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Edmonton vs. Calgary: A hockey rivalry, but also more than that

Edmonton, armed with the NHL’s next prodigy and a plan to transform downtown, is fully wrapping its civic identity in its Oilers. Not so much in Calgary.


 
(Andy Devlin/NHLI/Getty Images)

(Andy Devlin/NHLI/Getty Images)

Back when life consisted of nothing more than work and “the Oil,” Darren Bakke shelled out thousands of dollars to fly to Raleigh, N.C., to catch two games of his Edmonton Oilers skating tantalizingly close to Stanley Cup glory in 2006. Marriage and family have since become the restaurant manager’s new life ingredients. He would tape games if kids’ bedtimes interfered, but, by last season, the Oil’s perennial stumbles became a drag. “I wouldn’t even PVR the game anymore, because I knew I couldn’t bother to watch.”

He was PVRing on April 18, a night those darned Calgary Flames were resting in their playoff round against the Vancouver Canucks, while the Oilers—who were supposed to be better, again—had fallen out of contention the previous November. Bakke was recording the NHL draft lottery. Despite low odds, the Oilers won the jackpot this year: Connor McDavid, the teenage phenom who had logged the most GCPMs (Gretzky comparisons per minute) since Sidney Crosby. Bakke remembers his phone suddenly exploding in text messages: “Nobody was really saying what had happened. It was just a lot of ‘oh my gods.’ ”

Questions and debates still rage about how this season will unfold, the 10th since Edmonton’s last postseason, the 25th since its last Stanley Cup parade. Is the blue line strong enough? The goaltending? And this guy who skates so fast, ads peel off the boards—do they call him McJesus, or simply Jesus?

The fog of questions has lifted over the new downtown arena, under construction after years of wrangling over the heavily city-subsidized, $480-million project. Mostly gone are worries the team will be dreadful in this final season for Rexall Place, which has produced more of Lord Stanley’s banners than any existing arena. And the soaring prices for most sections in the new Rogers Place for 2016-17, a 60 per cent jump in some cases: an easier sell if it’s a Connor McDavid & Co. premium.

“If it was a cellar-dweller team, you’d be a little hard-pressed to dole out that money,” Bakke says. But this is a city that puts up with crappy winters with crappier hockey. Three other first-overall picks this decade lifted hopes of a renaissance again and again, but every April was for golfing. “It’s like watching your friend make the same big mistakes over and over. It was just frustrating to watch,” says fan Ben Steele, an engineer. To him, and fellow watchers like Bakke, bringing in fresh management may prove as much a turning point in 2015 as McDavid.

Perhaps no Canadian city wraps its identity in pro hockey as much as Edmonton. Edmonton publicly struggled for years about removing the ’80s-era “City of Champions” wording from city entrance signs, then over what slogan should replace it. (Conclusion, for now: nothing.)

Three hours’ drive south of the Alberta capital, minimal hubbub—a few short news stories—greeted the removal in late September of Calgary’s “Heart of the New West” signs in favour of “Be Part of the Energy.” The signs are a Flames-ish red, but that’s as close as the hockey-as-identity politics come in Cowtown.

The traditional spats between Alberta’s major metropolises have faded, and it’s now mostly shrugged off as a “hockey rivalry.” But that one is an asymmetrical conflict: In Edmonton, the game simply means more. It has a Wayne Gretzky Drive and a Mark Messier Trail, while Calgary never felt the need to consecrate the names Lanny McDonald or Jarome Iginla.

Kent Wilson, a lifelong Calgary fan and hockey blogger, observed both cities’ fanaticism as director of the Oilers Nation and Flames Nation fan sites. It’s more “rabid” on the Edmonton page—a larger fan base dedicated to the team and culture, he says. “All sports fans are fanatical to one degree or another, but there’s a different tenor to it. It seems to be more central in their lives,” Wilson says. “It isn’t to say the Flames fans lack that, but it’s at a different level in Calgary.” Reasons likely go further than the fact that one city won the Cup five times, the other only once. There are also the 1988 Olympics and Stampede to give Calgary its sports nostalgia and iconography.

The Rocky Mountains are also closer to Calgary, meaning hockey’s not the only wintertime distraction. But the city whose team went through the highest highs has also been forged through the deeper valleys: In the 1990s, a community ownership group had to rescue the Oilers from following the Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets south of the border. Edmonton is more blue-collar, but those refinery and oilfield workers share arena rows with provincial government and university staff. Calgary’s economic identity is more singular: One city is dominated by the Oilers from October to April, while the other is oilpatch all year round.

