Of Beer and Bettman: A ‘Home’ for Hockey | By Antony Ta

My nostrils soak up all the fumes of pre-packaged Hawaiian personal-sized pizzas, baking in tiny ovens outfitted with personal-sized conveyor belts. It would be just a regular Wednesday, except it’s not. On this particular Wednesday, it is the last time I will be drenching my thirst with cold (read: lukewarm) and potent Rexall Beer, whose fungal reputation has certainly outgrown the galling purchase price. On this particular Wednesday, it is the last time I will attend an NHL game in this storied building. The banners of hockey dynasties of the past loom hauntingly overhead. Since 1974, this has been the home of hockey’s highest level in Edmonton.

However, this is not an article about just the Edmonton Oilers. This is not (entirely) about pizzas, perogies, or beer, either. Rather, this is an abridged version, by a fan, of how even in this hockey-crazed corner of Northern Alberta, hockey had to find a place to call ‘home.’

Flashback: the year is 1982, long before I was born and before the Oilers’ first Stanley Cup. A manifestation of ‘an Unstoppable Force meets an Immovable Object’ plays out, as pre-NHL hockey in Edmonton did not, and would not, go so gentle into that good night. In this instance, the ‘Unstoppable Force’ was the growing momentum of a young NHL squad led by the soon-to-be Great One, and the ‘Immovable Object’ was the legendary 5200-seat Edmonton Gardens. It was simple economics – out with the old, small arena, and in with the new, grand Coliseum – except no one said that simple was supposed to be easy.

The Gardens called upon the soul of the Alamo and Thermopylae before it, thwarting the explosive power of dynamite twice, and withstanding the multiple onslaughts of bulldozers intent on destruction, defying the odds. The dust and smoke had not yet cleared and it was clear that the Gardens, if it was in fact to be torn down, required its own special kind of violence. Time and patience eventually prevailed (read: large wrecking balls) and the Gardens met with its intended fate [Lawrence Herzog, 2009]. In a town where big league hockey was never supposed to work, the “impossible dream” was not only fulfilled, but rather flourished despite all the challenges [Catherine Griwkowsky, 2012], and Northlands was swept up with that development boon.

Northlands Coliseum – now Rexall Place, taking after the name of the pharmacy conglomerate that the Oilers’ billionaire owner Daryl Katz recently sold off (you know, so he can focus on hockey, and stuff) – will not suffer the same threats of violence as the Gardens. Rexall Place – or whatever the Northlands Ice Coliseum will end up being called in the near future – will live on. Although it too will be saying its own goodbyes as NHL hockey moves to Rogers Place in 2016, Rexall Place and Northlands is set to undergo extensive renovations to accommodate multiple sheets of ice as well as additional concert halls in its next iteration [Gary Lamphier, 2016]. Ward 9 City Councillor Bryan Anderson once said that “no city in its right mind can operate two large venues like Rexall Place and a downtown arena at the same time,” but it would seem that Northlands has found a solution to that problem by changing the type of venue it intends to be [Antony Ta, 2009].

Rexall is the second oldest arena still in operation in the NHL. Unlike the Garden, whose last days were spent in mockery, most Edmontonians, even those that look forward to the advent of Ice District such as myself, will miss the LRT ride to Northlands, where the rafters have long informed locals and visitors alike that “YOU’RE IN OIL COUNTRY,” even those actually in town for the big rodeo finals or for the Oasis show.

Will fans identify more with Ice District than Oil Country? Ice Country? Oil District? Edmonton and Edmontonians are no strangers to this shifting corporate influence. Those of us who can recall a time when the Oilers games were televised on the now-defunct A-Channel will also recall that Rexall Place was once known as Skyreach Centre for a short and glorious period of time.

In the 2000 non-fiction account of hockey around the world titled Tropic of Hockey, the shift from the name Northlands Coliseum to Skyreach Centre is described as a shift from a name that “evokes hoarfrost and mulled wine and poplar trees” to a venue with a name that “evokes nothing,” [Dave Bidini, 2000]. Clearly, Bidini harbours no love for Genie lifts and elevated work platforms. One wonders what the experience will be like as the sponsorship landscape shifts from pharmacies to telecommunications, as the home of hockey moves from a ‘Rexall’ to a ‘Rogers.’

