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Oilers link up with stars of past as they launch era of new downtown arena

Home of the Edmonton Oilers, Rogers Place, on opening night before the Oilers take on the Calgary Flames in Edmonton, Alta., on Wednesday October 12, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
October 12, 2016 - 10:26 PM

EDMONTON - The Edmonton Oilers launched the new era of their shiny, silver curvilinear rink Wednesday by linking it to their glittering past.

Past greats Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier — from the team's 1980s Stanley Cup dynasty years — went for a skate to the deafening roar of 18,550 fans prior to the Oilers' NHL regular season opening game at downtown Rogers Place.

Gretzky and Messier, dressed in white Oiler jerseys, skated a lap in opposite directions to cheers, lifting their sticks high in appreciation.

There was a light show and First Nations drummers.

Then, as Gretzky and Messier skated off, Oiler captain Connor McDavid led this year's team onto the ice, firing a puck into the empty net in a symbolic passing of the torch to a new generation of blue and orange.

"It's a whole different feeling in here today," McDavid told reporters before the game.

"Definitely more intense, more serious, and that's a good thing. We're excited to get the season going in this beautiful new building."

Oilers legendary and much-loved locker-room attendant Joey Moss dropped the puck on the ceremonial face off.

The game was against Edmonton's traditional rival, the Calgary Flames, which the Oilers won 7-4.

The first goal was scored by Oilers winger Patrick Maroon, tipping in a Leon Draisaitl shot past Flames goalie Brian Elliott 70 seconds into the game.

The first fight was Milan Lucic slugging to a draw with Calgary's Deryk Engelland.

Rogers Place is a $615-million facility that replaces Rexall Place, which had been home to the Oilers since 1974, when they were still in the World Hockey Association.

Now hanging overhead are the banners transplanted from Rexall Place that mark the Oilers' division, conference, and Stanley Cup titles.

Earlier Wednesday, the Oilers unveiled the refurbished three-metre bronze Gretzky statue outside the arena.

Gretzky, his family, and former star teammates Messier, Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, and Paul Coffey were on hand.

The statue had been in front of Rexall Place since 1989, a year after Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings.

"When we were kids playing here we didn't think about the future other than we wanted to become the best team we could possibly become," Gretzky told the crowd at the unveiling.

The Oilers also opened the team's hall of fame room, and Oilers owner Daryl Katz — with Gretzky beside him — announced Gretzky is now a partner and vice-chairman of the Oilers umbrella organization, the Oilers Entertainment Group.

Gretzky says his role is yet to be defined, but Katz said he will help direct the operation at its highest levels.

There are other changes this season.

Greeting fans as they entered was Hunter the Lynx, a mascot clad in an Oilers jersey and sporting an oversized furry head.

Hunter is a shoutout to an iconic animal of northern Alberta. But Hunter has ignited some earnest, and tongue-in-cheek, debate that his fangs and mesmerizing green eyes might give kids nightmares.

Also gone are the Oilers Octane cheerleading squad after a run of almost six years.

At Rexall Place, the Oilers would begin the game by skating out through the struts of an oil derrick that was raised and lowered from the roof.

That derrick is also history.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2016
The Canadian Press

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