An Eric Fisher special feature for OEG Inc.
The story of the Edmonton Oilers, team owner Daryl Katz, and the team’s ICE District is one of bold ambition and even bolder execution.
Located in the National Hockey League’s northernmost market, the Oilers and Katz have spent the past 15 years looking to defy expectations - both locally and globally - and not only transcend their Alberta locale but help redefine the very notion of what a pro sports franchise is and can be.
“The Oilers are truly a special franchise and a special brand,” Katz said. “People even in other markets can see it and feel it, and it now goes well beyond just hockey.”
Looking around downtown Edmonton, much of that ambition and execution is on full display. The team’s former Northlands Coliseum has been replaced by the gleaming, CDN $483.5 million Rogers Place, which opened in 2016, and an adjacent 25-acre, mixed-use development. The CDN $2.5 billion ICE District, located on what was then-moribund surface parking in a struggling downtown Edmonton, has rapidly injected a new sense of life and vitality into the city and includes the Stantec Tower, a 68-story skyscraper that is Canada’s largest building west of Toronto, and a major JW Marriott hotel.
The ICE District also has been recently buttressed by the opening of Fan Park, a multiuse public space featuring year-round community and entertainment programming.
“We built in five years what they built at LA Live [in Los Angeles] in 20 years,” Katz said. “Not only has the project worked, but it’s served as a model for how the public and private sectors can cooperate for mutual benefit and revitalize a downtown core.”
And now Katz is looking to move that ambition and execution into the next phases of ICE District that will add another 12 acres of development to Downtown Edmonton, including a residential “urban village” to the north of Rogers Place.
More broadly, Katz has also engineered a recent reorganization of his varied assets in which a new-look OEG Inc. now includes OEG Sports & Entertainment, comprising sports assets such as the Oilers and minor-league clubs the Edmonton Oil Kings and Bakersfield Condors, ICE District operations, and film production company Dark Castle Entertainment; OEG Hospitality, a collection of 72 of the top restaurants, catering services, and event venues in Canada operated by the Oliver & Bonacini and Concorde Group hospitality groups; and OEG Retail Cannabis, a chain of regulated retail venues including flagship brand Tokyo Smoke.
“We’ve created a series of synergies and a symbiotic relationship, with the arena serving as a key anchor with its 200-plus nights a year of entertainment and activity,” Katz said.
The expanded business plan, one emerging out of the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and capitalizing on a pent-up consumer demand for in-person experiences, is designed to dovetail with an accelerating on-ice resurgence for the Oilers. And that resurgence has included a trip to the 2022 NHL Western Conference finals, the club’s highest full-season point total since the glory days of the team’s 1980s dynasty, and the continued dominance of star center Connor McDavid, currently the NHL’s best player.
“This is a franchise that has been important to Edmonton as a city, and it’s part of the city’s identity,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “There are great fans of this franchise, going back to when Wayne Gretzky was there. This is a place that really prides itself on being an essential part of the hockey landscape.”
In the process, OEG Inc. is now forging an entirely new path for the core nature and mission of a pro sports organization.
“The question for us is always to take the definition of sports and entertainment and drive it into new directions,” said Jürgen Schreiber, OEG Inc. chief executive.
THE POWER OF THE OILERS BRAND
A fundamental underpinning of all the activity of Katz and OEG Inc. — past, present, and future — is the might of the Oilers brand itself.
The Oilers are not an Original Six NHL team, and only joined the league in 1979 after starting its existence in the former World Hockey Association. But despite the relative youth of the franchise in a historical hockey context, the Oilers have since soared to become one of the sport’s most revered and valuable brands.
Much of the team’s brand power was first built in the 1980s when Gretzky — the greatest hockey player of all time and the sport’s Babe Ruth — and then Mark Messier led the Oilers to a total of five Stanley Cup titles.
But beyond just those two superstars, other Hockey Hall of Famers such as Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Glenn Anderson, and Glen Sather helped make the Oilers of that era into mainstream pop culture superstars with a fan following spanning North America, somewhat akin to the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers of basketball during the same time period, football’s Pittsburgh Steelers during the 1970s, or the New York Yankees of baseball at multiple points.
