Buried at Centre Ice
As Benjamin Hertwig reports, the Edmonton Oilers’ new arena has revitalized the city’s downtown—and displaced its most vulnerable residents.
Before the start of the first game on opening night of the new Rogers Place arena in Edmonton—the Oilers will battle the Calgary Flames—Hockey Hall of Famers Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier skate out across the dark ice to rapturous applause. Camera lights flash like nighttime constellations and spotlights follow the two men as they loop half-moons across the frozen surface. A puck appears. Messier passes the puck to Gretzky, a stitch in time back twenty-eight years to 1988, when the two fresh-faced boys hoisted the last of their Stanley Cups together before the trade that separated them. Gretzky leaves the puck at centre ice. While they’re here to participate in opening ceremonies, their presence also serves to link the glory of the team’s past to the optimism of its future. Gretzky and Messier, both grey-at-the-temples Oilers legends, have been retired from the NHL for over a decade, but the eighteen thousand fans gathered in the bleachers have not forgotten them. Their arrival signals something that everyone in the arena already knows: tonight’s game is no ordinary game.
After they exit the ice, thousands of lights in the arena flare kaleidoscopically, pulsing to a soundtrack that wouldn’t seem out of place in Game of Thrones. A rich voice—the voice of billionaire pharmacy magnate and Oilers owner Daryl Katz—weaves into the music: Rogers Place and Ice District will transform downtown and the city of Edmonton for years to come… It will change the way Edmontonians live, work and play. The gathered Oilers fans briefly drown out his words with a chorus of boos. Are they booing Katz, who threatened to move the team to Seattle in 2012 when arena negotiations with the city of Edmonton broke down? No, they’re booing the Calgary Flames, who just skated out onto the ice.
As the two teams get ready to face off—Calgary in white, Edmonton in orange—the arena hums with a restless, eager energy. After ten years of missing out on playoff hockey, Oilers fans have much to be excited about: their new arena, confidence that the team will remain in Edmonton, and a new star, Connor McDavid. After only one year in the league, McDavid is already being hailed as the next saviour in a genealogy of hockey greatness. Indeed, the prophetically inclined have anointed him “McJesus.”
The referee drops the puck. McDavid glides across the ice with a preternatural speed—both force and finesse. A minute into the game, Rogers Place erupts in cheers after Oilers winger Patrick Maroon tips a shot past Calgary’s goalie: euphoria, hope, and affirmation. The first goal in the new arena. Tonight, hockey fans all over Canada and the world are watching Edmonton.
Built at a cost of roughly $613 million and largely financed by the City of Edmonton through a Community Revitalization Levy and a ticket surcharge, the Rogers Place complex represents the fulfillment of a long-awaited dream for some. The primary tenant of the complex, the Katz Group, which owns the Edmonton Arena Corporation, will repay the city a total of $132.5 million in rent over the next thirty-five years. The corporation will pay for the operation and maintenance of the building; they’ll receive revenue from ticket sales and parking, naming rights and other operating benefits. Outside, the plans include a winter garden and a pedestrian walkway, which come together, along with the arena, to create the newly branded “Ice District,” a lifestyle destination for downtown Edmonton.
From the very beginning, Rogers Place was described as more than just an arena. The building, with a footprint in the shape of an oil drop, forms the focal point of a revitalization plan to develop downtown Edmonton. The aim is to turn what City Councillor Scott McKeen has characterized as “a neglected, forgotten realm” into a vibrant economic and cultural hub. McKeen suggests that billions of dollars in related downtown investment has already occurred; the arena is just one step on the path to a downtown flowing with milk and honey.
The land on which the arena sits, the so-called “Casino Site,” was one of six potential locations proposed by HOK, the design firm responsible for planning the arena. Before Rogers Place, the site housed a large parking lot adjacent to the Baccarat Casino. Though “displacement of existing users” was one of the site factors HOK reported on while preparing for the development, just exactly who the existing users were, or what their displacement might entail, was not significantly discussed in the eighty-eight-page proposal.
