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Calgary Arena History: the Saddledome

Way, way back in the late 1970s, Calgary had hopes and dreams of getting itself onto the national and international stage. While a group of local business and political leaders talked openly about getting an Olympics, another group had National Hockey League aspirations.

All of these hopes and dreams came together in the early 1980s in the form of the Olympic Saddledome.

The Stampede Corral was a fine building for its time. It ably hosted several major hockey clubs for the Calgary area, including the WHL’s Calgary Wranglers and the WHA’s Calgary Cowboys – the team with the best logo in sports history, a silhouetted white cowboy hat. But by the late ’70s, the building was over 20 years old and showing its age. If Calgary was going to grab hold of rumoured further NHL expansion, they’d need an upgrade.

At the same time, Calgary was courting another interesting prospect: the International Olympic Committee. Calgary had bid on the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Winter Olympics and managed not to win, but the organizing committee had learned a lot from the process. Meanwhile, the municipal government was looking hard at potential places for a new building. Eventually, they settled on a spot across the street from the Corral – on the site of the old Victoria Arena.

Everything came together in 1980 and 1981. First, the struggling Atlanta Flames were purchased by a local group of investors and moved to Calgary, where they began the 1980-81 NHL season as the Calgary Flames. Initially playing in the Corral, the Flames’ move north really put an emphasis on the need for a new barn. Meanwhile, the Olympic bidding process was progressing. By the summer of 1981, the three orders of government started work on the new Calgary Coliseum – it ended up being funded entirely by a mixture of public funds from the municipal, provincial and federal governments – and impressed by the initiative taken, the IOC awarded Calgary the 1988 Olympics that fall.

The Coliseum – renamed the Olympic Saddledome prior to its 1983 opening – was huge compared to prior buildings, with a listed capacity of over 20,000 seats. It towered over the Corral and its hyperbolic parabola roof design created a unique fixture on the Calgary skyline. It also made more complex sound and lighting rigging difficult to hang from the roof, as the sloped design caused snow to collect in the middle. (Several events, such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship, were given a short window each year to potentially book events due to snow load concerns.)

30 years and a major renovation later, the Saddledome sits as the oldest arena in the NHL. Much like the Corral and the Victoria Arena before it, it’s aged gracefully but is a bit antiquated compared to other NHL buildings. The combination of the roof’s wacky design, complications from a major 2013 flood, and general wear and tear make it a challenging building to run for the long-term. Upkeep is expensive, while it’s become more challenging to draw big-ticket attractions with more elaborate staging and theatrics.

With the approval of the new Calgary event centre in 2019, the Saddledome is slated to be demolished shortly following the new building’s scheduled opening in 2024. By the time it finally closes its doors for good, the ‘Dome will have stood for over 40 years and hosted an Olympics, three Western Hockey League championship series and three Stanley Cup Finals.

It’s showing its age now, but the Saddledome has been a fantastic place to watch hockey and other events for decades.