a shocking last-minute loss. Yet another in a series of gut-wrenchers, this one was extraordinary by any standards. But the game itself has been special, with goals, great saves, and excitement right down to the last second.

I'm much more philosophical about tough losses than I once was. Defeat, no matter how painful in its moment, merely serves to reinforce how rare and precious were those other moments of ultimate victory. Joyful moments that I was lucky to experience four times in this historic building.

Much of tonight's large crowd is too young to have seen those days or to achieve such a perspective. Unlike other recent games I've attended, though, the entire audience has remained to see out this bizarre conclusion; now the mass exodus begins, people still buzzing with disbelief at the chain of events. My wife and I wait a few minutes for the crush to subside, then make our way out of the building, past my least-favourite busker (the wannabe-drummer dude with no sense of rhythm who pounds away on an improvised drum kit of plastic pails), away from the dispersing mob, and on into the winter night. Despite the outcome, it has been a very good night. A hockey night.