During that historic era of success, deep roots were laid among the fanbase that remain vibrant and strong to this day, and by many accounts surpass the bond between most other cities and their own local sports teams.
“The Oilers are a team that is inherently part of the fabric of the community and become part of the community, and the fanbase has become part of the team,” Katz said. “It’s truly a unique and special thing.”
As a result, the Oilers franchise routinely outperforms its market size and stand among league and industry leaders in a wide variety of business and fan affinity metrics such as local TV viewership, local revenue, merchandise sales, and digital and social media consumption. And the club’s current estimated franchise value of about US $1.3 billion is already more than six times what Katz paid for the team in 2008.
All this, despite the fact that Edmonton still ranks among the NHL’s smallest media markets.
“There aren’t many teams like the Oilers if you look at our metrics, and the things that franchises are measured by,” Katz said.
That level of business performance even stands out in hockey-mad Canada, where there are two Original Six clubs and more extensive Stanley Cup legacies in Toronto and Montreal.
“I can honestly say with the people in Edmonton, the passion for hockey and for the Oilers is so deep,” said Bob Nicholson, chairman of the Oilers Hockey Club.
“The people in the other towns are hockey fans, but not to the extent they are in Edmonton. It’s crazy. When you’re winning it’s great, and if you’re not winning, it can be tougher on you. But that’s the way pro sports should be, and that’s the way Daryl wants it,” Nicholson said.
That brand power and lineage of success also made the continued health of the Oilers a key priority for the NHL and Bettman. For years, Bettman and his deputies routinely trumpeted the need to replace the Northlands Coliseum. And Bettman also helped engineer the transitions of the franchise ownership from prior regimes, and through sometimes-rocky periods for the franchise, until the arrival of Katz.
As a result, the Oilers were able to avoid NHL team departures that befell Quebec City and Winnipeg and instead remain a key fixture in the league.
“It was Daryl and the people in Edmonton who stepped up and were committed to the market that made it happen,” Bettman said. “This is a testament to Edmonton and the people of Edmonton who stepped up to preserve this franchise in this place.”
Edmonton’s stature within the league was further buttressed in 2020 when the city and Rogers Place were selected one of two hub locations for the conclusion of the NHL’s pandemic-impacted season that year. That hub city experience has help allow both the Oilers and the league overall to emerge from the pandemic in stronger-than-ever positions.
“The facilities that are in place in Edmonton are extraordinary, and the ICE District shows great vision,” Bettman said. “When they complete the ICE District, we have every intention of bringing our tentpole events to Edmonton, whether it be an All-Star Game, or the Draft, and we’re doing an outdoor game there [in fall 2023]. We know that Edmonton is a great place to host events, and we know it’s a great place for hockey fans.”
THE VISION OF KATZ
Another crucial ingredient fueling the rising fortunes of the Oilers and OEG Inc. is the vision of Katz, a 61-year-old businessman and philanthropist.
Beginning humbly in 1991 with a CDN $300,000 deal for the Canadian rights to the U.S.-based Medicine Shoppe drugstore chain, Katz ultimately built a nationwide pharmacy behemoth involving several different retail brands. And in the process, Katz became one of the country’s successful business operators.
Katz would ultimately sell what became Rexall Health in 2016 to Texas-based McKesson Corp. in a CDN $2.9 billion deal, representing a meteoric return on that original Medicine Shoppe investment and following a separate CDN $900 million deal with McKesson four years earlier for Katz’s independent franchise pharmacy business. But Katz’s quarter-century journey in retail pharmacy was repeatedly marked by successfully mining otherwise unseen or under-exploited opportunities.
“Daryl’s always looking so far ahead around corners, miles ahead,” said Brad Gilewich, president of Katz Group, Katz’s holding company that oversees OEG Inc. “Whatever Daryl’s done, he’s always been able to identify the secret sauce, something that not only creates value, but acts as a differentiator in the market,” he said.
Those attributes remain fully in effect with the Oilers and OEG Inc.
