SUN Hockey Pool

Building a legacy

ERIC FRANCIS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:40 AM ET

For those who took part in the opening of the Olympic Saddledome 25 years ago today, it's impossible to talk about the occasion without mentioning from where the Flames came.

Considering how cramped, dark, antiquated and smelly the ol' Corral had been as host of the club's first three seasons, a move to East Calgary Twin Rinks would've been an upgrade.

But jumping to the architectural wonder that was the Saddledome ... nothing could've been better.

"Every time there was a bull sale at the Corral, we would run out of water because they'd be washing the cattle," recalled Flames forward Jim Peplinski of the hardships today's NHLers couldn't fathom.

"You can't forget we were living in an old house and playing in nostalgic arenas like The Joe, Chicago Stadium, Maple Leaf Gardens, The Forum, Boston Garden, Madison Square Garden. The Saddledome was the newest building in the NHL at the time, and it had everything."

Including showers dispensing water of any temperature at any time.

"Well, it wasn't perfect -- they had flow resisters on them so you didn't use too much water," laughed Peplinski. "After a week, I took them all out and, the water was wonderful."

Sure there were growing pains as the team moved into a spacious dressing room with a weight room, and management vacated their Atco trailers for swanky office space. But no one complained Oct. 15, 1983, when The Young Canadians opened the evening and a host of dignitaries, including Mayor Ralph Klein and Premier Peter Lougheed, assembled at centre ice to watch the league's two leading scorers from a year earlier -- Lanny McDonald and Wayne Gretzky -- take the first faceoff in 'Dome lore.

And while Gretzky's Oilers walked away 4-3 winners and the game had to be stopped a handful of times to replace dislodged plexiglass, none of the more than 17,000 who paid as much as $30 a ticket seemed too bothered.

"There was a playoff-like buzz that night -- everyone was so excited to be in there that they came early to walk around," said Day-1 season-ticket holder Kim Thomas, 56, who remembers being blinded by the bright lights the Corral never had.

"It definitely lived up to the hype. The vastness of the concourse, the (19) concession stands ... the only problem was the big round tubing on the rails, which blocked your view. They got rid of that, though."

In many people's minds, the $100-million building (which included $23 million worth of land from the city) had finally made Calgary a world-class destination capable of hosting the world's finest athletes and entertainers.

The Flames had finally hit the big time and were the envy of the league.

"I remember guys would come in from other teams and the first thing they'd always do is go to the bench and look up at the roof and it's a saddle: They were trying to figure out what's going on," said Jamie Macoun, who said the private player's parking lot out back was a huge luxury.

"The players and people from across Alberta were excited it was a first-class building in a first-class organization, and it was still a unique cowboy city. When they built it, they thought of everything, except how salaries would rise and they'd need more luxury suites."

To save $3.5 million, the Flames originally opted for an animated screen as opposed to one capable of video replays on the 28-ft. scoreboard. Other than that, few expenses were spared for a building built for only $16 million over budget.

Just as many look back nostalgically at the intimacy of the 7,242-seat Corral, there is a concern some will rail against a new building to eventually replace what appears from an airplane to be the world's largest Pringle. However, what was once one of the NHL's crown jewels is now one of the oldest joints in the loop. And with an eye on long-term sustainability for the franchise, pure functionality and keeping up with demands of the market, the Flames are hoping for a new rink as early as 2014, when the current lease runs out.

"It's important to honour and respect the past but not live in it," said Flames president Ken King whose club has drawings of potential buildings that would likely sit where the Stampede's Big Four Building is.

"We have spent considerable time on this. (The 'Dome) brought us an NHL team and the Olympics. (It's) an iconic part of the skyline and one of the most important gathering places in our province. But every building has a lifespan."

Well aware it would be a tough sell to any government or taxpayer to help fund a new building while the city battles increased crime and homelessness, King asks the club's ever-developing plan is judged only after it's unveiled. Whenever that may be.

As for the 'Dome with its unique reverse hyperbolic paraboloid design, it would certainly be a shame to see it go, especially with all the history and memories it has provided Calgarians.

As a rink, it's now one of the most feared places to play in the world. For Flames players and their fans, it's as comforting as a warm shower ... on demand.


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