At Rexall, the clamour of playoff hockey has long since abandoned these open halls and concrete stairwells. For twenty-something Edmontonians like myself, Rexall Place has been the only home for hockey that my generation knows. The Canadian Finals Rodeo, Coliseum LRT Station, Skyreach Centre, and Joey Moss are all part of that legacy. But the regular season, in hockey-mad markets like Edmonton, will never be nearly enough, even if the team continues to sell out games. Legacy likely will not be enough, either.

It is a business after all.

National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman has certainly invested ample time and energy in keeping the Oilers in Edmonton, as “it can be argued that his staunch negotiations and rigorous pursuit of a salary cap in 2004-05 directly resulted in the continued existence of the Ottawa Senators, Calgary Flames, and Edmonton Oilers,” [Cameron Lewis, 2016]. What’s true in Glendale, Arizona is also true in Edmonton, Alberta: failing NHL franchises and failing arena districts are bad for business in the NHL. Certainly, Bettman has always had an interest in seeing hockey succeed here.

0012_###

In a February 2011 visit to the City of Champions, Bettman had laid the groundwork for the ultimatum that led to Rogers Place. “It’s obviously essential that the Oilers have a new arena,” Bettman said. “This building is obviously outdated, and for this city to continue to attract concerts, family shows, conventions, having a new state-of-the-art arena is important. Equally important, this team, the Edmonton Oilers, has to have a new arena. There’s no question about it, they’re not going to stay in this building,” [John MacKinnon, 2011].

This is hard to reconcile, even as I support and continue to support Rogers Place. Certainly Rexall Place is no Baroque cathedral, but neither is it a sideshow on the events landscape. Bettman’s arena ultimatum may be concerned with shows of the future, but the fact is that Rexall and Northlands actually do very well when measured against their peers.

I don’t have the statistics for 2011 when Bettman’s comments were made, but the Northlands website proudly boasts that Rexall Place “was named Canada’s #1 Top Spot by Venues Today (and #13 in the world) in 2013 and was listed that same year by Pollstar as the third busiest arena in the country.” This was a marked improvement from 2012, when “Edmonton’s Rexall Centre came in at 26th with a total of 375,192 tickets sold,” [Dave Lazzarino, 2013]. Edmonton was also ranked third nationally in 2012.

While Bettman has fought and succeeded to keep the Oilers in Edmonton, Katz – who was the Oilers’ saviour when he purchased the franchise in 2008 from the 37-man EIG roster – flirted with the Ghosts of Arenas Past (read: Peter Pocklington) through “the tussling over the arena, during which Katz made veiled threats about moving the Oilers from Edmonton three different times,” [Canadian Business, 2012]. In September 2012, Katz explored relocation options to Seattle, however unlikely this relocation would have been considering Bettman’s work to keep the team here. Pocklington also once threatened to move the team to Hamilton. Katz later apologized for the Seattle incident, but this move further polarized opinions on arena funding at the time [David Shoalts, 2012].

The tussle was likely due to more than just hockey being on the line, considering Katz is “to get the arena rent-free along with all the revenue from tickets, concessions, and parking while he pays the operating expenses. There will also be real-estate development opportunities for the Katz Group,” [David Shoalts, 2012]. It is important to remember that Bettman does technically work for Daryl Katz, and regardless of where the team plays, newer arenas represent more varied sources of revenue. One might contend that “with real estate, as with romance, the thrill is quite often in the chase,” [Meghan Daum, 2010].

A similar story now plays out in the south of the province, while other cities with NHL hopes, such as Quebec City, wait intently for the outcome. Bettman has compared the Flames’ situation to Edmonton, claiming that the Flames’ “long term stability will be threatened if in fact they continue to play in the oldest arena in the league,” [Jesse Ferraras, 2016]. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi recently scoffed at the suggestion, and sarcastically responded that maybe “Calgarians require very wealthy people from New York to come and tell us what we need to do in our community because they understand vibrancy better than we do,” [Jesse Ferraras, 2016].

