| Edmonton Gardens, 1978. Photo supplied by City of Edmonton Archives, EB-30-541a|
Built in 1912 as the Edmonton Stock Pavilion, and pressed into service as a hockey rink when the Thistle burned down in 1913, the building that came to be known as the Edmonton Gardens was the city’s hockey shrine for more than 60 years. Edmontonians had a love-hate relationship with the Gardens, affectionately calling it “the cow barn,” and cursing its awful sight lines and uncomfortable seats.
Dozens of structural steel girders forced spectators to bob and weave to see the action on the ice. The benches in the dressing rooms were famous for their slivers, water dripped from the girders onto the ice and it would freeze into mounds until the crews would have to come out with scrappers and grind them down.
But it was a place where magic happened over and over again. The Gardens served as the home rink for Alberta senior champion Edmonton Flyers, the legendary Edmonton Oil Kings and the Edmonton Oilers from 1972 to 1974, when they played in the World Hockey Association.
My father Wilfred, who came to Edmonton in 1957, said he always looked forward to arriving at the Gardens because of the smell of the onions. "You'd open the doors, and be hit with that most fantastic aroma," he said. "You just couldn't resist buying a hot dog."
By 1963, the building, on the northern flank of the exhibition grounds near 118th Avenue and 75th Street, was criticized for being a fire hazard for its extensive use of wood in the seats, the ceiling and other parts of the structure. The Edmonton Exhibition Association spent $60,000 improving the building, but safety remained a serious concern.
During events, the Edmonton Fire Department stationed seven firemen in the building – four to keep an eye on the arena, and three others patrolling the concessions and dressing room areas for any telltale signs of a fire. The local media began to ratchet up the pressure with stories that called it “dirty, obsolete, and rickety.”
One story in the April 15, 1966 edition of the Edmonton Journal called the Edmonton Gardens “a disaster waiting to happen ... The old house with its obsolete lighting fixtures, oily wooden floors and sordid washrooms is an eyesore to hockey fans and others to crowd into it.”
The following month, city Fire Chief Jim Graham condemned the building as a hazard, and issued an order that it be closed. That summer, the city decided to spend $670,000 to make the Gardens safe enough to last until a new arena could be built, perhaps on land the Edmonton Exhibition Association had acquired in 1964 north of 118th Avenue.
The renovation work, overseen by local contractors Forest Construction, included entirely gutting the interior of the building and replacing steel girder columns with eight-inch columns set at a 45-degree angle to improve sight lines for spectators. Original wooden bleachers were demolished and a fireproof concrete grandstand was constructed inside the old brick walls. The addition of more exits reduced the legal seating capacity to 5,200.
The original girders ended up being used in 1967 in a Centennial project to construct a bridge across Beaver Creek in Whitecourt's Centennial Park. The Gardens re-opened in January 1967, and hosted events until 1974, when the Northlands Coliseum began operations.
In its 62 years of operation, the Edmonton Gardens was the butt of jokes of such comedic legends as Bob Hope and Victor Borge, and the Moscow Circus nearly refused to perform in it. But it was a true survivor.
As Edmonton Journal writer Ray Turchansky put it in an April 13, 1974 feature, “In it, grown men have cried under the agony of defeat and carefree children have laughed to the warmth of clowns and animals. Almost every type of event imaginable has been held in the structure – hockey, curling, basketball, boxing, figure skating, circuses, rodeos, bingoes, car shows, conventions, horse shows, and bull sales. The ancient Colosseum of Rome may have featured gladiator fights, but the Gardens has had the next best thing – wrestling.”
Work demolishing the Gardens commenced on January 20, 1982, to make way for the Northlands Agricom. But the old building proved a stubborn adversary.
“First they stuffed it with 50 kilograms of dynamite, then they used a bulldozer, but still the grand old lady of Edmonton sports wouldn’t budge,” one story reported. “Gardens won’t go boom,” the headline read, recounting two days of the crew drilling holes into the walls and supports, and then cramming in 320 sticks of dynamite.
The Edmonton Journal, in a February 25, 1982 story reported: Gardens 2 TNT 0. “A second try at demolishing what’s left of the Edmonton Gardens ended with a wham, a puff of dust and peals of laughter ... The building stood in mock defiance amid hoots of glee from the gallery (of onlookers).”
Northlands decided there would be no more blasting, and a wrecking ball was used to finish the job. Bricks salvaged from the old building were sold for houses and fireplaces in Edmonton and Calgary. The site is now home to Hall D of the Edmonton Expo Centre, formerly the Edmonton Agricom.