QUEBEC – The Edmonton Oilers met with the mayor of Quebec City on Wednesday to compare notes on arena funding but not, says the president of the NHL team, to discuss relocating the franchise.
“We’re both building facilities,” Oilers president Patrick LaForge told reporters after the meeting with Mayor Regis Labeaume.
“We’re both trying to get them off the ground. We have a hockey team, and perhaps they don’t here. But there’s no reason for that to be drawn together.
“We are not planning to move the Oilers at this time.
“We’re going to build a building.”
Labeaume is trying to get $180 million from the federal government to help build a $400-million arena he hopes can lead to the return of the NHL to Quebec City. The Quebec government has already committed a similar amount to the project.
The Quebec Nordiques moved south and west in 1995 to become the Colorado Avalanche.
LaForge was accompanied Wednesday by Kevin Lowe, the team’s president of hockey operations, and Paul Marcaccio, the chief financial officer for the Katz Group, which owns the team.
The Oilers are negotiating with the City of Edmonton to co-fund a $450-million downtown rink to replace aging Rexall Place. The Oilers say the rink is too small and their lease deal is unsatisfactory.
Team owner Daryl Katz has bought the land and drawn up plans for a new arena complex as part of a $1-billion conglomeration of hotels, shops, restaurants and student complexes.
He has promised to put $200 million toward the rink and the surrounding complexes, but wants the city to pay the rest, with the Oilers keeping all revenues that accrue from the new arena.
City councillors are still mulling the issue and have been running public forums to gauge the public mood.
Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel said he doesn’t see the Quebec meeting as a gambit to put pressure on his city to pony up the cash.
“I don’t think anything (untoward is going on),” Mandel told reporters. “We have heard nothing that would lead us to believe anything different. The Oilers are a big part of Edmonton.”
This is the second time the Oilers have talked hockey with politicians in other cities, a move that always sets off alarms on blogsites and message boards in the Alberta capital. Residents are rabid fans, routinely selling out Rexall Place despite the fact that the Oilers ice one of the worst teams in the NHL.
The last such out-of-town meet was in June, when Katz Group officials struck a deal to run Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, another city desperate for an NHL team.
LaForge said at that time that the Copps deal was part of the Katz Group’s longer-term plan to get more involved in the sports-entertainment business and was not to make Hamilton the new home for the Oilers.
Katz, however, has said time is of the essence because he wants the new rink in place as soon as the lease deal at Rexall expires in 2014.
He says the Oilers are running millions of dollars in the red every year and that a new 18,000-seat facility is critical to keeping the team financially afloat.
The curly-haired 48-year-old pharmacy billionaire has been beating the drum for a new rink since he bought the Oilers two years ago.
He can’t expect direct aid from the province. Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach has said he doesn’t support public money going toward sports stadiums for privately owned teams.
In Quebec, fans have been rallying around the arena issue.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said the league won’t wade into the arena debate, but adds that a new arena is essential before the NHL would consider moving back.
Labeaume has set a deadline of Dec. 21 to raise the requisite money for the rink, which would also be used to help the city bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government is hedging, given the optics of trying to slay the deficit while funding sports arenas for private teams. Money for Quebec’s rink would also make it politically difficult for Harper to say no to cities like Edmonton.
—With files from Dean Bennett in Edmonton