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Last Friday, I talked sport heritage on The Jason Strudwick Show on TSN 1260 Radio in Edmonton, Canada. Jason is a former National Hockey League player, having played over 600 games for several teams – including the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks – before retiring in 2012.
Jason and I talked a bit about The Sport Heritage Review website and how I came to be involved in sport heritage. We discussed the transference of sport heritage from one venue to another, a topic discussed in several research papers including Belanger’s study about the Molson Centre in Montreal, Gammon and Fear’s study of the tours of Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, and my study (along with Gammon and Huang) of borrowed heritage at the Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. On more of a nostalgia front, Jason and I briefly reminisced about our shared hockey past, as we were teammates in minor hockey about 25 years ago. It was a fun chat, and I hope Jason and I get to gabbing again sometime soon.
In any event, the interview is about 15 minutes long and in two parts. The links for each part of the interview are below. Happy listening!
Part #1(Interview begins at approximately the 43 minute mark)
Part #2 (Interview continues for approximately 10 minutes at the beginning of the hour)
A quick post to announce the publication of 40 Below: Edmonton’s Winter Anthology:
I have a small, rather sentimental essay in this collection about missing aspects of winter in Edmonton (honestly, I do!) If you are from Edmonton, or Canadian, live in a winter city, or romanticize what it might be like to live in one (I suppose there are some people who do), please consider ordering a copy.
Typically, when a sports organization represents it’s heritage, it is normally done for good reasons – or, at least reasons that benefit the organization. Whether it be honouring past championships or superstars, famous games or performances, or even unveiling some form of retro jersey or souvenir, the organization is meant gain something through representing something of it’s past – be it legitimacy, loyalty and, often, some financial benefit.
Which is why two recent heritage-based stories from the National Hockey League are so strange. Two teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Edmonton Oilers – both of which can boast of famous moments, players, and championship teams from their pasts – decided to remove many of the heritage “markers” from their dressing room/players lounge areas of their respective arenas. In each case, the decision was made to remove the reminders of past glories in order to relieve the current players of, in essence, the burden of the teams’ glorious heritage. Both were couched as “changes in culture” – and, perhaps it is not a coincidence that neither team has had much success in recent years. Ultimately, the Maple Leafs decided to leave their heritage markers in place after a public backlash (The Oilers’ decision happened this past weekend, so it remains to be seen if the public in Edmonton reacts similarly to Toronto) but what makes these decisions strange is not that these teams cherry picked their pasts to address current needs and concerns (of course, if we understand heritage as the present use of the past, then this is the case with all heritage representations) but that these two teams seem to have abandoned heritages that, frankly, have been wildly successful.
I will admit to not knowing the uses of the Maple Leafs heritage as well as the Oilers, but I do know that the Air Canada Centre – the Maple Leafs home arena – is a repository of Leaf’s heritage. Even though the arena is a little under twenty years old and hasn’t witnessed much hockey success the past two decades, it seamlessly adopted the heritage of the beloved Maple Leaf Gardens. The last Maple Leafs Stanley Cup in 1967 is lore in the city of Toronto, though in the ensuing decades there have been many Leafs players that the fans have grown to love and honour as integral aspects to the team’s heritage. In fact, it could be said that the Leaf’s heritage is one of its main assets – they were, essentially, English Canada’s team when the NHL was only six franchises and, as such, they formed a strong bond with hockey supporters across Canada.
In the case of the Edmonton Oilers, the team was one of the most dynamic and successful sports teams (not just hockey teams) during the 1980s and early 1990s. They boasted some of the greatest players in the history of the NHL – Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, and Grant Fuhr to name just a few. A decade ago, they purposefully commodified their history, creating an event called The Heritage Classic, an outdoor hockey game that brought back many of their former star players to play one last time (the organization also made a significant amount of money from the event, likely in the order of $6M CAD). Simply put, the “glory days” for the Oilers is one of their prized possessions – and, one in which the organization has used particularly in bad times to remind fans to keep supporting the team.
