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Rogers Place, the new home of the Edmonton Oilers, was opened temporarily during an arena tour in Edmonton on Jan. 16. (LIAM KAVANAGH-BRADETTE/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Rogers Place, the new home of the Edmonton Oilers, was opened temporarily during an arena tour in Edmonton on Jan. 16. (LIAM KAVANAGH-BRADETTE/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Oilers fans brave the cold, ‘revelling in the experience’ of Rogers Place tour Add to ...

Mustaches frozen and steam billowing with each breath, more than 1,000 fans waited patiently to get their first look at Edmonton’s downtown hockey arena. Wearing mittens and balaclavas and Oilers jerseys and ski jackets, they laughed in the face of winter, and even danced in line at one point as they stood outside Rogers Place in Saturday’s -30 C temperatures.

Edmonton's new arena is 'like a cathedral,' says fan (CP Video)

The city’s new $480-million rink caused considerable and lengthy debate, but there were no detractors present at a sneak preview that was delayed because of the dangerously cold temperatures.

“I hope they hand out tuques,” one woman said cheerfully as the line she was in, 100 metres long at least, started filing into the soaring structure that will play host to the city’s NHL team beginning in the 2016-17 season. Construction on the 18,641-seat venue continued even as spectators milled around a viewing area set up on the floor.

Fans craned their necks as they peered up at the 14-storey-tall ceiling and imagined the enormous, high-definition scoreboard that will hang above the faceoff circle at centre ice. The team’s current venue, Rexall Place, opened in 1974, and is the second-oldest arena in the league after Madison Square Garden.

“This building is a cathedral,” said Jacob Golka, 29 years old and a lifelong Oilers devotee. “It looks incredible.

“The thing that comes to mind is that Rexall Place is steeped in history, with Wayne Gretzky and what happened in the 1980s. Nothing much really has occurred lately, but this arena is going to open at a perfect time to welcome in a whole new generation of Oilers.”

It has been 26 years since the team won the last of its five Stanley Cups, and a decade since it reached the playoffs.

But the Oilers’ roster is stocked with talented young players, including the recent No. 1 draft pick Connor McDavid, who is expected to return from a collar-bone injury on Feb. 2.

“This opportunity today gives us all a vision,” said Golka, sporting an Oilers’ tuque, scarf, jersey and gloves. “I am just revelling in the experience.

“The Oilers will probably play here 30 or 40 years or more, so I see this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I expect to tell my kids and grandkids about it.”

Construction began in March of 2014 on Rogers Place, the centrepiece of a 25-acre sports and entertainment corridor envisioned by Daryl Katz, the team’s billionaire owner. Called the Ice District, the $2.5-billion project includes office towers, luxury condominiums, Canada’s third JW Marriott Hotel, restaurants and retail space. Negotiations are taking place to further expand the development, which would make it larger than LA Live, the sports and entertainment district around the Staples Center in Los Angeles.

“The bones of the building are great,” Bob Black, the executive vice-president of the Katz Group, said Saturday between greeting guests. “We can’t wait to open this facility and usher in a new era in downtown Edmonton.”

Construction of the structure itself is complete, and mechanical and electrical work is now being done. The ice is expected to be laid six weeks from now, with a target date for completion of Sept. 2 and an opening gala held between then and the start of the next NHL season.

“We’re past the baby pictures stage now,” said Rick Daviss, the executive director of the city’s downtown arena project. “It’s nice to be able to share this with people. The weather didn’t co-operate, but the diehards still came out. They are an enthusiastic bunch. Everything I have heard is nothing but positive.”

Cold-weather warnings were issued in central and eastern Alberta over the weekend. The temperature was in the minus-20s in Edmonton on Saturday, felt 10 degrees colder, and plummeted to -40 Saturday night including wind chill. It was so cold – even by Edmonton standards – that the public unveiling was pushed back an hour because officials feared people would freeze while waiting in line.

The punch of winter didn’t seem to reduce the turnout significantly, or dampen the enthusiasm.

“People are anxious to get a sneak peek,” said Kevin Lowe, the former NHL defenceman and vice-chairman of the Oilers Entertainment Group, the team’s parent company. “It’s kind of an adventure for them, like coming to the first Heritage Classic.

“They want to be able to say they were in here before it was open.”

More than 57,000 people attended the NHL Heritage Classic in November of 2003, the NHL’s first regular-season game outdoors, in similar weather.

On Saturday, many stopped to have pictures taken of themselves by Rogers employees, who then superimposed McDavid or Ryan Nugent-Hopkins beside them. The players were participating in a pregame skate before the night’s game with the Calgary Flames, and thus missed the opening.

Down on the floor, Javier Pailamilla and friends took pictures of one another holding a Chilean flag. A resident since coming to Edmonton from Chile in 1976, Pailamilla operates a janitorial-services company.

“It is very impressive,” he said, gazing around the arena. Pailamilla has been a season ticket holder for four years, and is looking forward to better days. “People are going to like it.

“It will inspire the city and Oilers fans.”

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