Hockey Road Trip: All Up In Alberta

20 October 2017

The Great White North.

It’s always been there, hovering above my home country like an angel looking down upon us - yet it seemed so distant for so many years. I knew I’d have to visit when I started these hockey trips, but it didn’t really sink in until I finally got my passport in 2013.

Now it was time to finally set foot in Canada.

Seven NHL cities to choose from: there was no priority placed on any of them, except one. The city of Edmonton had already announced that they were building a new home for the Oilers, which would open in the fall of 2016 and replace the historic confines of Rexall Place. I knew this had to be my first stop, as the arena's penultimate season was drawing to a close.

My travel companion Chad had just started a new job and wouldn’t be able to take any days off from work, which meant we had to see a weekend game. Of course this wasn’t a problem for me, as it would coincide with an opportunity for us to see a Hockey Night in Canada game on Saturday night, which I had always longed to do and specifically scheduled when planning this initial visit north.  Even better - the Oilers would be playing their provincial rivals, the Calgary Flames!

Since I had accumulated several vacation days and really needed the time away from work, I decided to go up a few days earlier, with the intent of traversing Alberta and seeing some WHL playoff games in person. I booked my flights, grabbed my passport and off I went!


My flight to Edmonton would feature a layover in Vancouver, which allowed me the chance to view this beautiful city from above as we descended through the clouds. But what came next - my first chance to go through customs - was a whole new world to me, as I naively asked several airport officials to point me in the right direction, and very narrowly missed my connecting flight.

The brief trip to Edmonton was not quite as scenic, but that was mostly due to the snowstorm that accompanied me along the way. A snowstorm? In April? Welcome to Canada!

I couldn’t really find a hotel to my liking, so I opted to stay at two separate Airbnb locations: one house for when I was by myself, and another house for after Chad arrived. The first location could not have been better - I stayed with a wonderful couple (Paul and Shannon), who were both hockey fans themselves.  I arrived at their house in the late afternoon, dropped off my things and then Paul took me immediately to Rexall Place for my first game of the trip: a WHL first-round playoff matchup featuring the Edmonton Oil Kings hosting the Brandon Wheat Kings. The cashier at the box office even took a look inside the arena to make sure she got me the best possible ticket!

During the Oil Kings games, they close off the upper deck of Rexall Place, but that didn’t stop me from walking around and seeing as much of the venue as possible. I could see the many Oilers-related banners hanging in the rafters, commemorating Stanley Cup championships and honoring the numbers of retired players. It was also very interesting to be at a sporting event in which the only national anthem played before the game was “O Canada!”

I sat in a different section during each period, and spent the final period chatting in the lower bowl with a very nice usher (I wish I could remember his name!). He was fascinated that a hockey fan from Los Angeles would come all the way up here to see junior hockey, and we watched along as the game remained tied and went to overtime, before the Wheat Kings ultimately prevailed. Exhausted from the trip (and the cold!), I went home and fell asleep almost immediately.


Another crisp day dawned as I headed out into the Alberta morning.  This day would feature a 90-minute drive south to Red Deer for another WHL playoff game, with my first stop being the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame.  Situated in a modest building just off of Highway 2, the Hall of Fame houses a small-but-interesting collection of memorabilia devoted to those athletes who either played in the province or grew up there.  While it seemed like this would only be a short diversion, I wound up spending most of the early afternoon in the building and enjoyed my time for sure.

It was time to find some food, and the employees inside the museum suggested I walk next door to Heritage Range and eat lunch at the Westlake Grill inside.  Unbeknownst to me, it had actually started snowing again while I was in the museum, so I came out to this:

I took a seat at a corner table in the nearly-empty restaurant and dined on a delicious bison burger while staring out the window - the scenery outside was both beautiful and tranquil, yet another reminder of why I used this trip to get away from the daily grind of working in Los Angeles.  Once again, I had another pleasant Canadian (this time, my waitress) express shock and bewilderment that a California resident would bother to come up to this tiny little town.  