To locals, “existing users” most likely refers to Edmonton’s street-involved and homeless population, many of whom access services at nearby social service agencies such as Boyle Street Community Services, the Herb Jamieson Centre, the Hope Mission, the Bissell Centre and the Mustard Seed. Edmonton’s 2014 homeless count, a point-in-time analysis undertaken by large numbers of volunteers and social workers, recorded 2,307 homeless Edmontonians, many spending their days, and sometimes nights, in the inner-city core and on the land of the “Casino Site.” A significant number of those counted, close to 50 percent, were identified as Indigenous.
When arena construction began, I was hopeful that benefits would come to those living in the neighbourhood—maybe in the form of employment or housing or recreation activities. At the time, I was a housing worker in Edmonton’s downtown core. I watched the arena come up out of the ground from my office window, and I saw people on the street, walking past the construction barricades every day, trying to access services.
On March 3, 2014, ground was broken on the arena. On September 16, 2016, Rogers Place officially opened. Now that the arena is here, it’s difficult to remember what the land looked like before—cars, potholes, the garish, teal-red casino standing alone. The glowing, looming arena dominates the space, and the complex houses a state-of-the-art, forty-six-foot-wide HD scoreboard, a new casino, a Starbucks and a community rink. Alongside the winter garden, a mixed-use sixty-six storey tower, one of the tallest in Canada, will flank the arena, plus a high-rise luxury hotel. Developers have big plans for downtown Edmonton and, increasingly, the financial commitments necessary to make these plans a reality.
At 4PM, a few hours before the start of the game and a half-hour before Boyle Street Community Services closes for the day, a pair of bicycle cops handcuff two men outside the services’ doors and take them away. In the gathered crowd, one man mutters, “Fines”—inner-city shorthand for unpaid transit, loitering, drinking in public or failing to appear for a court date tickets—and another man next to me nods in agreement. A middle-aged Indigenous woman, looking on, suggests that the police and others who can afford tickets to the arena think of them as an embarrassment. “But look at us,” she tells me, “we’re still fucking here.”
Though Boyle Street is just a slap-shot from Rogers Place, it’s a different world. Boyle Street provides cultural, mental health, housing and employment services to a population affected by addiction as well as Canada’s current and historical mistreatment of First Nations peoples. Police presence is not unusual in this part of town, but the arena development has ushered in changes. The number of police officers in the downtown core has doubled from the previous year. In August, Edmonton’s police chief voiced concern that the number of officers was still insufficient for the amount of people who would be flooding the downtown during arena events, though additional police would be funnelled downtown during events to form a critical mass. Rogers Place also hired an additional three hundred security guards. By 4:30 on game night, police officers in backpacks are walking towards Rogers Place, bicycle police are roaming the back alleys, police cruisers are circling the arena.
This increased police presence has translated into increased anxiety for homeless people, and more run-ins with the cops. Robert Scott Nanok Etzerza, a thirty-five-year-old Indigenous man standing outside Boyle Street that afternoon, explains that the bike cops often roll up on him and other people on the street, asking questions for no apparent reason, sometimes tapping the homeless men and women with the front of their bike wheels. Nanok Etzerza is from the Tahltan First Nation on the west coast and has been accessing services at Boyle Street Community Services since January 2016. He lost his home and was living off the dollar menu at 7-Eleven before a social worker at the Royal Alexandra Hospital connected him with an addiction treatment program. He believes the new police are here to “clean up” the inner-city and “get rid of us.” Nanok Etzerza is not anti-cop or anti-establishment, and he supports the arena, but he feels apprehensive. “Only time will tell,” he says.
On 104 Avenue NW, which runs alongside the arena, a bicycle cop stops a young man and forces a conversation. Abir Hammad* looks to be in his mid-twenties, dressed in baggy but clean clothes, a bit of a slouch in his step. According to Hammad, the cop told him that he didn’t look like he was dressed for the game. When Hammad told him he wasn’t—he was shopping at Ardene—the cop repeated this statement back to him, skeptical. The interaction has clearly rattled Hammad, who walks away as quickly as he can, shaking his head incredulously.
