Wayne Gretzky knows a thing or two about NHL arenas, having played 1,487 regular-season games during his Hockey Hall of Fame career, so his take on Rogers Place, the new $483 million home of the Edmonton Oilers, carries a fair bit of gravitas.
"I will tell you this, I've been fortunate to travel around to different arenas, I've never seen anything like the new arena in Edmonton," Gretzky said last month at the World Cup of Hockey 2016. "It's so special; it's so unique. I think the people of Alberta, people of Edmonton, Canadians for that matter, are going to be so proud of this facility. Something so unique, something I've never seen before."
Everyone will see it Wednesday, when the Oilers play the Calgary Flames in the first regular-season NHL game in their new home (10 p.m. ET; SN, TVA Sports).
It will be a big night in the history of the franchise, and thinking big is what brought the 18,641-seat venue and the beginning of a new era of Oilers hockey to Edmonton.
"It's unbelievable, the vision that [Oilers owner] Daryl Katz had for the building and the whole Ice District is something that is special," said Bob Nicholson, chief executive officer and vice chair of Oilers Entertainment Group, referring to the area near Rogers Place. "I'm fortunate in my past role as president of Hockey Canada to have seen pretty well every arena around the world and this is taking it to another level."
Rogers Place, at 819,200 square feet, is more expansive than the Oilers' former home at Rexall Place, which opened in 1974 as Northlands Coliseum, the name to which it reverts now that Rogers Place is the new home of the Oilers.
Rexall Place, at 485,000 square feet, was the League's second-smallest and second-oldest arena. MTS Centre, home to the Winnipeg Jets, is 440,000 square feet. Madison Square Garden, home to the New York Rangers, opened in 1968.
Rogers Place, which seats 18,641 for hockey, has more than 9,300 lower-bowl seats, compared to 5,800 at Rexall.
It has 57 suites, five different premium-seat areas, can hold 20,734 for concerts and the largest high-definition center-hung scoreboard in the NHL. It has four restaurants, the two-level Sportsnet Club, the Molson Canadian Fan Deck, the Sky Lounge premium lounge/nightclub and the reservation-only Curve Restaurant. There is Wi-Fi throughout the building, phone-charging stations and more than 1,200 TV monitors.
The seven-level building rises 141 feet above street level, contains 9,000 tons of structural steel and 24,000 cubic meters of structural concrete.
"When I was there … I was like on cloud nine," said Gretzky, who attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Sept. 8.
Construction of Rogers Place, which has a footprint designed in the shape of an oil drop, began March 3, 2014 and the first public event was an open house to show off the finished product on Sept. 10. The first entertainment event was a Keith Urban concert on Sept. 16.
The Oilers will be the No. 1 tenant in the new building, and Nicholson said it will take the fan experience to a level never seen before in Edmonton.
"It was important to Daryl to make sure all fans had a special experience -- and on two or three levels," Nicholson said. "First, on fan experience. From a VIP experience, it's unbelievable from our loge tables to our theater boxes to the sports clubs and the nightclub.
"And for our unbelievable fans here in Edmonton, usually you walk up to the last row of the seats in a building. In this building, you go up and all the amenities are at the top of Rogers Place and you walk down to your seats."
The amenities and the newness of Rogers Place will impress fans in the short term, but Nicholson knows that what happens on the ice is the most important piece to the equation.
"It's been disappointing, the last 10 years not making the [Stanley Cup] Playoffs," Nicholson said. "It's time for us to turn that page and, hopefully, coming out of Rexall Place and into Rogers Place is that page we'll turn.
"We've got an exciting team. We feel we're better than we were a year ago. We still have to keep improving but we feel the team is going in the right direction. The most important thing here is that the fans deserve it. The fans have been unbelievable, that they've stayed with the Oilers through these times of not making the playoffs and we're doing everything through [general manager] Peter Chiarelli and [coach] Todd McLellan to change that, so that the Oilers fans get to see a winning team on the ice."
The completion of Rogers Place also opens doors to other hockey possibilities.
Nicholson said consideration is already being given to trying to line up future tournaments like the IIHF World Junior Championship and the World Cup of Hockey.
"It's one of the key factors [why] I'm here," said Nicholson, still a vice president of the IIHF. "The World Junior is huge in this country and I can say this, and I think the leaders of Hockey Canada will say it, that the best World Junior to date is Calgary/Edmonton [in 2012]. We are certainly looking to try to get that back in our cities.
"The World Cup, I watched it very closely, and I'm not sure what the process will be with the NHL and NHLPA, but we are certainly interested in that, as well as other sporting activities. We'd love to see if we could get the [NBA's Toronto] Raptors out here to play some games. We feel we have the facility now that what happens downtown here is somewhere a lot of sports and entertainment will look to, to say there's a lot here we can get accomplished that we can't get accomplished in other places in Canada or North America."
Beyond hockey, the Rogers Place project is more than just an arena.
Another $130 million in costs have gone to infrastructure around the facility, including a pedestrian walkway above 104th Avenue, the location of Ford Hall, the arena's 24,000 square-foot main entrance, as well as a transit station, an attached community rink and land assembly.
Beyond that is the Ice District, the planned component surrounding Rogers Place that developers believe will solidify the revitalization of the franchise and city.
Nicholson said that Katz views the Ice District as the linchpin to the entire development.
"This is a great partnership, and I really want to emphasize that it is a partnership, between the city and arena and Daryl Katz and now [Oilers Entertainment Group]," Nicholson said. "It's going to bring people downtown.
"When you get into the Ice District, people will come, whether it's to the Oilers game, the [Western Hockey League's Edmonton] Oil Kings game or entertainment. We have the capacity to put an ice rink into the Ice District in winter and we can have all kinds of other activities in the summer, from volleyball tournaments to festivals and food fairs. We're building this to cater to people in Edmonton and northern Alberta."
The Ice District will be a collection of mixed-use development that includes office and retail space, hotels and condominiums and an open-air public plaza, much of it already under construction.
"The skyline is changing and so is downtown Edmonton," Nicholson said.
Nicholson, Hockey Canada's president and CEO between 1998 and 2014, said he thought he'd be retired by now. But 15 months into his appointment as CEO of Oilers Entertainment Group, the challenge and the progress have been exhilarating.
"I can tell you this isn't what I intended to do when I retired from Hockey Canada," he said. "I didn't realize how big the vision was that Daryl had. I knew there was an arena [project] but the Ice District and everything around it, well, we're here first and foremost to get the Oilers and Oil Kings competitive in both the NHL and WHL, and you get to change a city in doing it.
"And not very often in anyone's lifetime do you get to be part of that."