As a civil-engineering student, Tom Anselmi worked on mining projects in Western Canada. In the summer of 1983, the future Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment executive pocketed $6 an hour as a surveyor at a coal-mining camp near Hinton, Alta.
“I remember being there when an upstart Oilers team made its first run at the playoffs,” Anselmi said this week. After losing that year to the Islanders, Edmonton went on to win five Stanley Cups in seven years. “Little did I know at the time that I was watching the end of one great hockey dynasty and the beginning of another.”
Four decades later, the 64-year-old finds himself overseeing business operations for the Oilers Entertainment Group, the NHL club’s parent company. In hiring him, the Oilers hope to bring a little MLSE to Alberta.
Over 17 years, the Toronto-area native held a number of titles with the organization that owns the Maple Leafs and Raptors, including chief operating officer, executive vice-president and president. Before he stepped down in 2013, he oversaw the development of Air Canada Centre and helped in the planning of Maple Leaf Square. When he left, the organization’s assets exceeded $2-billion.
In Edmonton, his mandate is to see through construction of the Ice District, Canada’s largest mixed-use sports and entertainment development. The $2.5-billion project covers 25 acres and is anchored by Rogers Place, the $480-million downtown arena that opened in 2016.
Its footprint is multiple times larger than what exists in Toronto, or at True North Square, a similar project under development in downtown Winnipeg.
“What has been created in the Ice District is ground-breaking,” Anselmi said. “The difference between it and Toronto is that things were done incrementally there. Here, there always was a grander, long-term vision.
“It starts with ownership. Daryl Katz has a vision for what the organization can be and a desire to succeed in the community he grew up in. The future is bright. You can feel it.”
A reclusive billionaire raised in Edmonton during the Oilers’ glory years, Katz purchased the Oilers for $200-million in 2008 but has seen the team have only limited success since then. It is not for a lack of interest or investment on his part; Katz has spent hundreds of millions to make it better.
In the most recent moves, former Hockey Canada boss Bob Nicholson was promoted to Oilers chairman and alternate governor, Ken Holland was brought in as general manager and president of hockey operations, Dave Tippett was hired as head coach and Anselmi is taking over off-ice duties previously handled by Nicholson.
“In Bob and Ken, I think I have partners in crime that want to take this team to where we need to go next,” Anselmi said.
Anselmi grew up in Etobicoke, a suburb just west of Toronto, and studied landscape architecture at what is now Ryerson University and then engineering at the University of Saskatchewan. It is fair to say that few in the sports-management business have taken such a curious path.
It led to him living in a coal-mining camp, and working to design uranium and potash mines in isolated parts of northern Saskatchewan.
“I used to joke with my friends that the mosquitoes were bigger there than streetcars in Toronto,” he said.
Before joining MLSE in 1996, he helped build Rogers Arena in Vancouver as vice-president and general manager for Orca Bay Sports and Entertainment. He also spent years in Toronto overseeing the development and opening of the SkyDome.
He was semi-retired last year when Nicholson offered him a job.
“I was playing golf – and not getting any better – when this came around,” Anselmi said. “We started to talk and it interested me.”
He travelled to Edmonton, toured Rogers Place and pored over the blueprints for the Ice District.
“When you look at it, it is the epicentre of something great,” Anselmi said. “Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?
In June, Anselmi was introduced as president of business operations and chief operating officer in Edmonton. As Nicholson and Holland work to improve the team after many lacklustre years, Anselmi is charged with broadening and increasing the off-ice interests of the Oilers Entertainment Group.
Its holdings include not only the NHL team, but AHL and WHL franchises, a film studio and massive real estate interests. At the heart of it, the Oilers are what make the other things possible.
“I think the Oilers can be one of the great hockey brands in the world for a number of reasons,” Anselmi said. “It’s a franchise with an incredible history. It has an arena with the best of everything. It has the Ice District and Connor McDavid.
“It is a combination of all of that we have in front of us.”
A little more than halfway through the regular season, the Oilers are one point removed from first in the NHL Pacific Division after missing the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 years. With an assist in a victory over the Canadiens on Thursday, McDavid became the first player in the league to reach 70 points in 46 games in successive seasons since Jaromir Jagr did it with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1998-99 and 1999-2000.
The Oilers enter a game in Calgary on Saturday 4-0-1 over their past five games. It is the first of three meetings this month between the provincial rivals and comes only days after Edmonton won for the first time in Toronto since December of 2010.
McDavid, who turns 23 on Monday, clinched the victory and hushed the crowd at Scotiabank Arena with another of his what-did-we-just-see goals.
“The building went silent except for Oilers fans,” Anselmi said. “It was a special moment.”
Anselmi made only a brief visit to Toronto before he returned to Edmonton to continue with the task at his fingertips.
Along with a new arena with a soaring 45,000-square-foot entrance hall, the Ice District includes a 50,000-square-foot public plaza with an outdoor skating rink being built at its doorstep. A JW Marriott just opened in a new 55-storey building that also has condominium units on 31 floors. It stands beside a new 66-storey skyscraper that is the tallest building west of Toronto. All around them, other towers are going up that include retail space and more residences.
The only larger mixed-use development in North America is Hudson Yards, a $25-billion private real estate development being built on the West Side of Manhattan. It is not the centrepiece of a sports and entertainment complex, however.
“There is really nothing like it in North America,” said Tim Shipton, the senior vice-president of the Katz Group and Oilers Entertainment Group as well as vice-president of the Ice District. “It is a fully master-planned development [with] the arena and team as the anchors.”
In Edmonton, concrete was just poured for the skating pads. A three-storey sports bar with a 10,000-square-foot rooftop patio and vodka-tasting room constructed out of blocks of ice and snow will open in the middle of next year. A massive fireplace is going up in the outdoor plaza, which the organization hopes to unveil in the spring in conjunction with a playoff run.
“We envision thousands of Oilers fans gathering in that space,” Shipton said. “We see it as the heartbeat of the Ice District.”
The rebuilding of the Oilers and Edmonton’s downtown core are separate but connected entities.
“The parallels between the product on the ice and off of it are always fascinating to me,” Anselmi said. “You can succeed when they work together in lockstep and with clarity of focus. Our job is to move into a new transition phase and get things right.
“The canvas is there. We just have to start painting the right picture.”
Anselmi muses that he never expected to end up in a position like this in Edmonton. It takes him back to 1983 when the Oilers rose to become one of the biggest dynasties in pro sports.
“It is a nice loop and it would be really cool to close it and be part of a new dynasty,” he said. “Edmonton is probably the biggest small town in Canada, and people here are as salt-of-the-earth as it gets.
“The fans are so good and so loyal that we owe it to them. We want to win a Stanley Cup. It is a great hockey town.”