What I’m about to propose represents a complete 180-degree turn from my usual philosophies, but here it goes: Citizens of Edmonton, put up some cash for a new arena.
As noted by Terry Jones in today’s Edmonton Sun, Oilers president and CEO Patrick LaForge is putting the full-court press on the city’s chamber of commerce right now and even got some assistance from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who remarked, “It is imperative that the Oilers have a new building…Plans for a downtown building, I think, are vital not just for the future of this franchise, but for the city.”
Word up to that, Gary.
As I said before, I’m usually never in favor of a city paying for an arena, because the owner of a professional sports team should be able to afford to pay for the building he makes his revenue from (or lease one at a reasonable rate), but new Oilers owner Darryl Katz is willing to put up $100 million himself – and that’s no small chunk of change, even for a pharmacy kingpin.
That financial commitment itself goes a long way in my mind, but there’s another important fact to remember here: Without the Oilers, no one south of Lethbridge would have ever heard of Edmonton – OK, maybe a couple of Canadian Football League fans in Hamilton and Toronto, but certainly not anyone in America who doesn’t have family there.
With the Oilers, however, Edmonton is the quintessential hockey town, home of the last true NHL dynasty (Detroit and New Jersey never strung enough consecutive titles together) and that magical, snowy locale where a skinny kid from Ontario named Wayne Gretzky became a hockey god.
And The Great One’s legacy becomes even more prominent to the city’s story thanks to his exit. Not only was there the enduring image of owner Peter Pocklington playing the role of Mr. Potter, ruining Edmonton’s Wonderful Life by shipping out Gretzky for cash and lesser players, but No. 99’s arrival in Los Angeles heralded the true beginning of hockey in sunny places, an epochal moment now coming to fruition with players such as Jonathan Blum and Mitch Wahl, both members of Team USA’s world junior team and Californians born and bred.
But back to Edmonton proper. Rexall Place is one of the oldest arenas in the NHL and its contemporaries, such as Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh, are well on their way to being replaced. With solid ownership and a salary cap, the Oilers no longer have to worry about keeping talent the way they did just a few years ago. As the constant sell-outs at the gate prove, the city loves the team.
With a capacity of 16,839, Rexall Place has the smallest amount of seats in the NHL other than Nassau Coliseum, though the New York Islanders have the “luxury” of rarely selling out, so it’s not much of a problem. In Edmonton, however, the fan base is much bigger and demand far outstrips supply. Getting this arena done sooner than later means more fans get a chance to watch their team live. Not only that, but a new rink would have more corporate suites (Edmonton Chamber of Commerce, I’m looking in your direction), also an underserved area under the current arrangement.
Is it fair to put a large project like this partially on taxpayers during these tough economic times? Maybe not, but the benefits are myriad. I’m sure a deal can be worked out to get some, if not most, of that money back in public coffers in the future, but the secondary revenue, jobs and city growth achieved from a new downtown arena in a hockey-mad town would bring immediate benefits.
Edmonton and the Oilers are inseparable. Might as well put some money into the marriage; both sides deserve it.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey’s Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his column – The Straight Edge – every Friday, and his features, The Hot List and Prep Watch appears Tuesdays and Thursdays.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.