Oilers chairman hopeful team can play in front of fans by May

No tickets. No beer. No Bobby Nicks burgers.

The Edmonton Oilers will open their NHL season at home Wednesday night without fans in Rogers Place, leaving a gaping hole in the team’s budget.

However, Oilers brass is holding out hope it will be able to welcome fans into the rink at some point during the 56-game regular season.

“We’ve had brief discussions,” said chairman Bob Nicholson in a video interview with CTV News Edmonton, on the eve of the Oilers season opener against Vancouver.

“We’d like to do it, but only when we get the right signal from health authorities in Alberta and across the country because we want everyone to be safe.”

Allowing thousands of people inside Rogers Place for three hours would require a major relaxation of public health restrictions. Currently, indoor organized public events are prohibited and arenas are closed to the public. Even small outdoor social gatherings are not allowed.

“Hopefully we'll get fans in there at the end of this year. And then really, you know, have full capacity by playoff time or by the start of next year. I think people will want to get back in the arena and then we got to make sure that we have a safe environment,” said Nicholson.

BREAKING EVEN

Welcoming fans back, if permitted by regional health authorities, still has to make sense from a financial perspective, since clubs would have to pay staff to operate parking, security, and concessions.

“Really, for the numbers to really start to make any sense to us, probably about 9,000 people, but we will certainly have less in than that when we can,” said Nicholson.

“We’ll go along with the protocols. You know, those protocols could start at 4,000, up to six (thousand), up to nine (thousand), up to 10 and 11 (thousand) as we go through, working with the health group.”

Rogers Place has a seating capacity of 18,500. The team is scheduled to play 28 home games between Jan 13 and May 1.

None of the seven Canadian NHL teams will begin the season with fans in their respective arenas.

On Tuesday, Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk said he hoped to have up to 6,000 fans attend home games at the Canadian Tire Centre at some point during the season. That would be about one-third capacity of that arena.

In the United States, the NHL expects the Arizona Coyotes, Dallas Stars and Florida Panthers to allow a limited number of fans in their respective arenas to begin the season. Other teams such as the Pittsburgh Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets may also welcome fans at some point.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has said the league stands to lose an estimated US$1 billion dollars by playing the season, more than it would have if the season was cancelled entirely.

The NHL relies heavily on in-person attendance to generate revenue compared to the NFL, MLB and NBA. Roughly 50 per cent of all revenue comes from ticket sales, concession and other in-person elements.

Asked how much money the Oilers stand to lose, Nicholson did not provide an exact figure.

“There's no question. It's a drain on resources to our owner at this time.”

Nicholson said the team will leverage local advertising deals to help offset loss, such as the Rogers decals, already spotted on the players’ helmets.

“You’re going to see different types of activity going on, mostly in the arena, mostly on the ice surface with some new signage, tarps,” he said.

“We’re looking at inventory that wasn’t there before but using those spaces to create extra dollars.”

With files from The Canadian Press