In front of the arena, two Lululemon representatives take advantage of the local crowd and high spirits by extending a bit of product placement. They hold signs, stamped with the Lulu logo, that read, “ABC: anyone but Calgary” and “If you build it, he will come. #mcdavid #rogersplace.”
An hour before the start of the game, I meet Jordan Koperski* near the Gretzky statue in front of Rogers Place. Koperski has been in Edmonton for about twelve years; he’s staying at the Hope Mission, just a few blocks from Rogers Place. He wants to figure out a way to watch the game, so he walks inside the arena and I follow. After a brief conversation with the ticket clerks, he walks away. Koperski tells me that seeing the inside of the arena has “blown him away.” He didn’t know tonight was the opening game—he’d stumbled across it—but, he says, he loves the Oilers. “I didn’t have a jersey,” he adds self-consciously. A blank Oilers jersey retails for $130, while a jersey with a name printed on the back costs as much as $210. Koperski didn’t have a ticket for the sold-out game, either. According to Global News, same-day resale tickets were going for $200 to $1000, and face-value tickets for a comparable game were $136 in the upper bowl, farthest from the ice.
Koperski and I decide to look around. We head into the new Starbucks and order coffees, then wander through the public portion of the complex, trying to find a way to watch the game. The atrium, open to the public, has a bar lounge with food and big-screen TVs. But the attendant at the lounge politely turns Koperski away, as he doesn’t have the ID he needs to get in. Walking across the atrium, Koperski notices a mosaic built into the floor. “That’s Alex Janvier,” he says, an Indigenous artist known for his rich, abstract style. We try to get into the new Grand Villa Casino to watch the game, and are, again, politely rebuked. The security guard suggests we try the Mercer Tavern, so we leave Rogers Place and walk across the street just as the game is about to begin.
Fifteen minutes into the first period, Koperski and I are sharing beer samples in the Mercer Tavern and watching the game on TV. The Oilers are leading 3–1 after Connor McDavid slides a slick pass to Zack Kassian, who smoothly deposits the puck into the net. McDavid wins the following faceoff and streaks toward the net when a Flames defender, six-foot-two, 214-pound Deryk Engelland, slams McDavid into the boards—specifically, the white space between ads for Tim Hortons and Boston Pizza. Milan Lucic, a hulking combination of unalloyed muscle and attitude, isn’t going to let anyone mess with McDavid; he jumps Engelland, throwing upper cuts and body shots, losing his helmet in the process. Engelland responds, trying to tie up Lucic’s wild fists, and the fight soon wanes. Both players head to the penalty box.
Outside of the arena, wandering Oilers fans, perhaps hopping between bars or taking a smoke break, pause at the Gretzky statue. The bronzed Gretzky stood watch outside the Oilers old arena in north Edmonton from 1989 to 2016, before being refurbished and moved downtown, where he surveys his new environs in a familiar pose: erect, the Stanley Cup hoisted above his head, triumphant. Some fans place their arms gently around Gretzky’s waist and snap a polite selfie. Others pat his crotch with braggadocio and aggressive smiles. Still others—a group of three men with iPhones, nice clothes, and trim haircuts—light up a joint and take a selfie, passing the bud under the Great One’s nose.
On the road in front of Mercer Tavern, three different fans pass a homeless panhandler. The loudest gives a tug on the man’s beard and walks off.
Though the arena has been open for less than a year, many homeless Edmontonians are already feeling pushed out. A friend who is a social worker tells me about a conversation she had with one man whose words stuck with her in particular: “I wish all these guys in their fucking business suits and ties would get back in their spaceship and go back to their mother planet.” Low-income Edmontonians are also increasingly worried about rising rental prices. Residents of the MacDonald Lofts were notified of a nearly 50 percent rent increase in August, though this was eventually overturned under vague circumstances. Jesse Amaqjuaq,* from a small community in the Arctic Circle, is unsure of what will happen to his arena-adjacent home. He worries about other people as well. “I asked the Creator why people suffer,” he says. “Why not me instead? Well, I suffer with alcoholism.”
