The Prince Albert Raiders aren’t going to move into a new arena tomorrow.
But with a trip to Moose Jaw on Tuesday that saw 34 team staff and directors, civic politicians and local businessmen tour Mosaic Place, they hope a tiny seed has been planted.
Team president Dale McFee, himself a former player who won a Memorial Cup with the team, says the Raiders have become an important an well-known symbol of Prince Albert across the country. He told the delegation that he hoped the tour would spark a discussion about what a new arena could look like.
“We’re not going home and getting into a debate about whether we should build a hospital or a bridge or a rink,” McFee told the delegation. “That’s not why we’re here …
“The last thing we want is to go home and start this debate with ‘We’re building a rink tomorrow’ and have everybody up in arms in Prince Albert. There’s a lot of homework that needs to be done. This is just step one.”
With the smallest building in the 60-team Canadian Hockey League, the Raiders say they are hoping to get a community conversation started about the need to eventually replace the 41-year-old Art Hauser Centre.
The team is doing well with the facility it has.
The Raiders are actually selling seats at 102 per cent of capacity; last season it averaged 2,354 per game while this season it’s averaging 2,633.
The Western Hockey League has had a requirement for the last decade that new buildings seat a minimum of 4,000 people. Prince Albert, with a capacity of 2,580 fans at the Art Hauser Centre, and Swift Current, which can seat 2,879 at the Credit Union iPlex, were allowed to keep their existing buildings, but with the understanding that they would be replaced in the future.
Bob MacDonald sits on the Raiders board and serves as the team’s governor at board meetings. He says the WHL isn’t putting any pressure on the Raiders.
Instead, the league wants its franchises to be profitable. He notes that since he served as team president a decade ago, the team’s budget has gone from $1.2 million to $2.1 million.
“We need revenues, I think we’re going to find that there’s going to come a point and time when we can’t support a team in a 2,500-seat arena,” he says. “The league is fine as long as we’re paying our bills.”
But it isn’t a level playing field.
Only Swift Current and Prince Albert have buildings that hold fewer than 4,000 people. Three WHL rinks hold 4,000 to 5,000 people, six hold 5,000 to 6,000 and the rest are larger.
The average attendance in the WHL is 4,653 fans per game. As a direct result, the Raiders’ $2.1-million budget is being doubled and likely tripled in some cities.
MacDonald says the Art Hauser Centre meets existing safety standards but simply doesn’t have enough seats.
Even the happy side of that equation could change. New boards will have to be installed at rinks across the league to reduce concussions.
It was those changing standards that helped push the need for a new building in Moose Jaw.
The idea for a new building to replace the Moose Jaw Civic Centre -- lovingly nicknamed the Crushed Can for its unusual shape -- was first floated in 1999. With the cost of renovations mounting to bring the Crushed Can to league standards, a group of citizens formed in 2004 to champion the construction of a new facility.
Jody Haunta is Moose Jaw’s director of Parks and Recreation. He joined the project in 2005, overseeing the early planning through construction to operations for the City of Moose Jaw.
A referendum in 2006 approved construction of a $36.3-million building. But when that plan was shelved for a bigger facility, a group of citizens sued the city.
The lawsuit was eventually dismissed and the second plan was approved in a subsequent referendum in 2009.
The final tally was $61.3 million, with the provincial and federal governments both kicking in money. The city’s portion of the bill for the 210,000-square-foot building was $24 million.
Haunta says the city tried to be as open and transparent as it could through the process. But he admits it was a battle he could never completely win.
“The reality is, if someone is against the project, I don’t think you will be able to convert or make everyone happy,” Haunta says. “That’s the reality of working in the municipal world. You can’t make everyone happy. You try your best to provide the answers and information and your rationale for making certain decisions, but … not everybody is going to be supportive and not everybody is going to be happy with the decisions that have been made.”
Haunta says that while hard feelings remain, the simple act of sitting in Mosaic Place watching a concert or game has been the biggest healer.
“I think that’s the reality of these projects as well,” Haunta says. “It’s difficult to visualize them until you actually come and sit in the seats and watch an act or a game and see the different experience that you’re having. Is everybody converted? No, I’m not naive enough to think that everybody who was against the project is supportive of the project.”
The league may have never applied any direct pressure on the Raiders but WHL commissioner Ron Robison’s response in 2008 to Moose Jaw’s decision is telling.
“This will enable the Warriors franchise to remain in Moose Jaw and provide an arena which will serve the community and the Warriors hockey club for decades to come,” Robison said in a news release at the time.
After the tour of Mosaic Place, Mayor Greg Dionne and councillors Rick Orr and Mark Tweidt met with the Moose Jaw city manager and other officials for a closed-door discussion on the facility.
Dionne was pleased with the information he received, noting that during the last civic election he campaigned in part on the concept of creating a 10-year facility plan.
He says the civic grant remains $500,000, in part because the city receives all food and beverage sales, half the signage and 10 per cent of ticket sales. The curling rink was built as part of the facility to make it more attractive to conventions and other bigger events.
“One of our priorities when we do a 10-year plan is a leisure pool over the rink,” Dionne says. “Of course, we were thinking, can we build a multiplex together and that’s why we came here ... It’s been a benefit for them to generate revenue.”
Dionne concedes that the price of the design has to be balanced with the pocketbooks of taxpayers but also has to last and accommodate future growth.
“The key is to me, if you build a facility, you build it right and build it for 50 years.”
The Art Hauser Centre turns 50 on Dec. 12, 2021.
McFee says the process has to start somewhere.
“If we start planning today, we couldn’t build this properly in three to five years. That’s a reality,” McFee says. “But we can’t sit in the weeds and expect things to change if we don’t take action.”