Oilers owner Daryl Katz and Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson prepare to bring down the banner to officially open Rogers Place. (Amber Bracken)
BY TERRY JONES, EDMONTON SUN
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They began entering Ford Hall, a.k.a., the Winter Garden, a half hour before the ceremonies to officially open Rogers Place were to begin.
It was impossible, as you looked at their faces, not to think back to the days when it didn’t look like Edmonton would ever get to this day.
So many of the faces of the people who had been invited went back to when Peter Pocklington tried to sell the team to NBA Houston Rockets owner Les Alexander, who was informed upon arrival Edmonton had a no-relocation clause and turned around and flew back to Texas.
So many others, like Economic Development Edmonton head Rick LeLacheur, were involved when that guy with the hotplate in the picture he supplied of himself, Michael Largue, representing fictitious Swiss-owner Lester Mittendorf, came to town to buy the Oilers and was run out of town after being exposed as a fraud at his press conference.
“We flew a private jet to get him,” remembered LeLacheur.
Then there were those from the 38 owners of the Edmonton Investors Group, headed by Cal Nichols.
“It’s been a long journey. I remember exactly when and how it started in 2005. I said now that the lockout is over, it’s time to focus on getting a new building downtown,” said Nichols.
Nichols and those other owners, who saved the franchise, were the bridge to all of this.
“Yes,” he said. “But it takes a lot of different people who played a part. I look at it like I just happened to be one of them.”
When Stephen Mandel arrived, there was the flashback to mid-October of 2011 when Edmonton’s downtown arena deal was off the rails, and your correspondent flew to New York on the same plane with then Mayor Mandel and spent time with Daryl Katz and his group at a Manhattan restaurant. They’d been summoned by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman to his office to put it back on track.
“It’s an amazing building and it’s everything I dreamed it would be,” said Mandel.
“There were a lot of difficult times between the start of it and the end of it. But now we’re here and it’s great. I don’t think there’s another facility in the world that is anything like this.”
Mandel said it was appropriate to have the official opening in the Winter Garden, a.k.a The Bridge To Nowhere.
“This was Daryl Katz’s vision. It was something I was very concerned about because of the cost. But he was right. This is an incredible part of the arena. It makes it come to life.”
Bob Black of Katz Group and Rick Daviss of the city, the two point people of the project from the beginning, were in the room with the VVIP gathering of 1,200 or so.
They, more than anybody, knew how close and how often this project came to being sewered.
“We’ll all remember where we were going to that meeting in New York. Even worse was in 2012 when they divorced us. The city actually terminated negotiations with us,” said Black.
“There were a lot of times when I didn’t think this project would happen. There were some pretty dark times. When negotiations were terminated, I think both sides realized we had been real close to doing something special and it was too special to let go.
“After that we became a team together. There was no longer an ‘Us’ and ‘Them.’ But until we got a guaranteed maximum price from PCL on Feb. 8, 2014, I always thought the deal was in jeopardy,” added Black.
“It doesn’t seem real,” said Daviss of finally officially opening the building Thursday.
“It’s a little bit relief, a little bit excitement, a little anxiety and there’s a real adrenalin rush. At the same time, I’ve been working with this incredible team for the last eight years and … now what?
“We’re going to be going our own different ways. In some ways it’s kind of sad. But I look around here tonight and I’m going to be able to look at this for years. There’s going to be such a sense of accomplishment. To be able to see how Edmontonians, from those early days when they were torn to now come together and really embrace this, is going to be the best part. It’s really overwhelming.”
The miracle of Rogers Place is, despite how close it came to not being built and the extent it was dragged through the mud, how it managed to get to the official opening last night without a dime being taken out of the place.
It opened with $110-million worth of stunning scoreboard and accompanying electronics, and all the bells and whistles that bring the $614-million rink on board as the ultimate hockey arena in the entire world.
On the day it opened it’s so obviously a game-changer for downtown Edmonton, a full two or three years prior to the completion of the Ice District, there’s virtually no remaining opposition to the $313 million of taxpayer money involved, most of it from the community revitalization fund. Silent are the editorialist who insisted the area would have no real affect on downtown. And equally mute are Kerry Diotte and Linda Sloan, the two members of city council who voted against it from start to finish.
The other who was against the project cast throughout the process until he voted yes on the final balloting was current mayor Don Iveson.
He was the first to speak during the ceremonies.
“Lets look back to when this area was an expansive parking lot. The heart of our city was nowhere near a true reflection of Edmonton’s spirit. We knew we needed change and a spark to light it,” he began and took the gathered audience through the recommendation from a specially created committee to build a new downtown arena.
“Then Daryl Katz came along. From Day 1 he made it clear that he shared the vision of a new arena as a way to make it happen.
“Now billions of dollars are being invested in the core of our city, including Western Canada’s tallest building. This is Edmonton’s spirit in action.
“Look around you. This building is spectacular.
“This changes Edmonton forever. This is a very special, special day.”
Oilers owner Katz, making a rare public appearance, handled himself well for a guy who avoids these moments at every opportunity.
“Well, here we are. We’ve realized our goal of opening a new downtown arena and that excitement is building all around us. It took some doing, but I think I speak for all concerned when I say the result has been so incredibly worth the effort.
“I have to tell you about a year ago, when the roof went on and the basic structure was complete, I walked through the arena for the first time. I actually walked through some boarding that was connecting the main concourse to this area.
“It brought tears to my eyes.
“I couldn’t believe what we built or what it would mean for our city.
“It’ll still be a couple years before we see the full development with Phase I of the Ice District and the public plaza.
“For the first time in decades, Edmonton will have an urban core to match our world-class community spirit.”
He said when complete, “it will be the world’s greatest sports and entertainment district. I can assure you there will be nothing like Ice District anywhere in the world.”
Katz also called Rogers Place “a landmark example of how private-public partnerships can be done right. Communities from all over North America are coming to visit us now to see how we did what we did.”
Much credit was heaped on Edmonton’s storied construction entity PCL for the job they did and the fact that, over three million worker hours, it was done without a serious accident or injury.
The biggest compliment to the place was from the head of the arena’s title sponsor, Guy Morris.
“I’ve been involved with some great projects and some great sports stadiums around the world. This is the best I have ever seen. You are so lucky. Please enjoy it.”
The final speaker way Wayne Gretzky, who took a skate on the ice in the afternoon.
“The ice isn’t as fast as Rexall. I tested it today and it wasn’t as fast as the ‘90s,” said the now slow-mo skater.
“It really is a special, special arena,” he said of the crowd itching to get inside the place.
“The atmosphere is what Edmonton is all about. After tonight I believe Edmonton is going to brag about the whole entire project for an eternity.”
Most of those gathered were ushered into Rogers Place for a red-carpet tour of the building after a ceremonial gate opening.
On Saturday 56,878 members of the public, who obtained tickets in advance, will eyeball the inside of Rogers Place at the open house and Sunday a similar event has been scheduled for season ticket holders.
As the VVIP gathering headed inside to check out the spectacular building, you couldn’t help but think what Bill Hunter or Leo LeClerc, old Edmonton referee (and long time NHL boss) Clarence Campbell or old-time players like The Edmonton Express, Eddie Shore, might think taking the tour.
For sure they wouldn’t be able to believe it. Heck, most of the people who saw it last night couldn’t believe it.