The mega arenas are coming
by Martin Merk|14 AUG 2019
The project TheDOME at Frankfurt’s airport with a planned capacity for 23,000 fans could become the world’s largest permanent ice hockey arena – although the last word for another project in St. Petersburg has yet to be spoken.
photo: Courtesy of Lowen Frankfurt
Currently Europe has few arenas that you could call NHL standard in terms of modernity and capacity. The biggest one permanently used for ice hockey is the Lanxess Arena in Cologne, Germany. Up to 18,734 fans filled it to watch the games of the 2017 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship at the arena that is home to DEL club Kolner Haie.

Other arenas with a capacity for more than 15,000 fans include the O2 Arena in Prague where up to 17,383 fit in for the games of the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in the Czech Republic, the PostFinance Arena in Berne where SC Bern annually sets attendance records in European club hockey and the Minsk Arena built for the 2014 Worlds in Belarus and is currently the biggest arena in the KHL.

Most of the larger arenas in Europe have a capacity between 9,000 and 15,000. They are numerous but would be considered too small by NHL standards where the smallest arena by capacity is the Bell MTS Palace in Winnipeg at 15,321.

The biggest arenas regularly used for ice hockey are the United Center in Chicago where up to 22,196 fans followed the Blackhawks games last season, and the Bell Centre where the Montreal Canadiens play their sold-out games in front of 21,302 fans.

Two European cities now seem to be ready to not only challenge Cologne but even Chicago for the biggest, regular ice hockey arena in the world.

New life for big complex

First came, of course, Russia. The Russians and the Soviets have a decade-long history of challenging the North Americans for having the best national team in the world and in 2008 took the battle for challenging the NHL for the best ice hockey league by founding the cross-border KHL and improving its infrastructure with new arenas. While most would agree that the KHL is not there yet, it definitely has made strides and changed the landscape for the sport in Eastern Europe.

The challenge for having the biggest arena in the world comes from the KHL’s currently wealthiest club. SKA St. Petersburg has the arguably most valuable team in club hockey outside of the NHL. The team, coaching staff and management are deeply connected to the Russian national team and the federation, reminding of the Soviet times when CSKA Moscow was the base club for the national team – just that the results on the ice are not as dominant with the recent setback in spring, allowing CSKA Moscow to win the KHL’s Gagarin Cup. But this rather fuels than stops the club’s high ambitions.

The building that could once be the biggest permanent ice hockey arena will be on the site of the one built in 1980 as Sports & Concert Complex Lenin when the city was still called Leningrad. Currently its named St. Petersburg Sports & Concert Complex (often referred to as SKK Peterburgski in the city). The big but aging building still holds summer sport events and concerts and was also used for hockey in a few occasions of the distant past.

Under the initiative of SKA St. Petersburg and its investor and president Gennadi Timchenko, the plan is to reconstruct the venue to become the biggest ice hockey arena with a capacity between 21,500 and 23,000 fans, have it ready to host the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in the city and bring the Gagarin Cup to the new venue, fittingly located next to the Gagarin Avenue, the Gagarin Park and Park Pobedy, which translates to English as Victory’s Park.

“We hope that the new stadium will be the best in Europe... We want to finish the construction in 2023, in time for the World Championship,” Timchenko said in a statement last year after the signing of an agreement with the city.

SKA Vice President Roman Rotenberg added: “The reconstruction will be a breakthrough for ice hockey. First of all, we want to accommodate the interests of our fans. Usually, examples of stadiums in Chicago, Detroit and New York are given, but St. Petersburg will also soon become an example.”

“There’s no doubt that the arenas will be sold out at the World Championship in 2023. The whole world is waiting for the 2023 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in St. Petersburg,” said Ice Hockey Federation of Russia President Vladislav Tretiak when Russia was awarded the championship in May and promised: “It’s a beautiful city with hospitable people and hockey fans. All this will make the 2023 World Championship one of the most memorable ones in history.”

The arena in the former capital of tsarist Russia would cost at least 20 billion rubles (approx. €270m) according to Timchenko and it’s being debated in the city whether the 40-year-old building should be reconstructed or make space for an entirely new building, bigger than the old one while embedding its architectural heritage.
New arena in St. Petersburg

Investment from Edmonton in Frankfurt?

However, this month the Russians got some challenge further west from Frankfurt, Germany, where the Canadian Katz Group, which owns the Edmonton Oilers and its new venue Rogers Place, wants to build a 23,000-capacity arena next to one of Europe’s busiest airports for €300 million.

On Monday the city’s local club Lowen Frankfurt signed a preliminary lease agreement with the group for TheDOME. In attendance during a recent presentation was the Oilers’ German star player Leon Draisaitl.

“In the past weeks there have been several positive developments in terms of the construction of a multi-purpose arena in Frankfurt,” said Stefan Kramer, managing partner of the club. “That we have been able to sign this preliminary lease agreement is a milestone for this topic and for the development of Lowen Frankfurt. This for us extremely generous lease agreement is unique in the history of German sports and shows how binding TheDOME wants to support regional high-performance sports.”

The size of the arena may be surprising considering that the club plays in the second-tier DEL2. However, Frankfurt is the financial centre of Germany – albeit one without a larger indoor venue for top events – and the club has been moving up since it was founded in 2010 after the bankruptcy of former DEL club Frankfurt Lions. Back then the club had to relaunch hockey in the city with its youth team in the fourth tier of German ice hockey, moved up one year later and since 2014 plays in the DEL2.

The way further up has been locked for a while, however, one year ago it was announced that Germany’s top league DEL would open up in 2020/2021 with a promotion/relegation system. That would ease the path for Frankfurt’s higher ambitions.

The investors of what could become the biggest arena in the world want to build a railway station for events next to the arena that can as well host the local basketball team Skyliners and 120 other events per year. The biggest issue right now seems to be political as the city had a tender offer for a smaller multi-functional arena at another location with ongoing negotiations. The investors for TheDOME believe that once they would get green light, the arena could be constructed within two years.

Will the biggest arena in the world be in Frankfurt? The capacity in St. Petersburg was originally announced at 22,400 but the last word hasn’t been spoken yet as the Russian investors made their ambitions very clear.

“We want to build an arena with 22,400 seats to be a little bigger [than the North Americans],” Timchenko said. When a journalist mentioned a bigger arena planned in Japan at a presentation last year, Timchenko answered according to local online outlet “Well, then we do it with 22,600. The project is not ready yet, everything is in process. We will decide about the capacity at the very end. If by that time someone should manage to build even bigger [than us], then we will make it bigger and nevertheless become the biggest.”

Once finalized, the construction work in St. Petersburg is planned to begin next year. And already for the new season St. Petersburg will become NHL standard in another aspect as the ice sheet of the current Ice Palace will be reduced to the North American dimensions of 60 on 26 metres.