“Daryl’s never been one to necessarily see barriers,” said Tim Shipton, OEG executive vice president. “Even before he bought the team, he was beginning to assemble the land parcels that would make up the footprint for the new arena and ICE District.”
Katz was born and raised in Edmonton, and saw firsthand as a teenager and then a young adult the birth of the Oilers and the team’s subsequent rise to an NHL and cultural power. The opportunity to take the reins of the franchise, as a result, transcends a mere business holding into stewarding a sacred public trust.
“Daryl’s whole family has really bled orange and blue, and a deep love of and passion for the Oilers has been in his DNA,” Shipton said.
That passion and vision from Katz for Oil Country was on display during the formation of the original agreement with public-sector authorities for Rogers Place. Katz made an initial pledge of spending at least CDN$100 million on development around the arena to help secure the arena deal, and he then surpassed that promise by a factor of 20.
“What initially struck me about Daryl was his energy, his passion, his intelligence, and his commitment to the Oilers and Edmonton,” Bettman said. “He made clear to me on all levels that his purchase would not only stabilize the Oilers but enable them to excel.
“Not only is Daryl a visionary, but he and his organization are great at execution. The arena and ICE District took a great deal of imagination and creativity to put all the pieces together. It was an extraordinary effort, and he executed it magnificently,” he said.
A NEW MISSION FOR THE COMPANY
The reorganization of the Katz assets and formation of OEG Inc. has created a pair of important structural results for the company.
First, the new company organization has led to an extensive series of operational efficiencies. The development and rise of OEG Hospitality, for example, has not only grown in its own respect, but also served to elevate the food quality and variety of concession options at Rogers Place.
Similarly, the development of OEG Retail Cannabis, and the prior experience of Katz and several other key OEG Inc. executives in the retail pharmacy business, has informed the development of upcoming loyalty programs within OEG Sports & Entertainment.
“Every asset in the portfolio has to produce, hit their targets, and stand on their own,” Schreiber said. “But from there, it’s all about pooling resources, leveraging the disciplines of the groups, and using synergistic efforts between them to make them all better and become best-in-class.”
Second, and more broadly, the formation of OEG Inc. has injected a restless, startup type of corporate mentality into what would ordinarily be a more mature business. For most other pro sports teams, the key revenue drivers such as ticket sales, media rights, and sponsorships are well known and firmly established. And even the notion of a sports franchise venturing beyond core team operations and into commercial and residential real estate is now a fairly a common occurrence.
But Katz and OEG Inc. have set their sights on deliberately making the entire enterprise a less mature entity and one able to nimbly move into many other new opportunities as they emerge.
To that end, the formation of OEG Retail Cannabis has involved OEG Inc. bringing in a series of seasoned executives from the retail pharmacy business, further leveraging Katz’s prior business experience, to professionalize, consolidate, and elevate an emerging sector of the Canadian marketplace. Tokyo Smoke is already the largest cannabis retailer in Ontario with 69 locations, and a recent acquisition of 23 additional stores from Canopy Growth Corp. will bring OEG Retail Cannabis into other provinces such as Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Newfoundland and Labrador.
“This is a super-entrepreneurial company,” Schreiber said. “When you look at Daryl’s background, the [executive] team’s background, they’ve always found something new, from pharmacies to real estate to the NHL to retail cannabis to restaurants to whatever it is in the future. It absolutely doesn’t stop.”
Within that entrepreneurial spirit is also a complete removal of the boundaries between the hockey and business sides of the Oilers operation, and between the individual legs of OEG Inc. Nicholson, for example, routinely participates in sponsor and ICE District meetings, even as he is now primarily charged with leading the hockey franchises.
“We’re all working to make both the hockey team better and the business better,” Nicholson said. “For us, it’s very important that hockey operations and business work together. And that’s extended to the players and coaches, too, and they’ve really bought in. They’ve been very involved in helping out on things like meeting with season ticket holders, different promotional things.”