In sport heritage, as with all heritage, organizations have inherited good legacies and bad legacies. Normally, organizations will chose to represent the heritage that helps them today (no one at the Oilers waxes nostalgic for the mid 1990s, for example, when the team was terrible, the arena was empty, and the franchise nearly relocated to Houston). But, it is strange for sports organizations to so hotly reject glorious legacies; legacies that have been very useful, that are popular, and that have become touchstones for supporters – whether they witnessed them or not. It is assumed that heritage can be a commodity in sport – from banner-rasings of retired numbers, to stadium constructions that mimic historic facilities, to the plethora of retro (or retro-looking) apparel and memorabilia. I never thought I would see two organizations, steeped in heritage, that would see positive legacies as liabilities and actively choose to be, in essence, ahistorical.
I don’t get to return to my hometown of Edmonton very often these days, but when I do I am constantly amazed by how much has changed. I suppose this is true for most people when they return home, but Edmonton in particular has undergone tremendous growth in the past decade or so – owing mainly to the oil industry it would seem. It is bigger, sure, but seemingly more cosmopolitan than the city of my youth.
However, no matter how much the city has changed, the Edmonton Oilers hockey club still rules the roost. Growing up in Edmonton in the 80s, we were spoiled by the exploits of the Oilers. I even managed to be in the building for two of their five Stanley Cups between 1984-1990. Winning was simply taken for granted. The team has been poor for many seasons now – and has really never come close to matching their success of the 1980s – but their home rink continues to sell out for every game, at premium ticket prices of course!
That being said, one event still haunts the city – the trade of Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings on August 9, 1988. While we now tend to think of sports transactions as interesting – but not life changing – the Gretzky trade was unthinkable, unimaginable, and devastating. (ESPN’s 30 for 30 series featured an excellent documentary about the trade, should you be so inclined)
Gretzky hasn’t lived in Edmonton for 25 years, but he still seems to be everywhere. He has his own statue (which sparked debate about whether it should remain in its original location where he played, or move to the proposed new downtown arena) and road past Northlands Coliseum (now Rexall Place). The local broadsheet newspaper is running a “where were you” retrospective on the 25th anniversary of the trade. Even some of the opposition to the Oilers the move to a new arena centre on Gretzky – specifically the heritage fabric of the old rink, that the players of today are playing on the same ice as Gretzky did.
However, in my travels around town, I noticed that one key artefact of Gretzky’s Edmonton is no longer there. The Molson House, the location of the now infamous press conference when “The Trade” was announced, has been demolished. I suppose it is a bit sad to see it gone, though I never really thought about it as a site for preservation – even given its link to sport heritage. However, I would love to see a historical marker of some sort, as “The Trade” truly was a very important (although, perhaps, negative) part of not only Canadian sport – but Canadian history.
There are scales to heritage – not every heritage is of global importance. In fact, I’d argue the heritage we value most are those that are personal, intimate, and immediate. After all, it is blood that is our most innate form of heritage, and that our first and most powerful heritage experiences are with our families.
The playing and watching of sport, particularly with a parent, is often positioned as a kind of heritage experience. One text that rather wonderfully describes this process is Tom Stanton’s The Final Season. Ostensibly, it is about Stanton watching the Detroit Tigers during their final season at Tiger Stadium – a beloved ballpark that has since been demolished. So, in some respects, the book is about a more extrinsic heritage – that of the historic sports facility. However, the book is much more about an existential type of heritage, as it is about sharing and recalling his experiences with his own father at the stadium, as well as creating new memories with his own children while watching baseball during the final season at the park. In some ways, it is about our own mortality, and that places like stadiums are witnesses, conduits, and perhaps even warehouses for those shared family experience.
I think of this today as I recall the many evenings spent with my own father sporting events, particularly at Northlands Coliseum (nee: Rexall Place) watching the Edmonton Oilers hockey club. That stadium will soon be replaced and what I’ll miss most – and what I’ll consider heritage – are not the players, the banners, and the seats, but the many cold Canadian nights spent with my dad. Thankfully, we still watch games together – though, it is no where near as frequent since I moved – and I know when the inevitable happens, I’ll treasure those nights even more.
Now that I have my own son, I try to take him to as many games as I can. I’ve even started a collection of ticket stubs for him – his own sport heritage inventory, as it were. He’s still too young to take much of the games in, and I know that going to them is more for me than for him. Still, I hope he’ll look back on them fondly, as I do with my father.