Sport

Edmonton, ‘City of Champions,’ Readies for a Hockey Marathon

EDMONTON, Alberta — It is said that hockey is the heartbeat of Alberta’s capital city. If that’s so then the 2020 N.H.L. playoffs are like a defibrillator that has shocked the city’s rhythm back to life.

For months it looked like Las Vegas — with its massive resorts and status as host to the league’s off-season awards — would be chosen as the primary hub city for the N.H.L.’s summer restart after the regular season was paused in March because of the coronavirus pandemic. But Edmonton, a city of just less than 1 million people, persisted and the dogged effort paid off in early July when the league instead selected it and Toronto as the sites for postseason play.

“We’ve had a great staff doing a ton of work,” said Bob Nicholson, the Edmonton Oilers’ chairman. Nicholson singled out the team’s owner, Daryl Katz, for pestering N.H.L. Commissioner Gary Bettman during deliberations. “But really it was Daryl, starting with the vision. He called Gary a ton.”

On Saturday, 12 Western Conference teams will begin the qualifying round and round-robin seeding tournament at Rogers Place, the four-year-old arena that sits at the center of the city’s Ice District, a $2.5 billion (CAN) mixed-use sports and entertainment zone. It will be the site of both conference finals and the Stanley Cup final.

The Ice District may not have the same global profile as the Las Vegas Strip, but in Edmonton, which once billed itself the “City of Champions,” hockey keeps the community pumping.

“We are oil country and we are a hockey town,” said Janet Riopel, the president of the city’s chamber of commerce. “Our kids start early. They play through most of their lives, male and female. We are a hockey community and we’ve been very proud of our team. Oil country fans are die-hard fans.”

Kevin Lowe, the six-time Stanley Cup winner, Hall of Famer and former Oilers general manager, arrived in the city in 1979, the year the former World Hockey Association franchise joined the N.H.L. Championship hockey quickly became a way of life for the city. Building around the league’s career leading scorer, Wayne Gretzky, the Oilers won five Stanley Cups between 1984 and 1990 — and made sure they shared their success with the community.

“In all likelihood, if you grew up in Edmonton during the ‘80s, you probably either were in a bar with a couple of us, or you might even have had a sip from the Cup,” Lowe said.

Sandy Langley, 53, is one of those people. She started working for the Oilers as a 15-year-old usher at the old Northlands Coliseum. Since 1993, she has worked in the team’s front office in various administrative capacities.

“My husband was a bouncer at one of the main bars here,” Langley said. “Back then, all of us became really, really good friends. They were just very approachable. They went out quite a bit, so you saw them, you know, at the grocery store. People felt that they could talk to them.”

Through another schoolmate, Langley said she got to know the former Oiler Esa Tikkanen and his first wife, Lotta.

“I think as soon as a player feels comfortable with you, they kind of welcome you into their whole group. So when we became friends with Lotta and Esa, we would go to their house. Grant Fuhr and his wife would be there, and Jari Kurri and his wife. We were almost like a family for them, because they didn’t have family here.”

Langley and her husband got married in June 1988, two months before the blockbuster trade that sent Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings. The Tikkanens were wedding guests.

“It wasn’t anything, to ask them if they would come to our wedding,” Langley said. “Then, for my husband’s stag, Esa brought the Stanley Cup. That was unbelievable.”

When the regular season was paused in March, the Oilers were on track to return to the playoffs for the first time in three years. Forward Leon Draisaitl led the league’s scoring race by 13 points, and is the favorite to win the Hart Trophy, awarded to the league’s most valuable player. The team also plays behind the 2017 Hart winner, Connor McDavid, and got a spark in December when winger Kailer Yamamoto, 21, was called up from the A.H.L. and scored at a point-per-game pace.

The Oilers start the postseason facing the Chicago Blackhawks in a best-of-five series but fans won’t be able to pierce the league’s “bubble.” That means some of hockey’s most hard-core supporters not allowed to cheer from inside Rogers Place or stake out the player entrance to ask for autographs.

They’ll be on the outside looking in as the local arena hosts up to three games a day in the early rounds, a feat that required packing what should have been months of planning into the span of two weeks.

“As soon as we started to get inklings that we were going to be in — because we kind of felt that we might not be — we really had to time it right, because a lot of our staff were not working,” said Stu Ballantyne, the Oilers’ senior vice president of operations.

Their preparation included bouncing back when a storm ripped away part of the building’s roof in mid-July, causing flooding that damaged a small portion of the entrance and mezzanine. Ballantyne said the damage did not set the organization’s plans back in a significant way.

Among the other considerations were sanitizing and facilitating social distancing as teams come and go from the building’s six dressing rooms. Arena staff will also have to maintain the ice for more than 12 hours of daily hockey, cooling down the building temperature even more than usual, since there will be no fans in the stands to keep comfortable.

In essence, Rogers Place has become a massive soundstage for a made-for-television event.

“At times you think, ‘Holy smokes, you won’t get there,’” Nicholson said. “Hopefully, we add things and we’re going to get better every day from here on out, too. You know, we have to do that for the players.”

Outside the building, the plaza near the main entrance to Rogers Place has been turned into an outdoor recreation area where players can get a bite to eat or play basketball, enjoying the pleasant Edmonton summer, where daily temperatures top out in the 70s and there are 16 hours of daylight.

Though fans aren’t allowed inside to watch games, Lowe believes they’ll find new ways to enjoy summer hockey.

“I think the biggest difference is that people will be sitting on their patios, next to their pools, by a lake, by a river,” Lowe said from his off-season home in British Columbia’s Shuswap region.

“It’s summertime, right? So they’ll be, in all likelihood, watching in the strangest of places.”


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