One hardcore Oilers fan who’s lived in Calgary for four years suggested to Maclean’s: Just as Calgary’s mood can be nudged up or down by crude prices, Edmonton’s is influenced by the Oilers’ win-loss record. Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, when he hears this, says that was maybe true until five or 10 years ago. The civic mood is “absolutely amplified” when the team is winning, but it’s surged even during this prolonged on-ice blight, the mayor says. A more diverse economy isn’t struggling from the oil-price plunge as much as elsewhere in Alberta, the cultural scene is flourishing, and LRT and a condo boom had helped to give Edmonton’s centre signs of life before the arena project. McDavid is “the cherry on top, really,” Iveson says. “There is no doubt things are all trending in the right direction for the team and for the city. To the extent it’s not always wise to link the fortunes of your city to the fortunes of the sports team, in this case, the narrative works for everybody,” he says.

The arena deal was inked back when Iveson was a city councillor and Stephen Mandel was mayor. Both were big believers that moving the Oilers and major concerts downtown would be a vital boost to the core, but Iveson was slower to back the funding deal, for which the owners pay about a quarter through rent payments and cash, another quarter through ticket surcharges, and the rest through city sources, mostly from new downtown tax proceeds.

Resistance has waned as the building has risen, and cranes are on three hectares of adjacent development, in what owners have branded Ice District. The first phase should be worth $2 billion, says Bob Black of the Edmonton Arena Corp. “We always believed, as did the city of Edmonton, that the arena done right could be a catalyst, and now we’re seeing the realization of that in a very obvious way,” he says. “Our downtown is on fire.”

Much literature on the economic benefits of subsidized pro-sport palaces says no, dear lord, no. But Edmonton’s gamble seems to be working, in a downtown that only added one new office highrise in the last 25 years.

In the meantime, Calgary’s core has swelled by more than a dozen office skyscrapers, and four more are under way. Developers plan more growth on nearly every edge of the core—and it’s at the most underused edge, the city-owned West Village expanse of car dealerships and the contaminated old creosote plant site, where Flames CEO Ken King has proposed replacing the aging Saddledome with a new arena. He’s proposed an $890-million twin behemoth: an arena plus combination stadium/fieldhouse for his organization’s Stampeders football team and amateur athletes, who have lobbied the city for a quality complex. In King’s plan, released in August, the city contributes $200 million for the fieldhouse, and the rest resembles the Edmonton deal: ticket levy, future city taxes in the area, and team owners who would front $200 million.

Rent would be negotiated, King told Maclean’s, and it’s unclear how much the environmental cleanup costs or who pays. “We did not say, ‘Us, too, give us what Edmonton got,’ ” he says, “which isn’t to confuse my other comment: If we were offered that deal, we would take it.”

Edmonton’s project took six years from proposal to excavation; King hopes for a quicker process. The arena-stadium plan emerged years after talks fizzled to replace the Saddledome nearby it, on or around Stampede grounds. King knows he can’t offer the same downtown renaissance argument in a city whose core needs no sports stimulus: he can merely pitch progress on downtown’s fringe. “One’s revitalization. One’s connection and completion,” he says.

Political support won’t come easy. Mayor Naheed Nenshi is no eager partner: He has said he’s skeptical of public funds for a project with unclear public benefit. Evan Woolley, a downtown councillor, wonders how good a fit it is if there’s an easy financing solution to clean up the site. “Why would we put a sportsplex over really prime residential real estate?”

Wilson, the former sports-blogs director, noticed more arena-deal skepticism among Flames fans than Oilers fans, who were sold on giving the Wayne Gretzky statue pride of place downtown. Edmonton’s arena saga occurred while the team perennially slumped; the “CalgaryNext” pitch came after a surprise push into the second playoff round. There’s an expectation the Flames will return to postseason play, especially after key additions, like defenceman Dougie Hamilton. Although Edmonton drafted the biggest addition of them all, sportswriters and many fans alike don’t expect McDavid’s team in the playoffs in Year 1. Sidney Crosby’s Penguins didn’t make it until his sophomore year, but Pittsburgh has since been part of the league’s elite—which diehards hope Edmonton can rejoin after the move downtown.

Ben Steele, sick of the old arena’s “dirty subway station,” is ready to shell out more money to walk a brighter arena concourse next year, with a team emerging as competitors. This season, though, he’s bet $100 on the Oilers—that they’ll miss the playoffs. “I would never bet against my own team,” he says. “But I can justify it in this case, because, if I lose the bet, we make the playoffs. I’m happy either way.”


 

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