Overall, OEG Inc. now boasts more than more than 1,700 employees across Canada and about 1,200 of those specifically in Edmonton, with more set to be added as each of the business lines grows further and the second phase of ICE District development takes shape. And that entire employee base, one just as passionate and tight-knit as the Edmonton community they represent, is crucial to pushing OEG Inc. and the Oilers to their new heights.
“There are many things in sports that are framed, but for us, there are still many things that are not yet framed, which is very exciting,” Schreiber said. “And if you find enough good people, even people from other sports or outside sports, you can learn and discover new experiences.”
And externally, the new-look OEG Inc. is now programming more than 200 nights of entertainment per year in downtown Edmonton, with the in-arena events such as Oilers and Oil Kings games and concerts robustly supplemented by a wide variety of outdoor events in ICE District Plaza, which now acts as a new town square of downtown Edmonton, and the new Fan Park at ICE District.
“These are now fully activated spaces, and in a place where people from all over are coming together, outside the arena, outside the hotel,” Schreiber said. “It’s been extremely vital for putting downtown [Edmonton] back on track.”
As Katz and OEG Inc. have continued to embark on their mission to transform the Oilers and the city of Edmonton, there is also a critical component of giving back, primarily through the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation (EOCF).
The charitable effort was formed in 2001 and predates the arrival of Katz to the team’s ownership. But since his arrival, he and his family have raised the foundation’s mission and benevolent impact to new and unprecedented levels.
The EOCF overall has contributed more than CDN $86 million to more than 2,900 individual charities, community programs, and youth hockey programs across Northern Alberta. Notable individual recipients of EOCF funds over the years have included ICE School, an experiential learning program taught in local schools and featuring a field trip to Rogers Place and ICE District; the Edmonton-area chapter of First Shift, a league and NHL Players Association program designed to provide low-cost entry for low-income and under-represented children to play hockey and other sports; and health-related initiatives and charities such as Hockey Fights Cancer, Hockey Talks, the Ben Stelter Fund, and the Terry Fox Foundation, among many others.
But within that overall record giving was an NHL record CDN $20 million that the foundation raised and invested back into Oil Country just during the 2021-22 season. The amount was the most ever donated by an NHL community foundation in a single season, and was fueled in no small part by robust fan activity for 50/50 tickets during the Oilers regular season and postseason run.
The club’s 50/50 operation, the largest of its type in all of pro sports, notably has emerged from the pandemic era much larger than a simple, arena and paper ticket-based raffle and instead is now a mammoth, digitally based operation with widespread reach and six-, seven-, and even eight-figure mega prizes.
“We’re always looking and thinking about what we can do to help this community,” Katz said. “It’s really, really important to put back into the community.”
Throughout the foundation’s operation, youth hockey programming, inner-city support, and stepping up in times of need have been the specific areas of focus.
Within that topical framework, several other projects have been key points for the foundation, including Hockey Helps Kids and the new Boyle Street Community Services facility. Hockey Helps Kids, founded by Katz’s twin children Chloe and Harrison, paired up Oilers star players with local schools in a competition to drive awareness and funding for a variety of important local causes.
The community services facility, meanwhile, is set to begin construction on its new facility and expand its mission providing a range of services to those in Edmonton facing homelessness or extreme poverty — and will be buttressed in part by a CDN $10 million contribution from the EOCF.
“In pretty much everything we do, the Edmonton Oilers Community Foundation is right there, side by side with the team,” Katz said. “The players have been inspired by it, and the support from the business community has been strong. It’s been a really big thing for us.”
Corey Smith, EOCF board chair, said the ongoing, historic success of the team’s charitable effort and broader visions of community outreach across the NHL have enabled a shift in recent years from a mission of more straightforward charitable giving to a far larger notion of strategic philanthropy.
“The idea now is being more purposeful and impactful in our giving and driving outcomes,” Smith said. “That has allowed us to focus our efforts and really own outcomes.”
Eric Fisher is a New York-based freelance journalist. Fisher has spent nearly three decades covering the sports industry through prior editing and reporting roles with outlets such as SportBusiness, Sports Business Journal, The Washington Times, and Easton (Md.) Star Democrat. A native of upstate New York, Fisher is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University, and also studied at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth.Back to News