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Heritage and the Empty Stadium

There was an interesting blog post written by Dave Cournoyer at his site daveberta.ca recently about the future of Rexall Place in Edmonton, Canada.  For the initiated, Rexall Place (as it is currently named) was opened in the mid 1970s and, though it has hosted numerous concerts, performances, and sporting events in its 40 year history, it is most famous for being the long-time home of the Edmonton Oilers of the National Hockey League (NHL).  In particular, the arena housed the Oilers during their “Glory Years” in the 1980s and early 1990s when, led by hockey superstars Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, and others, the team won five Stanley Cup championships in seven seasons.  The arena, arguably, has significant heritage value, in large part because of the Edmonton Oilers, though perhaps to a lesser extent because of aspects such as its architectural value, it role in other sporting events such as the annual Canadian Finals Rodeo, and its historical connection to the Northlands fair grounds.

From a individual view, Rexall Place has significant personal heritage value to me.  For decades, it was the place I went to see hockey games with my family.  In fact, I actually witnessed two of the Oilers Stanley Cup championships – in 1984 and 1988 – from our family’s season tickets in Section K, Row 14.  A number of years ago, while completing my doctorate at the University of Alberta, I got to play hockey on the “hallowed ice” of Rexall Place – which was exciting and thrilling and wonderful, even to a grown man.  Rexall Place was also where I went to concerts with friends, saw wrestling cards as a teenager, and had my father take me to an occasional monster truck show.  Simply put, the arena was part of the landscape of my growing up and living in Edmonton, and I suspect it has become an integral part of many Edmontonians’ personal heritage narratives over the past forty years.

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In 2016, the Edmonton Oilers will be leaving Rexall Place and moving to a brand new downtown arena. Cournoyer’s blog post explores some thoughts and issues associated with what happens to Rexall Place after the Oilers move.  As Cournoyer points out, there hasn’t been much thought about this issue, and argues that local residents have not been consulted as to the arena’s future or how the arena might be used after the Oilers leave.

I would add that, part of the consultation about the future of Rexall Place ought to address and assess it’s heritage value, in particular whether the arena’s heritage ought to be recognized and how this heritage recognition would take place.

Empty stadiums and arenas, particularly those with a clear heritage value, pose some very interesting challenges.  I argued, in my recent paper “Sport, heritage, and Tourism” in the Journal of Heritage Tourism that, perhaps what makes sport heritage unique is its link to a sense of perpetual play and performance:

…sport heritage appears to be a very distinct form of heritage, perhaps because of its broad dissemination and consumption, though perhaps more because of its corporal nature.  We have to continue to play sport, or support those who play, in order to create future sport heritage. The fact that sport heritage often does not fossilize, that it must continue to be made and remade through play and performance, is perhaps what gives it a distinctive place in the heritage and heritage tourism landscape.”

What this may mean for empty stadiums, in fact, is that they are essentially dead landscapes; that perhaps the heritage isn’t in the building itself but the relationship between the building/landscape, the spectators, and the game/performance.  Without games being played – in essence, generating new heritage – the buildings themselves may have limited heritage value.

Recognizing the heritage value of empty stadiums and arenas has taken different forms, with different levels of success.  In situ preservation is probably the least feasible option. Leaving aside ancient sporting monuments, such as the Colosseum in Rome, preservation for preservation’s sake would appear unlikely for any stadium.  There are places like Rickwood Field – the oldest baseball stadium in the United States – in Birmingham, Alabama which does not have a core tenant and is probably the best example of preservation for preservation’s sake.  That said, the stadium hosts dozens of events each year, from college baseball games and tournaments to memorabilia shows, so it is hardly a “mothballed” stadium.

Adaptive reuse of heritage stadiums and arenas is a popular option.  Both the Montreal Forum and Maple Leaf Gardens have incorporated numerous heritage elements of the old arenas into new retail, real estate, and education spaces.  However, adaptive reuse is not always an option.  Tiger Stadium in Detroit was slated for a real estate redevelopment that would have incorporated the old stadium in the development, but plans fell through and the stadium was demolished.  Frequently, the old stadium sat adjacent to the new stadium, so some form of heritage markers were often used to denote where the previous stadium was after demolition. The “old” Yankee Stadium in New York is now a park next to new Yankee Stadium, and Fulton County Stadium is parking for the new Turner Field in Atlanta, with both examples denoting important markers from the old stadium in the new space (e.g.: location of home plate, etc.)  Sometimes, artefacts from the old building are incorporated into the new building.  The scoreboard from the old Omni Coliseum in Atlanta is situated in the foyer of the new Phillips Arena, for example.

Of course, many old arenas simply continue on without their core tenants, or perhaps find a different – and often lower tier – sports tenant.  The Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, once the home of the NHL’s Vancouver Canucks, continues as a concert venue, a site for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, and is the home of the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League (WHL), a junior developmental hockey league.  As such, how the venue’s heritage is preserved or recognized may change as well.

In the discussions on the future of Rexall Place, the heritage of the venue should be raised – and, depending on the future use of the building, how the heritage is recognized will be a key issue.  I also think that the heritage of the venue isn’t just the Oilers, but encompasses many different forms – including personal heritages.  I would imagine that the venue will end up in some sort of adaptive reuse project – I simply can’t imagine it being preserved in situ, nor can I see it continue without its core tenant given the population size of Edmonton.  That said, I hope the good citizens of my former hometown consider a broad range of cases in how to use the venue going forward while still recognizing and acknowledging its heritage value.

The Burden of Sport Heritage

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.

The Commodification of Nostalgia

A few months back, I was interviewed on a radio program called The Public on CIUT Toronto. It was a wide ranging conversation, but mainly focused on the uses, abuses, and commodification of sport-based heritage and nostalgia.  The host, Michael McDougall, and I are former work colleagues, so I think there is actually a nice bit of banter between us.  I enjoyed doing it, and I hope you’ll have a listen.