Edmonton Oilers president says team looking for new rink or rink upgrade

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The president of the Edmonton Oilers says the Western Conference champions are eager participants in talks and studies now going on in the Alberta capital to either retrofit the aging Rexall Place, or to be part of a new downtown arena mega-palace.

"It (the rink) is getting tired," LaForge said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

LaForge added the team has just over seven years left in its lease with Edmonton Northlands - the non-profit group that operates the building in the city's industrial northeast.

"It is our hope between now and when it expires we'll find a new residence," said LaForge.

Built in 1974, Rexall Place is the oldest Canadian home in the NHL and third-oldest in the league, behind Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh and the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, home to the New York Islanders. In Pittsburgh, failure to reach a deal on a new rink has left the future of the franchise in doubt in the Pennsylvania city.

Rexall has been retrofitted once already, to upgrade facilities and add luxury suites. Still, on game nights, the 16,839 seats are routinely sold out.

Between periods, patrons lining up for the washroom snake out the door, becoming a human dam for a streaming river of fans shuffling, elbowing and bumping along to grab food and souvenirs.

"The crush space in the food and beverage area is literally crush," said LaForge, who added that the comparatively small seating capacity puts pressure on teams like the Oilers in what is a gate-driven league.

"It causes us to have to increase ticket prices because we don't have that bottom-end price at the top end of the bowl like a lot of other buildings do."

The Oilers have 67 luxury suites, and LaForge believes they could sell 40 more. The locker room is tiny, media facilities need upgrading and TV trucks are forced to wedge in under the seats with no room to spare.

"It's brutal," said LaForge. The average ice arena now is 750,000 square feet. Ours is 409,000."

Edmonton Northlands has commissioned a report from a U.S. architect on whether Rexall can realistically be upgraded to the size of modern NHL rinks.

Andy Huntley, Northlands vice-president, said they expect to get the findings of the report next month and make them public.

The feedback so far, he said, is that the lower-bowl sightlines are among the best in the business but that there's not nearly enough lobby space.

The report will look at putting in more of that space, and adding luxury suites.

"The challenge then is can we stay operational while we do this, because if you have to go dark for two years while you do this, maybe you better start over somewhere else," said Huntley.

The downtown arena proposal hasn't gone beyond informal discussions among business leaders. The rough price tag is $300 million.

Mayor Stephen Mandel has said he would look seriously at building a new downtown rink that would be part of a $1-billion complex of shops, businesses and a hotel. Who would pay for what is part of the discussion.

Sports studies professor Dan Mason said building a rink downtown is part of the new economic model for sports facilities and cities.

More activity in the businesses around a downtown rink can translate into more retail, commercial and real estate tax money to help service the arena debt, he said.

"You can look at it as the arena can pay for itself," said Mason, who studies sports and stadium financing at the University of Alberta.

He said local politicians have a strong hand in a petroleum-rich province with newcomers streaming in daily.

"The city has the opportunity to take its time and work with different parties to make the best decision," said Mason.

Edmonton fans have long and bitter memories over hockey and money. In the early 1990s, then-owner Peter Pocklington threatened to take the team to Hamilton in a lease dispute. Eight years ago, the team was all but sold to Houston until saved by a local ownership group.

LaForge said those new owners aren't on that path.

"They aren't going to be showing anyone pictures of Portland or Houston," said LaForge.

Forbes magazine says the value of the Oilers franchise has soared 40 per cent in the last two years with an operating income of US$10.7 million, fourth-highest in the league.


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