Workers in the area are concerned, too. Gary Moostoos, an aboriginal outreach worker, the subject of national attention after an incident of racial profiling at City Centre Mall, feels the pressure himself. For Moostoos, the arena development represents a spiritual crisis. “I think it’s a challenge for not only the inner-city people, but for Edmonton as a whole,” he tells me. Of Rogers Place, he points out the clash of opposing priorities—illustrative of how we choose to use public funding: “Here you have this multi-million dollar building, and right in the back alley is a homeless agency that is operating out of an outdated building that used to be a banana ripening plant.”
Developers and city planners hope that Edmonton’s revitalized downtown—with its concerts and sporting events and new restaurants—will entice more people to live in the area. Marielle Elizabeth, who moved downtown about a year ago, self-describes as part of the demographic developers are trying to attract. She wonders who the people committing crimes in the downtown core really are—if they’re actually the demographic I witnessed being harassed by police on game night. “Do you want to know what makes me feel downright scared? A drunk concert-goer [who] trespass[ed] directly outside my window in the middle of the night,” she says, referring to an incident that took place outside her second-storey apartment following a Kanye West concert a month after the arena opened. In addition to rowdy concert attendees, residents of the inner city must reckon with the possibility of hockey-related riots, the kind that have occurred in Montreal, Vancouver and Edmonton over the past eleven years. Elizabeth is not opposed to development, but she thinks the narrative needs to change from one of exclusion to inclusion. “If we’re pouring all this money into the downtown core, and we want to start to deal with the poverty and homelessness that exists in this very specific part of our city,” she says, “we need to be giving them other options and resources. Not just arresting them, fining them, condemning them or blaming them for crime.”
The kind of concerns Amaqjuaq, Moostoos and Elizabeth raise were meant to be addressed by the Community Benefits Agreement (CBA), a formal agreement between developers and community stakeholders that has generally become part of the process for large-scale developments. CBAs are intended to protect the vulnerable from some of the negative consequences of development, ensuring that those who were in the community before the development began also benefit from the changes. Jay Scherer, a sociologist and researcher at the University of Alberta, holds up the Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment District CBA as the gold standard. In that agreement, Los Angeles developers made specific and legally binding commitments to the community around the arena, including promises relating to jobs, wages and housing. In another example, the CBA for the city of Detroit and the future Little Caesar’s Arena has a detailed ten-step plan that includes providing twenty thousand free regular-season NBA tickets to Detroit youth and residents through community programs and investing $2.5 million dollars over six years to build and renovate basketball courts in parks throughout the city.
Unlike the CBAs secured in LA and Detroit, Edmonton’s is incredibly vague, and its concrete benefits are negligible at best. The CBA between the City of Edmonton and the Edmonton Arena Corporation promises to seek “mutually valuable community improvement opportunities”; communicate and share information on the arena’s impact in the community; and explore “solutions for mutually important issues.”
Roberta Brandes Gratz, an American journalist and critic who has written extensively about urban developments, puts it plainly, saying, “Community benefits agreements are worthless unless the benefit comes before the building.” Once an arena is there, she explains, you need a particularly benevolent and generous owner to do anything other than walk away with the bank. Is Daryl Katz (currently embroiled in a lawsuit claiming Katz solicited sex for money from Brazilian actress Greice Santo), this benevolent owner? I’d like to think that Katz—that everyone in Edmonton—cares about the people living on the streets next to the arena, but it’s hard to maintain this optimism in the face of silence and vague promises.
With the score still 3–1, Connor McDavid draws a penalty six and a half minutes into the second period: the Oilers have a chance to put victory out of reach for the Flames. Short-handed, with the odds against them, the Flames respond with a goal. After the penalty expires, McDavid streaks toward the goal once again and draws another penalty. Not to be outdone, the Flames respond with a second short-handed goal. Tie game. After a smattering of boos, the fans are quiet and restless. But McDavid refuses to lose. The puck rebounds off the back boards, and McDavid darts in on the right side of the Flames goalie to bury his first goal of the season, retaking the Oilers’ lead. A few minutes later, he scores a second goal on a penalty shot with a dizzying, unparalleled display of stick-handling. Even Wayne Gretzky, the Great One himself—no stranger to such feats—shakes his head in amazement. 5–3 Oilers.
