Nelson: What life we lived under the Dome

The Calgary Reverse Hyperbolic Paraboloid Dome sadly didn’t have the right ring to it.

But it just needed the roof to go on and Calgarians immediately had a clue what to call it: after all, the brand-spanking new arena that the entire city had been waiting for looked just like that most western of artifacts — a saddle.

From that point onward, the original idea of calling it the Olympic Coliseum was dead in the water if not frozen in ice. After all, there was already a similarly named hockey arena up north at Northlands in Edmonton and no one really wanted to follow in those footsteps.

No, this looked like a saddle so that is what it would eventually be called: The Saddledome being judged winner in a public pick-a-name contest.

Saddledome construction without the roof. Courtesy GEC Architecture

People would later imagine that the unusual structure itself — built using the aforementioned reverse hyperbolic paraboloid architectural technique — was designed to be a tip-of-the-Stetson to Calgary’s cowboy culture.

But they would be wrong. Instead, it was a way of allowing pillar-free viewing from all the seats, thereby increasing the number of fans in a smaller interior space than in more traditional venues. It also would help deal with Calgary’s ever-changing weather.

The building would change the face of Calgary. Before the Saddledome arrived, the only major landmark known to most other Canadians was the ubiquitous Calgary Tower. Back in 1983, when the Saddledome opened to the public, there were no Bankers Hall, Bow building or Telus Sky as competition.

Yet it could have been the skyline of nearby Airdrie, rather than Calgary, that was transformed.

As with most major building projects ever undertaken in the city, the site for a new arena, that would be both a new home to the recently acquired NHL Flames from Atlanta as well as backstop to a bid to host the 1988 Winter Olympics, was subject to so much controversy.

Council considered several spots for this proposed building and, in the end, decided upon the rundown Victoria Park neighbourhood. It would be the best choice.

But the “not-in-my backyard” attitude was just as prevalent back in 1980 as it is today and local residents, fearing increased traffic and noise, fought the proposal tooth and nail, even threatening to put a wrench into the city’s entire Olympic bid.

City council is discussing a tentative agreement between the City of Calgary, the Calgary Flames and the Calgary Stampede to build a new NHL arena to replace the Saddledome. Al Charest / Postmedia

It was then that a group of well-healed businessmen stepped forward to suggest that Airdrie could be the perfect answer, close to Calgary but far enough away from the various squabbles.

However, in the end, they failed. So instead, on March 3, 1981, council voted to build the 17,000-seat arena close to Victoria Park on the Stampede grounds. Seating would eventually increase.

A few months later, with nearby residents still up in arms over the proximity of the proposed building and promising all sorts of legal challenges, Mayor Ralph Klein successfully persuaded the Lougheed provincial government to take over the land and thereby circumvent the usual civic appeals process. Construction finally began on July 29, 1981.

These various rows took a toll on both the timing and the cost. So, when the Saddledome eventually opened in the fall of 1983, it was eight months late and about $16 million over budget — the final price tag coming in at $97.7 million ($224 million in today’s money). As an Olympic project, in the end, all three levels of government shared the tab.

The 1988 Olympic display in Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame at Winsport in Calgary on Wednesday September 12, 2018. Darren Makowichuk / Postmedia

But on Oct. 15, few among that packed and excited house were thinking of budgets or delays. Not when Flames captain Lanny McDonald faced off at centre ice against the Oilers’ Wayne Gretzky.

In the end, the game didn’t go as hoped, the Oilers winning 4-3. But a look back at stats from that long ago encounter shows what a remarkable night of hockey it actually was.

The first-ever goal: Kurri from Gretzky and Coffey, the second, courtesy of Lanny himself. Meanwhile, Jim Peplinski and Mark Messier spent most of the evening in the penalty box — collectively there’d be about 100 penalty minutes. Before that decade was done, those players would all raise the Stanley Cup above their heads.

It was a beginning worthy of a building that would quickly become such a recognizable part of Calgary across the entire globe. Time magazine would feature it on the cover of a pre-Olympic issue.

Of course, the Flames went on to contest three Stanley Cup finals on its ice, concert-goers would flock to see some of the hottest acts of the day — Stevie Ray Vaughan and the Moody Blues were the first, though no performer has ever matched the 11 visits of Rod Stewart.

Rod Stewart performs live at the Scotiabank Saddledome in 2014. Jenn Pierce / Calgary Herald

The Queen graced the building as part of Alberta’s centennial celebrations in 2005, Elizabeth Manley forever carved her name into Canadian Olympic history with her long-program skating performance in 1988, while bulls have busted cowboys, marching bands have gleefully won gold medals and evangelical converts have found their own salvation under that saddle-shaped roof.

The Dome, as it quickly became known, has been expanded, shrunk, refigured and flooded down the years. But it always endured, so much so that it will soon be the oldest NHL arena, bar the massively redesigned Madison Square Garden. It’s had a variety of additional monikers added to the Saddledome part — from Olympic, through Canadian Airlines, Pengrowth and finally to Scotiabank.

But time has taken its toll. The place isn’t equipped to handle the demands of today’s top music performers, acts that require a different, stronger roof structure on which to erect their increasingly complex and heavy stage shows. Nor does the arena compete on a financial basis with others, where private boxes and luxury extras bring in revenue that helps keep teams competitive.

What once was cutting edge today seems sadly blunted. But, regardless of what happens with the proposed deal between the Flames group and the city over a new arena, the memories of the famous Saddledome will linger among Calgarians for many decades to come: what they saw, how they felt and who sat beside them.

To be sure: there’s never been a reverse hyperbolic paraboloid building on earth quite like it.

Chris Nelson is a regular columnist for the Calgary Herald.

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