Some time this week the Oilers will remove the Bronze statue
of Wayne Gretzky from the north entrance to Rexall Place. After it gets a
thorough cleaning the statue will be put up outside the new downtown Rogers
Place. Is that weird? Is it wrong?
The statue was originally erected in 1989, a gift from
Molson Breweries to the city of Edmonton in recognition of the great
contribution Keith’s brother made to the city. There’s no question about it,
Wayne Gretzky helped put this city on the map. Rexall Place, Skyreach Center, Northlands
Coliseum, no matter which corporate overlord wanted to slap their name on it,
the fact is that the soul of the building itself was imbued by the great 99.
The statue is in many ways a physical representation of that
soul. The greatest player in the history of the game (I’m not apologizing to
Orr fans about that), in Oiler silks, holding the Stanley Cup overhead,
immortalized in bronze 10 years before the man even retired. When you walked
into Rexall from the parking lot, the statue let you know that you were
stepping into a building touched by greatness. Wayne Gretzky skated on that
ice. Wayne. Gretzky.
He walked the hallways, ate the hotdogs, scored an
impossible number of goals at either end. His office was behind the net – specifically right damned there behind the net in THIS building, on
THIS ice. The statue and the arena are linked by a history that’s so fantastic
it almost doesn’t seem like it can be real. When we would pass the statue to
enter concerts or other events it prompted me to tell my children of a time
when my Oilers were a proud club. The statue, as a piece of public art, told a
story. To some people it told a specific story. A specific Gretzky memory. A specific
Stanley Cup memory.
That’s the power of art. It can elicit emotion and memory.
It can be different things to different people. And, like all things, context
matters. There’s more to the bronze statue than its own features. Where it’s
located matters. A nine foot, 950 pound statue of Wayne Gretzky placed in front of
Rexall place means something different than the exact same statue placed
outside of the Saddledome. It elicits different emotions than the same statue
placed on the driveway to Wayne Gretzky’s home. Location has played such an
integral part in the individual meanings that the Gretzky statue has created in
the 27 years it has been standing. And location will continue to play an
important role in the future.
The statue will no longer stand outside the doors of Rexall
reminding patrons about the link between the building itself and the greatness
the city experienced. Instead, the statue will now stand on
104th avenue outside what will become the Oilers Hall-of-Fame room,
whatever that will be. The statue will no longer have that immediateness, that
attachment to its previous home. When I walk past it on the way to a Rogers
Place entrance, I won’t be able to tell my children that the greatest player
walked those halls, ate the hotdogs, and skated on that ice.
For a lot of people that connection was sacrosanct. The
statue and Rexall Place cannot be separated. And while Katz has proven that’s
not exactly the case, he can’t control what the statue means to the people.
Though, make no mistake, by placing it adjacent to an Oilers Hall-of-Fame, he’s certainly
trying. Still, for some that statue will always be one and the same with the
memory of Rexall Place.
Is it weird that the statue is moving to Katz’ new arena? I don’t
think so. Once the decision was made to build a new venue for the Oilers, the
Gretzky statue was destined to take on a new meaning either as an outsider in
downtown Edmonton or as a lonely ghost haunting a vacant Rexall. Change is
natural. Change is inevitable.
The statue of Wayne Gretzky, like the team itself, is
leaving the only home it has ever known this week. Soon we will see it
somewhere else and when we do we might feel weird or even off-put by the
experience. But that, itself, is not weird or wrong. We won’t get to experience
it, but seeing the statue outside of an empty or rarely used Rexall while the
Oilers play somewhere else would also be an off-putting experience.
Now, how long before we can get a statue of Connor McDavid
holding the Stanley Cup overhead?