NHL commissioner calls for arena in downtown Edmonton

The Oilers need to play in a new downtown arena, National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday in Edmonton.

The Oilers need to play in a new downtown arena, National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman said Tuesday in Edmonton.

"It is imperative that the Oilers have a new building and the plans for a downtown building, I think, are vital not just for the future of this franchise, but for the city," he said.

"A building that is used, not just for hockey games, but for concerts and family shows and conventions can revitalize an area of the city," Bettman said. "It can become an economic engine. It can attract tourists."

Bettman made his remarks during a luncheon address to the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce about the current state of the NHL and its future.

The Oilers' present arena, Rexall Place, was built in 1974, making it the oldest NHL rink in Canada, and Bettman said it is smaller and more outdated than the facilities where other Canadian NHL teams play.

Building a new arena downtown is a "win-win for everybody," Bettman said. But he later told reporters he didn't think an arena could get built in Edmonton without the use of public funds.

"There is no way, I believe, that a building can be built here without a significant public element to it,"  he said. "I don't think it works, based on everything I know."

Refurbishing current arena pegged at $250M in 2007

Some arenas, like the Bell Centre in Montreal and Toronto's Air Canada Centre, can be built using private money, Bettman said, but private funds are harder to raise in smaller markets.

Bettman's remarks are the latest development in the debate over a new home for the Oilers.

Calls for a new downtown arena came after a report released in early 2007 pegged the cost of refurbishing the aging Rexall Place at $250 million.

A city-funded report released in March recommended that Edmonton replace Rexall Place and pay for the project using a mix of private funds and tax dollars.

But the idea of building a new arena has been a source of considerable controversy in Edmonton, with many people saying no public money should go towards its construction.

The Oilers' new owner, Daryl Katz, has pledged $100 million towards construction.

City councillor Jane Batty said council doesn't have a proposal in front of them right now, so it's hard for her to comment on what her colleagues might support.

Given the recent budget discussions, however, Batty doubts taxpayers would have any appetite for funding an arena.

"Our economy is slowing down a little bit. It's challenging times," she said Tuesday. 

"Certainly from the e-mails that we've received, or I've received, the taxpayer is not prepared to support anything extra at this time … and I couldn't support putting this on the taxpayer's back at this time."