Spector on Oilers: The finest rink in the world?

Concept of the Edmonton Oilers' new arena. (City of Edmonton/CP)

EDMONTON – They commissioned the original report on the need for a new downtown arena in Edmonton back in 2007. And then the debate began.

It consumed this city the way a snake consumes a mouse, dominating the political landscape the way visiting teams dominated the Oilers in the faceoff circle.

Last week at an Edmonton City Council meeting the project crossed the final hurdle, and a new arena will indeed become the focal point of the largest downtown revitalization project this city has ever undertaken. Perhaps this country.

So if it is the longest, most debated arena in hockey history, then perhaps it is only fitting that the rink itself should be the best — at least for a few years, until some other city builds a newer, more modern arena.

“The arena we will build in Edmonton will be a very special, special building. It will be the nicest one of its kind in North America when it opens,” said Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel.

“When they approach it they’ll say, ‘Wow!’ When they go in it they’ll say ‘Wow!'”

OK. That’s what mayors are supposed to say. Especially mayors who are not expected to be politicians anymore once the rink opens in 2016, at a cost of $480 million.

Patrick Laforge is the president of Rexall Sports, and as such, has been consumed with this project. While the debate dragged on over funding the arena, Laforge and his people were pressing on in designing the project.

“We’ve surveyed and visited all 29 other buildings. Most of them have loaned us their drawings. They have some points of views of where things could be and should be … if they were doing it over again,” Laforge began.

As the two most forward-thinking arenas currently on the NHL landscape, Laforge thanked the people in Pittsburgh and Columbus “for almost adopting us over the past two years. We’ve been in and out of their facilities so many times, and have taken so much of their architects’ and their hockey peoples’ recommendations on what should and shouldn’t be. Size, dimension, use…

“And the other part is, we’ve been taking a lot of notes on all the things we shouldn’t do. I think we’ve got the Bible kind of put together now.”

Localization of the architecture, celebrating a history that includes five Stanley Cups and several Hall of Famers, perhaps even a nod to the old World Hockey Association — all are components that must be part of the finished product. For this, Laforge and crew went outside the 30 NHL rinks to one of the most historic sports venues in the world.

“Green Bay Wisconsin,” he said. “We have a big friendship there with the Packers, and a long history. Their building is a monument to the NFL, to Vince Lombardi, to the Packer teams, the Packer fans… We like just about everything they’ve done. For everybody who walks through those doors, you’re touched by it.

“We’ve taken a lot from the Yankees and their new facility. The Red Sox in Fenway. Montreal and the Bell Centre…”

A zinc exterior that appears fabulous in promotional videos. A club at ice level that both teams will walk past while going to and from the dressing room. A surrounding area to include a major hotel, restaurants, shops, an office tower and who-knows-what-else.

As dreary as Edmonton’s downtown is today, this project mirrors that in its potential vibrancy.

And so an Oilers club that has been the worst team in the league, in a downtown ranks near the bottom among preferred destinations by traveling hockey people, will now have what builders are saying will be the finest rink in the … world?

“Without a doubt it will be the best arena in the world,” Laforge said. “Not because we’ve gold-plated the bricks, but because it’s custom built for this market and these fans. It’s got so many unique things, combined in one facility, in small doses for people to enjoy.

“It will easily be the best in the world — for a long time. It won’t be the biggest. But it will be the best.”

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