Outside of the arena, two bicycle cops are talking to Jesse Amaqjuaq and a group of homeless men in front of Boyle Street Community Services. “I was bringing some water for my friends who live out on the street and the cops poured it out,” Amaqjuaq tells me. He’s angry. He doesn’t know why the cops made him dump the water. The cops are angry too—the younger of the two is threatening to take Amaqjuaq away if he doesn’t calm down. Eventually, after I talk to both parties, the cops tire of the conversation and bike away.
On the other side of the building, behind a dumpster, I talk with a man sitting on the asphalt. He is sleeping outside these days and his leg, which has a blood clot, bothers him. He’s young enough to be playing professional sports. His girlfriend, sitting next to him, doesn’t like the development. “They’re kicking everybody out from here,” she tells me.
The limos, waiting for players or fans or dignitaries, start lining up behind the MacDonald Lofts before the game is over. A few residents still have their lights on, and one flies an Oilers flag in the window.
Almost halfway into the third period,the Flames narrow the score to 6–4, but they get no closer. With a minute left in the game, Oilers forward Jordan Eberle scores on an open net and the Oilers’ win is secured. A fracas breaks out as the buzzer sounds, but the game is over. Oilers fans stand in appreciation, roaring their approval, and the exodus begins. Fans spill out of Rogers Place and onto the street, riding transit or driving out to the suburbs, to Beverly Heights, Mill Woods, Terwillegar Towne. 104 Avenue rings with polyphony: McJesus! Whoooo! Calgary Sucks! Where’s the CA-sino? Free cigarettes! Free cigarettes!
As one fan pulls out a bottle of Disaronno, arguing with his friend about which direction to head to avoid cops, a police cruiser pulls up to the entrance of the George Spady Centre Shelter and drops a young woman off for the night. Both of them are laughing. Across the street, a constable from the Edmonton Police Service is taking statements from two hockey fans and a busker on the street who was grabbed by a passerby. The hockey fans seem legitimately concerned about the busker’s wellbeing.
Fifty metres down the road, a young fan shoves a plastic cup toward a different busker. “Hey, you want half a beer?” The busker declines.
By midnight, most of the fans are gone. Three formerly homeless men, members of Downtown Proud!, a social enterprise run out of Boyle Street Community Services, are pulling garbage trolleys, sweeping up hundreds of paper coupons handed out by hawkers.
In November 2016, just a month after the opening game, the Katz Group purchased the MacDonald Lofts for an undisclosed amount. In April 2017—after the NHL regular season had come to a close, Connor McDavid won the league scoring title and the Oilers clinched their first playoff spot in ten years—residents of the MacDonald Lofts were given official notice that they had one year to find somewhere new to live.
Councillor McKeen hopes the building will be turned into market housing after the low-income residents are rehoused in a different part of the city—a move that the Katz Group publicly supports. No one wants to put anyone out onto the street, but it’s much easier to take people out of a building than to find one to put them in. In late 2013, a few months after the Edmonton city council agreed to the arena deal, a sixty-unit supportive housing complex proposal for Edmonton’s Terwillegar community was cancelled after residents and homeowners expressed concerns over whether the project was a “good fit” for their community—whether the social housing complex might negatively impact their property values.
Back on the street, the guitar-playing busker finally gathers his cash and walks away, leaving the street mostly quiet. The bars are closed or closing, and arena staff are on the way home, leaving the enormous complex mostly empty. Beside the now-vacant parking lots and construction sites, beside the new murals and the needle drop-off box, the rising buildings, the metallic shine and halogen glow of the new arena, a handful of people around and behind the arena are trying to figure out where they will sleep tonight—in the doorway of Boyle Street, perhaps, or in the river valley. Jesse Amaqjuaq, back in his MacDonald Lofts apartment, is not yet aware that he and his fellow residents will soon have to find somewhere else to live. A hammer taps away on the construction site across the road, where work is continuing into the night.