After gorging myself on the scrumptious burger, I descended into the wintry evening and arrived at the Enmax Centrium a couple of hours before the Red Deer Rebels were set to host the Medicine Hat Tigers in their playoff matchup.  The snow continued to fall, and the temperature continued to drop.

With all due respect to the Oil Kings game from the previous night, this game was more of what I expected when it comes to junior hockey in Canada - maybe it was due to the smaller arena, but it was a much more lively contest and the fans were completely into it.  I saw a hard-fought affair between the two division rivals, bought some merchandise from the friendly folks in the team store, and had an absolutely wonderful time all around.

The 90-minute drive back to Edmonton gave me a chance to listen to local sports talk radio, in which the on-air talent was discussing both the Oilers and Calgary Flames (note: as a long-time hockey fan and resident of Los Angeles, I can't tell you how great it is to hear hockey being discussed on the radio for a change).  I arrived back at the house at midnight...and promptly fell right to sleep.


There was no hockey game to see on this day, and Chad's flight wasn't arriving until late at night, so I used this day to check out the city.  Unfortunately for me, this day was the coldest of the trip, which was made even more brutal by the heavy winds in the area.  I grabbed lunch with Paul and Shannon as I left their house to check into my new Airbnb, then spent the afternoon walking around downtown Edmonton along the nearby North Saskatchewan River - I saw the new Oilers arena under construction, as well as the rest of the urban architecture, which was quite impressive.  

I particularly liked the bust of Mahatma Gandhi outside of the main branch of the Edmonton Public Library!

After finally regaining feeling in my fingers and toes, I returned home and picked up some groceries at a nearby store - PS. Why didn't anyone tell me how amazing ketchup chips were?!?!  And Schweppes Dark ginger ale?!?!  And Coffee Crisps?!?!

There were a few hours to kill, so I relaxed and watched television - I found a hockey game on Sportsnet (of course) and sat back for the rest of the evening.  Chad's flight arrived just after midnight, and we both knocked out after I brought him home.


My final day in Edmonton would be a thorough and exhausting one, as we began the day early and went directly to the West Edmonton Mall, the largest shopping center in North America.  The mall was an absolute behemoth, containing a waterpark, ice rink, and an indoor amusement park known as Galaxyland.  Chad and I walked around for hours, watched a sea lion show, played some miniature golf under blacklight, and quickly saw the time fly by.

We made it to Rexall Place just before the sun set on the chilly afternoon, and quickly took advantage of a photo opportunity with the statue of Wayne Gretzky located outside.  It was too cold - let's get inside!


With one week remaining in the season, this was a game featuring two teams heading in opposite directions: the visiting Calgary Flames were on their way to their first playoff appearance in six seasons, while the Oilers were on their way to winning the "Connor McDavid Sweepstakes" (Edmonton would win the NHL Draft Lottery one month later).  But this was still "The Battle of Alberta", and the rivalry between the two teams created an electric atmosphere - plus, seeing the Edmonton players skate out under a giant oil derrick was amazing!  Sadly, this was the final highlight for the home team.

Playing against an overmatched lineup, the Flames took the lead two minutes into the game, and never looked back.  The remaining 58 minutes simply allowed us a chance to soak in the surroundings, as we watched the fans of both teams boo and cheer accordingly throughout the rest of the night.  There wasn't a lot of hostility or ferocity from the Oilers fans, maybe because the team had little to play for (or maybe because they're just so nice), but the passion was certainly on display.  And while the Oilers would struggle their way to an easy 4-0 defeat, the local fans in the building knew better days were ahead for the team - interesting to note, defenseman Oscar Klefbom was the only Edmonton player on the ice that night who is still on the team today.

Just like that - my first journey to Canada was over.  Yes, it was cold.  But it was wonderful to visit Edmonton, and I looked forward to coming back when the new arena was completed.  Did I mention how nice the people are??


For an older arena, Rexall Place did offer a nice selection of merchandise, but I wasn't terribly impressed with the one shot glass that was on sale.  I scoured the internet, before ultimately settling on this beauty:


I kick off the 2015-16 season with a return visit to Canada, including a live concert from an American icon...

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