Stampede Corral: An unforgettable piece of Calgary’s history

L-R, Jim Laurendeau, Vice-President, Park Planning and Development Calgary Stampede and Don Wilson, Historical Committee Calgary Stampede are two of the people involved in preserving bits of the Stampede Corral.

It was the day he lived for each week, when he’d get to spend the entire afternoon watching live action on the hockey rink.

“I’d take the bus after church every Sunday to Stampede Park and meet my friends at the Corral,” recalls Dave Poulsen. “It was a senior men’s league called Big Six Hockey. When you’re an 11-year-old hockey fan, it was the greatest.”

By the time Poulsen had permission to venture out on his own for his beloved hockey day, the Stampede Corral was already a decade old, its 1950 grand opening letting Calgarians see the largest new arena west of Toronto for an admission of only 55 cents.

From those inauspicious beginnings, the Corral would go on to host NHL games, along with the world-famous Stampede Wrestling and Cirque du Soleil. An eclectic array of top entertainers such as Johnny Cash, Bob Hope, Chuck Berry, The Three Stooges, The Who, Rihanna and Queen — headed up by the legendary Freddie Mercury — also graced the stage of its 6,650-seat facility with standing room for 2,200.

Today, though, there is activity of another kind at the 70-year-old concrete-and-cinder block structure just a stone’s throw from the Saddledome. For the past few weeks, workers have been busy removing its contents in preparation for eventual demolition in the fall. At the same time, construction has been taking place on a new hall that will be part of the BMO convention centre. It’s all part of a $500-million expansion of the park’s convention offerings that will eventually see the Corral replaced with a world-class facility.

All that activity represents a turning point for the Stampede’s leadership, one that will usher Calgary into a new era of competitiveness in the lucrative world of convention hosting.

“We will have one million square feet in floor space,” says Jim Laurendeau of the expansion, including 350,000 square feet of contiguous exhibition space and more than double its current rentable area, along with meeting rooms wired for instant connectivity.

 Jim Laurendeau, Vice-President, Park Planning and Development for the Calgary Stampede.

These improvements, says Laurendeau, the Stampede’s VP of park planning and development, will translate into year-round employment for another 1,757 Calgarians and an injection of an additional $223 million into the local economy.

“We have been building towards this for 108 years, making the park a place for people to come together all throughout the year,” he says of the expansion, which essentially doubles the existing convention centre’s footprint, a project made possible through equal contributions from all three levels of government. “It’s quite a milestone for our organization.”

While he’s excited for the future implications of being home to an international-level convention centre, Laurendeau and his team have been highly cognizant of the significance the Corral has had for Calgarians over its seven decades of existence. “As a boy scout, I attended events here, like so many Calgarians have,” he says of the building that has also housed religious services and charity events over the decades. “The Corral has a place in my heart, too.”

That’s why from day one of the planning stages, the Stampede’s historical committee has played a major role. “Our job was to identify what in the Corral we wanted to save, and if we did, what it was going to cost,” says Don Wilson, a 22-year Stampede volunteer who sits on the historical committee, which has more than 40 members. “We created a four-page list of everything that had a historic or emotional value.”

 Don Wilson, a member of the Historical Committee of the Calgary Stampede.

Some of the items that made the cut were the murals of Cappy Smart, Guy Weadick and the RCMP Musical Ride, preserved using laser imaging, for future replication at the park. The Neon Cowboy sign, along with the figurines of hockey players and other athletes — which were affixed to several feet of thick concrete — were also digitized so that they can later be recreated and brought back to life, likely in and around the new convention centre.

Unfortunately, most of the seats in the arena couldn’t be saved, due to a high concentration of lead paint. However, saving the countless photographs bolted to the arena concourse walls wasn’t an issue, as the originals are safely stowed in the Stampede’s archives.

 Stampede Corral historical photos on wall of old Corral in Calgary.

“What was on the walls in recent years were just copies,” says Wilson. “My original career was firefighting, so I know the biggest loss you incur with historical artifacts is through fire,” he says of the pre-emptive move to protect the originals.

In addition, a video walk-through of the Corral was created before the removal of items and subsequent demolition of the building, which will come down piece by piece, rather than implosion. The video will be made available this fall on the Stampede’s website (


If anyone knows the significance of the Corral, it’s Dave Poulsen, who also sits on the Stampede’s historical committee. “On Boxing Day 1950, the first hockey game, between the Calgary Stampeders and the Edmonton Flyers, was played here,” he says of the arena that would become home to the NHL’s Calgary Flames for the team’s first three years of life beginning in 1980. “It went on to host rodeos and rock stars.”

One interesting tidbit Poulsen offers up is that the building almost didn’t come to be named the Corral. “They opened up a contest to the public to name the building and suggested a few possible names, including the Corral,” he says. “The public overwhelmingly chose the ‘Stampede Gardens.’” Stampede officials overruled the vote, much to the chagrin of the local sports media. “For years they referred to it on air and in print as the ‘new arena,’” says Poulsen with a laugh. “The media guys thought it (the Corral name) just furthered our hick town image.”

Along with the walls of photographs depicting hockey’s early days right up to NHL competition, Poulsen also has a big place in his heart for Irene Besse, the local piano legend who would sometimes serve as organist at hockey games. “Kids would go and sit beside her on her bench while she played,” he says, noting the Corral organ was also saved. “People would send her soft drinks, which she never drank because she didn’t take breaks.”

 The Calgary Stampeder hockey club.

While he understands that the demolition of the old Stampede Corral will help to usher in a new era of prosperity for both the organization and the city, Poulsen says it’s bittersweet to see the end of another.

“It’s such a cool place, filled with so much history,” he says of the building that cost a then-whopping $1.5 million to build 70 years ago. “It’ll be missed by me and so many other Calgarians.”

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