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Flames ready to replace Saddledome with brand-new building

Exterior of the Scotiabank Saddledome near downtown Calgary, AB on Tuesday, July 30, 2019. Jim Wells/Postmedia
Exterior of the Scotiabank Saddledome near downtown Calgary, AB on Tuesday, July 30, 2019. Jim Wells/Postmedia
CALGARY, Alta. —

Jamie Macoun had arrived in Calgary the previous winter.

This, however, had the feel of a welcome-to-primetime moment for the Flames defenceman.

“I remember one of the first games in the Saddledome, going out there and being allowed to start the game and I’m standing on the blue-line … ” Macoun recalled, reminiscing about the Flames’ move into brand-new digs in the fall of 1983. “You looked up and they had the jumbotron, and it was a pretty good one. Nothing like now but for the time, it was pretty good. Think of pagers to cell-phones, it was like we were making this huge jump forward. Then you looked around and the fans were so enthusiastic and suddenly there are 16,500 fans there.

“For me, that was really the welcome to the NHL. The Corral was fun, but standing on the blue-line at the Saddledome and looking around as the anthem was playing, it was just like, ‘Hey, I’m playing out of the best arena in the world. This is what the NHL is all about. This is really where it’s at.’ ”

That was nearly 36 years ago.

The Saddledome is where the Flames have been at ever since, although that will eventually change thanks to Tuesday’s historic decision at city hall, where council green-lighted a $550-million downtown arena project.

The City of Calgary and Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation — the company that owns the Flames, the Western Hockey League’s Hitmen and the National Lacrosse League’s Roughnecks, all future tenants of an event centre that will seat roughly 19,000 — are splitting the price-tag.

The terms of the lease agreement should ensure the Flames stay put for another 35 years.

“I’ve been asked if I’m happy, and of course we’re happy for Calgary,” said CSEC vice-chair Ken King after Tuesday’s vote passed by an 11-4 margin. “But I think the most fun will be proving to the City of Calgary that we can exceed their expectations, that this really is a great deal …

“And we’ll overachieve.”

Tuesday’s ‘Yes’ vote has been a long time coming for the Flames, with King & Co. game-planning — and negotiating — for several years to replace the aging Saddledome, now one of the NHL’s most antiquated buildings.

For fans in Calgary, the wait isn’t over just yet.

Construction of the new event centre in what is being called the Rivers District isn’t slated to start until 2021, and King guesstimated a span of 36-40 months from shovels to sticks and skates.

That would likely mean a projected opening for the 2024-25 campaign. The hope is Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk will still be in their primes then, but the Flames don’t have any of their skating stars signed that far into the future.

Whoever is on the roster, there will undoubtedly be a buzz as they move into a state-of-the-art structure.

In the meantime, the players will drive past the rink-on-the-rise on their daily commute, similar to the case back in the early-80s, when crews were hustling to complete the saddle-shaped venue that was also key to hosting the 1988 Winter Olympics.

“It was fun because I knew some young guys, kind of my same age, in the plumbing trade and electrical trade that were working over there at the Saddledome. So every once in a while, I would zip over and say hello and get to see the inside,” said Tim Hunter, a retired tough guy who was raised in Calgary and eventually helped deliver a Stanley Cup parade to his hometown in 1989.

“The design of the roof, that feature was just something very unique … I remember being in the old Crushed Can in Moose Jaw and it was a bizarre building — you couldn’t even see the fans from one side to the other. And when I first looked at (the Saddledome), it was a very similar design with the sloping of the roof and I thought, ‘Oh jeez, is it going to be like that?’ But no, the roof was much higher.

“It was a great building. Everybody had been in modern arenas besides our own, so it was just kind of nice to catch up with the Joneses.”

The first event at the Saddledome was an Oct. 15, 1983, instalment of the NHL’s Battle of Alberta.

Flames franchise icon Lanny McDonald, fresh off a club-record 66 goals the previous winter, scored and also collected an assist in the lid-lifter. Ditto for Doug Risebrough.

Jim Peplinski, now vice-president of business development for CSEC, racked up 25 penalty minutes during a first-period melee. Oilers stalwart Mark Messier was also tossed during the same sequence.

Macoun must have been pumped, because he fired six shots on goal. At that point, that was his career-high.

The Oilers, unfortunately, spoiled the party with a 4-3 win. (Proof that the provincial rivalry still rages on, Coun. Joe Magliocca said during Tuesday’s that he is optimistic the Flames will bring a championship to the city, and Mayor Naheed Nenshi quipped, in reference to the new rink up north, “That didn’t work for the Oilers.”)

The Saddledome opened in 1983 with a seating capacity of 16,605, more than double the number of spectators that had been able to cram into the Stampede Corral. The nosebleeds were completed for the 1988 Olympics.

“The mood of the crowd, you could feel the electricity in there for that first game. It was so exciting that night,” said Hockey Hall of Fame broadcaster Peter Maher, the longtime and legendary radio voice of the Flames. “What really stands out for me is just how awesome it was from a standpoint of size. When you walked into the Saddledome for the first time, the first thought I had — and I think a lot of guys had the same feeling — was just ‘Wow, this is massive.’ To me, it was so gigantic compared to what you were used to in other rinks.

“And there were so many great facilities they had in there. I know the players talked about the dressing room. They had just a minuscule dressing room in the Corral, and then you went to the Saddledome and they had the main dressing room, they had offices for the coaches, they had workout rooms in the back and change-rooms and all that stuff …

“When they were in the Corral, you’d go to have a meeting with (general manager) Cliff Fletcher and you’d have to go into a trailer that was adjacent the Corral. That’s where the team offices were. Then, of course, you go into the Saddledome and they had all the team offices upstairs and they were normal offices as opposed to crammed-in quarters. You could sit back and relax a bit more. That was all so dramatically different from what they had at the Corral.”

Next on the to-do list is to finalize a design for the now-approved event centre, but rest assured the Flames’ next home will be dramatically different from their current barn.

It will feature the latest, the greatest.

Just like the Saddledome once did.

A new arena is overdue. Now, it’s becoming a reality.

“I remember sitting on the bench with Lanny, we’re side by side, and we’re just looking around and saying, ‘What a difference!’ ” Macoun recalled. “He had been around a lot longer than I had, so he played in the old Maple Leaf Gardens and played in Colorado and in the Checkerdome (in St. Louis) and all those other old barns … But the Saddledome was pretty special. I mean, it was really was unique then. The outside was unique, and inside it was just such a step forward for Calgary. It had all these unbelievable things that no other arena had at that time.

“And fortunately, now they’re going to take that next step forward.”

wgilbertson@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/WesGilbertson

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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