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How Edmonton is setting itself apart in NHL hub city bid

EDMONTON — One thing you learn when you grow up in Edmonton is dismissiveness.

“Seriously,” the rest of the world — the rest of Canada — so often says. “Edmonton? Are you kidding me?”

It’s a city that has had to punch above its weight just to get into the arena with the lightweights. Then, over the years, it won enough lightweight bouts to build a sporting history by succeeding where the heavyweights had tried and failed.

In 1978 Edmonton hosted the Commonwealth Games, a small fry event. But it came away with a stadium that, 40 years later, is as nice of an outdoor stadium as our country has. In 2001 Edmonton took on the outdoor version of an event that had failed in Toronto — the World Indoor Athletics Championships in ’93 — and people laughed.

Well, they packed 40,000 fans a day into Commonwealth Stadium for 10 days, then plowed some of that money back into the ageing stadium, while the Big Owe was still a shabby foreclosure in Montreal.

Then, the next time Edmonton applies for a gig, it’s the same response: “Edmonton? As if they’re going to beat out Vancouver, Vegas or Toronto?”

We don’t know where Edmonton stands in its quest to become one of the National Hockey League’s two hub cities, but it is clear that as the process has gone on, so too has their bid adapted to both make up ground in places where Edmonton simply can not take on a Toronto or Vancouver, and exploit their obvious advantages over a Las Vegas.

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For example: while Vegas can put all 900 people involved under the same roof in a single hotel, Edmonton can not. But what they can do is put the 336 NHL players (or the first 28 per team) in one hotel that is connected by walkway to the arena, and create both indoor and outdoor walkways throughout the Ice District that allow players and staff to walk outside to the rink and various amenities.

“A hard perimeter, with special transportation between everything,” said Oilers senior vice-president of communications Tim Shipton. “Or they can walk. The J.W. Marriott is across the street from Rogers Place, and the Delta is a block away.” Sutton Place, a third hotel that will be used to accommodate the rest of the nearly 900 folks in total, is about a four-minute walk from Rogers Place, and will be the first one phased out as teams begin to go home.

I know what you’re thinking. “The Delta? Sutton Place? How do you compete against the hotels in Vegas, Toronto and Vancouver with those chains?”

You can’t. But what you can do in downtown Edmonton is create an NHL Village, similar to an Olympic Village, with large outdoor spaces and patios that are inside the Ice District bubble. On a summer day (or night) in Edmonton, players will want to be outside sipping a coffee or having lunch.

Vegas can not say that from July to September. Vancouver and Toronto can, but can they produce an NHL Village across the street from their arenas the way Edmonton can? Do either have a practice rink for morning skates under the same roof as the NHL rink?

Edmonton can deliver concerts, golf simulators, basketball courts, ping pong tables on rooftop patios and a giant outdoor plaza where players from all teams can comfortably spend an evening, as the temperature dips to 18 or 20 degrees Celsius on an Edmonton summer night. All inside the Ice District bubble.

Obviously, they’ll arrange with Edmonton’s top restaurants to rotate through the primary eating spot inside the bubble. They’ll have their pick of golf courses, where teams can tee off at 2 p.m. and play a comfortable 18 holes. Try that in Vegas.

Another wrinkle the Oilers have come up with is to set up travel within Alberta for families, who may become part of this as the rounds go on. They’ll show the wives and kids around Jasper or Banff as Dad stays focused on the job at hand in Edmonton.

“As the tournament progresses,” Shipton said, “we’ll be working with Travel Alberta and tour operators in Jasper and Banff, if the families might want to spend some time at a place like the Jasper Park Lodge or the Banff Springs.”

It’s reminiscent of how Hockey Canada takes care of spouses and families at the World Championships.

Something else that the other cities may have trouble matching: There is a 50,000-square foot gym at J.W. Marriott, and the state of the art fitness facility inside the Oilers dressing room will be opened to all players as well. Two massive, brand new gyms, right inside the bubble.

Then there is the reason we are doing all of this: COVID-19.

There isn’t a city in the competition that match Edmonton’s numbers where coronavirus is concerned, because Edmonton is simply is smaller and further away from the world than the competition.

A lightweight, you might say.

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