The seven men reminiscing on the Coliseum ice last month worked together for over 30 years at the former home of the Edmonton Oilers and Edmonton Oil Kings. Memories and laughter flowed.
“The guys cared about each other. It was a great atmosphere,” recalled John Provis, Northlands’ operations manager. “There was definite pride on the ice and with the record the ice had in the NHL. [Staff] were doing their own stuff, figuring out to improve the ice.”
Provis said NHL players considered Northlands Coliseum to have the league’s best ice, especially in the ‘80s. It was always rated in the top three.
“A lot of guys today get called by the NHL. They’re recognized,” he said.
Henry Stainthorp, retired from Northlands after 40 years, is still asked to make ice for curling nationals and for community rinks. He recalled one incident during the arena’s first rodeo in the 1970s. The dirt had to be removed for a hockey game, but it had frozen to the ice.
“People in the stands were waiting for Northlands to get the ice prepared for the game. After an hour, they had to go home,” recalled Stainthorp. “The media said it was because the horse pee had frozen. That’s not true.”
Back then, workers started the ice plant manually. It had shut off and the maintenance worker—a rookie—forgot to check.
“He saw the ice melting so he turned it back on full tilt,” smiled Stainthorp. “That’s what froze the dirt to the ice.”
The Coliseum, designed by architectural firm Phillips, Barratt, Hillier, Jones and Partners, opened in 1974. In 1979, the Oilers moved from the defunct World Hockey Association to the NHL, winning the Stanley Cup five times between 1984 and 1990.
Brian Steele, who also makes ice for the Heritage Classic, was 14 when he started as a rink rat at the Edmonton Gardens. By 1987, he was making ice at Oilers games when they were dominating league playoffs.
“For us making the ice for the first time, learning how to drive the Zamboni, you felt the responsibility,” said Steele. “Out there by yourself, if a knick was in the ice, you knew it was your doing.”
George Waselenchuk, facility manager, remembers starting with Northlands “as a kid” in 1985 when the Oilers were league champions.
“I remember the first time I saw Wayne Gretzky skate on the ice,” he grinned. “It was amazing.”
The Coliseum also drew musical legends like John Cougar Mellencamp.
Rob Hauck, who worked in various positions at Northlands for nearly 40 years, recalled being in back of the house during concerts. He said attendants pulled all-nighters to set up the stage.
“The hockey game ended around 10:30, then the building attendants took out the boards, covered the ice, set up the stage. By 8 am it would be set up for the road crew,” he said. “The concert crew was out by two or three am, and by eight or nine in the morning we’d have it ready again.”
The Oilers’ last game at the Coliseum was on April 6, 2016, while the last Canadian Finals Rodeo was in November.
The city takes ownership of the Coliseum on Jan. 1, when it will be permanently closed.
Featured Image: Long-time employees on and off the Coliseum ice shared memories. Left to right: George Waselenchuk, facilities manager at Northlands; Trent Evans, sales; Brian Steele, refrigeration mechanic; Dan Hollohan, carpenter; Henry Stainthorp, retired head ice maker; Rob Hauck, millwright, and Chris Lewis, head ice maker. | Rebecca Lippiatt