Edmonton: Where oil, hockey meet in historic hi-octane blend

The lights of Edmonton stay on well into the morning in winter when nights are long. Craig Davis/Craigslegz.com

By Craig Davis, Craigslegz.com

EDMONTON, Alberta – The world opens up when we travel, and the out of the way places can be the most enlightening of all.

So it was that my first visit to Edmonton while covering a Florida Panthers road trip revealed the story of the original great oiler in that frigid outpost in northwest Canada.

The statue of the Great One, Wayne Gretzky, will move to the new home of the Edmonton Oilers. Craig Davis/Craigslegz.com

Hockey icon Wayne Gretzky merits the title Great One for putting Edmonton on the sports map by leading Edmonton to four Stanley Cup championships in the 1980s.

But those Oilers may not have come into existence without the persistence of Vern Hunter whose big score launched the boom that made Edmonton the oil capital of Canada as well as countless personal fortunes following World War II and through the energy crisis of the ‘70s.

My former sports writer colleague from South Florida, Marty Klinkenberg, who now covers hockey in Edmonton, introduced me to the tale of Hunter, who wasn’t considered such a great oiler until one cold day in February 1947 that changed everything for the economy in the area.

Imperial Oil was working on a losing streak of drilling 133 wells without a strike. Hunter had overseen many of those wastes of energy and resources, earning the derisive distinction as “Dry Hole” Hunter.

Kinkenberg knows about great plans gone awry. He is on an assignment to document the rookie season of Edmonton’s next great hockey hope, Connor McDavid, only to have the Anointed One break a collarbone after the first month.

A story isn’t over until the final chapter is written, and Hunter’s comeback offers hope for a mending McDavid.

Vern “Dry Hole” Hunter sparked the oil boom near Edmonton in 1947.

According to various historical accounts, Hunter wasn’t optimistic about ending the slump as 10 weeks of drilling dragged on without success in temperatures that reached minus-35 on Mike Turta’s farm southwest of Edmonton.

By the time they reached a depth of 1,544 meters the crew was ready pull the plug on another lost cause. Imagine the looks Hunter received when he ordered them to “drill just one more meter.”

Naturally, that silly extra meter hit the jackpot. Or so the legend is told.

My favorite part of the story, though, is what happened after the discovery was made. On Feb. 13, 1947 the public and dignitaries were invited to watch them bring in the well. With hundreds assembled in bitter cold weather the machinery broke down and nothing happened for hours.

In the words of Ol’ Dry Hole Hunter: “The crew and I were experts at abandoning wells but we didn’t know much about completing them.”

Some of the spectators left, but those who stuck around eventually got to see the first gush from Leduc #1, the well that changed everything for Edmonton as well as for Hunter, who went from hapless oiler to charter member of the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame.

The event, which is commemorated at the Leduc #1 Energy Discovery Center near Edmonton, tells a lot about the spirit of the region that remains today.

Nothing rolling on the North Saskatchewan River in Edmonton in January. Craig Davis/Craigslegz.com

A week after my visit to Edmonton in January 2015, more than 1,000 Oilers fans stood in minus-30 C temperature for a tour of the team’s new Rogers Place downtown arena that will open for the 2016-17 NHL season, as Klinkenberg reported in the Globe and Mail.

It takes that sort of hearty constitution to live in a place like Edmonton, where the winters are extreme and can seem endless, as do the nights, in Canada’s northernmost city (with population over 500,000).

It was 8:30 a.m. when I peeked out of my downtown hotel and saw the lights of the city still on, day not yet broken. A riverboat was entrapped in the frozen-over North Saskatchewan River as if in mid passage.

In summer people are out biking and jogging at 4:30 in the morning to take advantage of the few months of extra-long days. But there have been plenty braving the cold to skate on the new Freezeway through the woods that opened earlier this winter in Victoria Park.

The Edmonton Oilers skate onto the ice under an oil derrick at Rexall Place arena. Craig Davis/Craigslegz.com

It is impossible to learn a lot about a city in two days spent mostly on a work assignment. But people were friendly, and it seemed a modern city with some quaint charm.

They say the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald is haunted, but it proved to be the ideal late-night haunt for refuge from the chill at a fireside table in the lobby bar with pulled bison stuff mini yorkies washed down by a pint of Alley Kat Scona Gold ale.

It was too late to be greeted by Smudge the dog, the hotel’s Canine Ambassador. He has a doghouse by the front desk and his own Facebook page.

As it turned out it took traveling all the way to Edmonton for the best Brazilian food I’ve had anywhere. Grateful for Klinkenberg introducing me to the Pampa Brazilian Steakhouse, where a dizzying array sizzling meats are delivered on skewers to your table.

It’s all you want for $45 Canadian, which looks better after the currently favorable conversion to U.S. dollars. They might still be piling beef, pork, chicken and sausage on our plates if we hadn’t finally remembered to flip the coaster to the red side. The salad bar is a wonder too, and the capper was the waiter standing on the table to pour a sweet after-dinner liqueur into a shot glass at his feet.

Also made a drive-by past the nearly completed $480 million arena and entertainment complex that resembles a Star Trek spaceport and is designed to transport the city center into a vision of the future. But was thankful of getting to experience venerable Rexall Place (formerly Northlands Coliseum) where Gretzky and Co. made so much history in the 1980s but glory has faded with no appearances in the playoffs since 2006.

The statue of the Great One hoisting the Stanley Cup, as he did four times for the Oilers, will be moved to the new arena. The memories, though, can’t be transplanted.

Vern Hunter likely would have felt at home in the NHL’s second-oldest rink, particularly when the oil derrick is lowered for the Oilers to skate out under before games.

As for his contribution, Edmonton owes its prosperity of the past 60 years to what sprang from the strike at Leduc #1, though the economy has suffered with the recent drop in oil prices. There has also been considerable controversy surrounding the industry, regarding environmental and health concerns.

The sun makes a late but dramatic entrance over Edmonton in the winter. Craig Davis/Craigslegz.com

Leonardo DiCaprio filmed “The Revenant” in the region and created a cause celebre around both issues with media events highlighting the impact of the Alberta oil sands on native North Americans in the area.

It should be noted that the province announced a progressive strategy on combatting climate change in late 2015 that was endorsed by environmental groups including Greenpeace that imposes a tax on carbon, a cap on oil sands emissions, a phasing out of coal-fired electricity and an emphasis on wind power.

My brief visit to Edmonton didn’t allow time to visit the museum 20 minutes outside the city that pays tribute to the discovery made by Vern “Dry Hole” Hunter and his crew. But the fruits of their efforts could be seen all over on the drive to and from the international airport: I’ve never been any place with as many filling stations to choose from.

Most places I travel it’s a concern to find one to top off the rental car in order to avoid the refill charge. Here you could take your pick from two stations at the entrance to the airport.

The championship banners will move to Edmonton’s new downtown arena, but memories of the Oilers’ glory years remain in venerable Rexall Place.



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