Although Calgarians may not necessarily be convinced that the ‘Edmonton template’ will serve their purposes, history tells us that the outcome is likely to be inevitable. Even from half the world away in far-flung ‘homes’ of hockey, as far away as Southeast Asia, hockey fans watched as beloved “old arenas like Chicago Stadium and the Montreal Forum and Memorial Auditorium were abandoned or demolished, and the Leafs moved out of Maple Leaf Gardens, their funeral march from one end of the rink to the other,” [Dave Bidini, 2000]. In Edmonton, our Rexall farewell was more of camaraderie, with #OnceAnOiler #AlwaysAnOiler being the main theme, meant to bridge the gap between the two arenas and also between the Oilers’ generations.

Photo by Antony Ta

David Gray, host of CBC Radio’s “The Eyeopener,” once asked Gary Bettman, “why is there no room in the NHL for beloved arenas like the Maple Leaf Gardens and the Montreal Forum and historic venues? Why is it so bad to have a 30-year-old arena?” Gray and Bettman both neglected to mention Madison Square Garden (more on that later), but Bettman did reiterate what he said in Edmonton in February 2011, almost word-for-word, claiming that “it’s about more than just the teams. If this is a city that wants to continue to get first rung concerts and family shows and ice shows, then you need to have the infrastructure to do it.” In the aforementioned survey by Pollstar that ranked Edmonton’s Rexall Place high nationally and internationally, “Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome appeared farther down on the list at 101st with just over 122,000 tickets sold,” [Dave Lazzarino, 2013]. Apparently, Calgary has always had issues attracting whatever a ‘family show’ is, the kind Edmonton has no issue attracting.

The Scotiabank Saddledome, built in 1983, is a spring chicken by comparison. Rexall Place was built in 1974, with the most recent renovation having happened prior to the 2007-08 NHL Season. The fourth Madison Square Garden, still standing, was built in 1968, with the most recent renovations having occurred in 1991 and again in 2012. Madison Square Garden was built over the skeleton of the old Penn Station, which was once a world-renown architectural achievement, despite outcries from concerned New Yorkers at the time to save the building. There are no actual plans by the NHL or the building’s operators to relocate the arena, or Manhattan-based arena sports teams like the New York Rangers, away from the league’s oldest venue. Ironically, since 2013, it has been the New York City Council who has explored plans to relocate the arena [Charles Bagli, 2013]. The legacy of Madison Square Garden is such that even today, there is still debate as to whether it was the right decision to demolish the original Penn Station. The legacy of Madison Square Garden is such that even now, in its fourth iteration, there is ample talk about what the fifth will look like.Made with Square InstaPic

What then, will be the legacy of Rexall Place for Edmontonians? Certainly there is a hockey history that cannot be separated from the place. Will it be different for those who remember it as the Coliseum, who were around for the five Stanley Cups? Will it be different for those of us who cheered on Ryan Smyth, Doug Weight, Mike Grier, Todd Marchant? Will it be different for those of us who were here for the Cup Run in 2006?

What will be the legacy of the building, given the fate of the old Penn Station, Edmonton Gardens, Montreal Forum, and Maple Leaf Gardens before it? Perhaps the legacy will be one of many lessons learned. Our lesson in real estate may be that having an arena doesn’t mean you are destined to have a team, but if you have a team, you are destined to have a new arena (read: sorry Saskatchewan, you’re probably not going to get a team).

Certainly, New York City is not and should not be a template for Edmonton’s development. Certainly, there are many places where Bettman will continue to push arena infrastructures as the golden ticket for revitalization, but it’s important to remember that civilization is “in the eye of the beholder […] the visceral essence of the parts of your home you hold most dear,” [Meghan Daum, 2010]. As the ‘home’ of hockey in Edmonton transitions from Rexall Place to Rogers Place next season, maybe “the real measure of ‘home’ is the degree to which you can leave it alone,” [Meghan Daum, 2010].

Maybe we’ll see the tiny pizzas and Rexall Beer at Rogers Place. But then again, I guess I’ll have to be ordering a ‘Rogers Beer’ instead.

Banner photograph courtesy of Wanderer Online photogapher Alan Paone. Body photography courtesy of Wanderer Online Visual Editor Antony Ta.

Related posts: