EDMONTON - The Edmonton Oilers have cleared a major hurdle toward getting a new downtown arena, but now need help from two levels of government that have said they don't want anything to do with it.
The Oilers and the City of Edmonton reached a framework deal late Wednesday night to share the costs of a new $450-million arena to replace aging Rexall Place.
The deal is not yet legally binding, and hinges on either the province or the federal government coming up with $100 million.
Cam Hantiuk, spokesman for Premier Ed Stelmach, said they'll look at any proposal, but said their position remains the same.
"Right now the premier will not change his mind. There will be no direct funding to any private business," said Hantiuk.
Hantiuk noted there are many calls on the public purse. The province will run a $3.4-billion deficit this year while it waits for oil and gas prices to rebound.
Stelmach is facing calls to pour more money in to fixing health care, is spending millions in disaster aid for the fire-ravaged community of Slave Lake, and is dealing with the political fallout of teachers being laid off across the province due to budget cuts.
The federal government is equally reluctant.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper made it clear two months ago that his government is not in the pro hockey business.
"We will not spend taxpayers' money on a professional sports arena or stadium in Quebec City," Harper said in the Quebec capital just six weeks before winning a majority government in a general election.
"And we will not participate in such projects in Regina, Halifax, Edmonton, or my hometown Calgary."
Wednesday's deal would see an 18,500-seat facility built in the downtown.
The city would pony up $125 million while Oilers owner Daryl Katz would put in $100 million. Another $125 million would come from a user-fee levy on the facility, such as a ticket tax.
The rest would have to come from federal or provincial sources.
The city would own the land, but Katz would run the building, pay to keep it up, and keep all the revenue.
Katz declined an interview request Thursday, but told a local radio station "We want a best-in-class, world-class arena.
"We're really going to make a statement with our downtown."
Hantiuk said while the government doesn't subsidize private businesses, it has put money into projects like arenas that are owned by municipalities.
Scott Hennig of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation said the new arena may be publicly owned, but would still be a private operation run for personal profit.
"It's not like you're going to have your kid's Pee Wee game there," said Hennig.
"This isn't a community rink. This is a professional sports facility where they charge hundreds of dollars for tickets."
He said Wednesday's announcement is a bit of Machiavellian politics, with two parties trying to corner the third into either ponying up the cash or risk becoming the scapegoat for Edmonton losing a beloved five-time Stanley Cup champion to another city.
"It's a bit of a power play," he said.
Brian Mason, leader of Alberta's opposition NDP, held a news conference in front of the Wayne Gretzky statue at Rexall Place to urge the province to not fork over public money, adding that the city-owned building can still do the job.
"At a time when we're laying off hundreds of teachers we need to assess carefully the priorities," said Mason."
"Katz invested in (the team) as a business, and he needs to run it as a business."
The agreement is the latest move in what has become a high-stakes game of table hockey that began four years ago, when the team began beating the drum for a new rink in the Alberta capital.
Katz has said the team is losing money in the 37-year-old Rexall Place. Last summer he delivered a not-so-subtle ultimatum, telling city councillors the NHL team won't play in Rexall after its lease deal expires in 2014.
"This is bizarro world here," said Hennig.
"You've got a billionaire who owns a multimillion-dollar hockey team paying multimillion-dollar professionals to play sports claiming he's broke and that he needs someone to build him an arena and give him all the profits from it."
The arena game is not just being played in Edmonton.
Harper's remarks in March were in response to Quebec City seeking funds for an arena to lure an NHL team back to that province.
There are also reports this week that the Atlanta Thrashers franchise may relocate to Winnipeg, bringing NHL hockey back to the Manitoba capital after a 15-year hiatus.
On Wednesday, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger told reporters that while the province can help with improvements as needed to the MTS Centre, it is not in the business of subsidizing entrepreneurs.
"We have no interest as a provincial government in supporting the operations of a hockey team," said Selinger.