New NHL venue living up to the hype

By Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell

EDMONTON…At first glance, the structure looks like a giant spaceship has landed and moored itself in the center of downtown Edmonton.

But this is no ordinary building. Rogers Place, the gleaming new home of the Edmonton Oilers, the team that gave us Wayne Gretzky and what was probably the last real hockey dynasty back in the late 80s, is turning heads and gathering critical acclaim from all circles for its forward looking design, trend setting amenities, and its effect on anchoring and spurring billions of dollars of private ancillary development in the city’s downtown core.

“The community has certainly responded well to our new arena,” says Reid Wilkins, game day and intermission host for the Edmonton Oilers radio broadcasts. “And what we’re seeing is that everyone wants to be down here. Something exciting is going on here in Edmonton and people want to be a part of it.”

That is sort of an understatement. Take a stroll through downtown Edmonton, and you see cranes in the air. But not just scattered everywhere. Most of the action is happening in what is dubbed the “Ice District”, a 25 acre parcel of land with the arena serving as its centerpiece.

Today the district is a collection of already completed projects, adaptive reuse of a good number of historical buildings, a light rail station directly behind the arena and connecting into its own dedicated entry and lobby right into the main concourse. But mostly it is about cranes. Cranes, cranes and more cranes, shaping what will be Canada’s largest live-work-play district when it is all completed.


Imagine if you will Buffalo’s Canalside district right adjacent to our KeyBank Center. Take away the embarrassing plethora of portable toilets, the painted chairs that are the rallying cry of the “lighter, quicker, cheaper” crowd, and the shipping containers draped in vinyl that serve as refreshment stands. Delete a patronage larded Erie Canal Harbor public authority filled with well paid bureaucrats.  Now replace all this with a forward thinking city government, a development group guided by the ownership of the Oilers, and a “can do” spirit fueled by citizens who demanded they go big. That is what is happening in Edmonton. Today. Right now.

Already open in the Ice District is a new casino, attached right to the Rogers Place complex, and a smaller community arena, which also serves as the Oilers’ practice facility and, just like Buffalo’s HarborCenter, is the home for the MacEwan University Griffins, a local college hockey program.

Still to come… no less than four new residential, hotel and office towers, the tallest one topping out at 67 stories. A Cineplex theatre offering multiple screens. New retail spaces, all connected to the Edmonton Pedway, a vast network of underground concourses connecting much of the downtown core and offering respite from the bouts of brutally cold weather which hits in the dead of winter.

Outside will be a 50,000 square foot public plaza offering a centerpiece of green space.

But back to the arena and its jaw-dropping, dazzling grand entryway. Dubbed the “Ford Hall”, this massive space mimics a winter garden, with its sloping high backlit ceiling, and strands of twinkling lights shimmering up and down the floor to ceiling windows. This is the access point for most guests entering the building, and offers tremendous views of the ever changing streetscape outdoors.

And there’s more. Just like Buffalo’s old Memorial Auditorium, fans here remember the incredibly cramped and congested corridors at the old Northlands Coliseum. Rogers Place has none of that. The public spaces are ample and spacious, with plenty of pubs, concession areas with their dedicated seating, gathering areas, and escalators to whisk fans up and down to the three other levels of the building, or one floor down to the street level.

All this comes at a huge price, however. The cost to build Rogers Place came in at a hefty $605-million (Canadian $) price tag, much of it funded through a tax euphemistically labeled “Community Revitalization Levy”, along with ticket surcharges and other adjacent property assessments to pay for the place. The team’s private contribution to fund the building was a point of contention for a long time, with team owner Daryl Katz and city leaders at one point cutting off all discussion to come to an agreement. Ultimately Katz and city each put up more money to fund the shortfall, and the arena would become a reality.

This all translates into an expensive outing for the average fan, with ticket prices starting at $135 for a lower bowl seat and escalating to $350, with the team using dynamic pricing depending on the opponent and night of week. For a family of four, the cost of a night out at an Oilers game could easily top $1000.

Additionally, the building is replete with premium seating options. In the main 100 level, the best sideline seats are partitioned off from the rest of the seating, and offer a private lounge and concession area as the main amenity, Right above the second level which is all suites is a club level. But not just any club configuration, for this entire deck entirely offers tabletop seating, with a phalanx of servers and bartenders to cater to the patrons’ every whim.

That leaves the upper deck, with tickets starting at $50, as the choice of last resort for the budget minded fan. With demand high for the team’s inaugural season at the new arena, those tickets have been snapped up for much of the season.

Which brings us to Buffalo. It sometime seems like what was once named Crossroads Arena, now the KeyBank Center, just opened. But reality is this – our downtown venue is marching on towards its 25th anniversary and that will be upon us sooner than later. And while much has happened since the building opened its doors, such as the genesis for the Cobblestone District and Canalside, and the shiny HarborCenter, it is now becoming an old arena, part of the plethora of NHL arenas that opened in the mid 90s (Boston, Philadelphia, Tampa Bay and others), and is showing its age.

What to do? Edmonton offers a template for design, technology, spaces and a wow factor which Buffalo would be wise to study and emulate. New arenas coming online in the NHL this year include Detroit’s Little Caesars Arena and Las Vegas’ already opened T-Mobile Arena. And what all these new buildings offer is what Buffalo has been slow at accomplishing – a comprehensive development district which offers spaces and activities that people actually want to be part of. 

Flexible lawns? Adirondack chairs? Not the answer. Neither are portable toilets. What is changing in the sports venue development landscape is the sheer volume of private investment in neighborhoods and properties directly adjacent to the venues. Edmonton offers the perfect blueprint for just that.