Tomorrow night, the Edmonton Oilers will end their 31st season in the National Hockey League in dismal fashion: not just out of the playoffs but dead last. With luck, they'll avoid matching their franchise-record lowest season total of 60 points.
But for a Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup final four years ago, the team's golden days are long gone. It has been 20 years since the Oilers last won the cup, their fifth in seven years and the only one since Wayne Gretzky's infamous trade to California.
The team will begin rebuilding with a top draft pick in June, but the construction plans don't stop there. There is also a campaign to erect a $400-million arena.
The Oilers and their billionaire owner say they need it to stay competitive in a small market. They also say the new home must be in the heart of the city - and taxpayers should pick up the tab.
In a community already on the hook for billions in infrastructure backlog, the proposal has proved incredibly divisive. Some residents feel it will spark a rejuvenation of the sputtering downtown core and some consider it blackmail, a veiled threat to move if the public says no. Others, however, fear the decision is a forgone conclusion.
"A new arena will be built, and it will be subsidized," University of Alberta economist Brad Humphreys predicts. "It's not just Edmonton - that's the way it happens across North America."
The Promised Land
Unzipping a makeshift tarp door, Bob Black walks into an unfinished corner office on the 17th floor of the Bell Tower, one of the few skyscrapers in Edmonton's downtown.
He strides past construction material to a window where he can look down on a casino and bus station separated by a sea of parking stalls.
"This is the site," he says proudly, spreading his arms out to the 16 nearly empty acres. "The arena would basically be in the centre."
A lifelong local resident, Mr. Black was poached from a law practice late last year to lead the pitch for a new arena by Oilers owner Daryl Katz. A reclusive self-made pharmacy mogul, Mr. Katz boasts a net worth, according to Forbes Magazine, of $1.4-billion, and bought the team two years ago - five years after buying the right to name its current home Rexall Place after one of his drugstore chains. To complete the deal, he leaned heavily on his local roots and pledged $100-million toward a new home for the team.
Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel supports the idea. In 2007, the same year his re-election campaign received a $15,000 donation from Mr. Katz's company, he commissioned a city report on a plan that would "accelerate urban redevelopment," "meet current and future NHL standards and the needs of the Edmonton Oilers," and "meet community expectations."
Rexall Place is owned by the city and located a 10-minute drive from downtown. Originally known as Northlands Coliseum, it opened in 1974, six years after Madison Square Garden, the NHL's oldest arena, and can hold 16,839 people, just 600 more than the league's smallest (the New York Islanders' Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum).
The report pegged the cost of renovating Rexall Place at $250-million, said the city would probably be on the hook for that sum, and outlined a long list of cases where arenas have played a role in downtown revitalization.
"If we don't do something else, we're going to have to pay to fix that building," Mr. Mandel explains. "We're caught between a rock and a hard place, so we've got to come up with some solutions."
So the report recommended a new arena that "has to be downtown," and the team says it is essential to its long-term viability because Rexall Place has too few seats, luxury suites and amenities to make a decent profit. (Last year, according to Forbes, the Oilers ranked 20th among the league's 30 teams in revenue.)
Some have interpreted that as a threat to move the team - a sore subject since the Oilers nearly left for Houston in the 1990s, saved by a last-ditch effort by 38 business leaders, the group that sold to Mr. Katz.
"It's not a threat to move the team," Mr. Black counters. "It's simply a reflection of the need to put the Edmonton Oilers on a solid foundation financially."
And his boss is proposing much more than a hockey rink. Mr. Katz envisions a $1.5-billion "arena district" with new hotels, an office tower, student housing, a casino and other retail developments, all breathing life into a downtown area currently crawling along in second gear.
But local columnists have questioned the "raw gall" of the proposal, detecting a whiff of "bait-and-switch" because the team now says the $100-million was never meant to be for the actual arena. Mr. Katz is proposing to leverage that money and his reputation to raise the $1-billion for the rest of the development. In exchange for the potential tax revenue, he wants a free rink and a sweetheart deal to use it.