Hockey arena deal signed, championship stays

  • 2004-07-08
  • By Aaron Eglitis
RIGA - The long-running negotiations surrounding the 2006 World Ice Hockey Championship finally received some good news when officials from the International Ice Hockey Federation on July 1 gave the green light to plans for the construction of the large stadium necessary for the tournament and thereby officially granted Latvia the right to host the championship.

Despite repeated warnings of an impending championship disaster if the arenas were not built on time, deadlines were continually extended until the final agreement was reached. Nearly everyone involved was blamed for the quagmire, but in spite of all the finger pointing, the outcome wasn't far from the initial agreement which Merks signed to build the stadium in the original location on Skanstes Street.
"The Latvian Hockey Federation sent us all the necessary documents about the hall's construction and financing that show that the large hockey arena will be built in Riga on time," said Rene Fazel, head of the IIHF.
Latvia was awarded the right to host the 2006 games after the hockey team's strong showing in 2000. Yet talks on building the arena were fraught with intrigue and accusations and almost jeopardized the whole tournament.
After the last breakdown in talks, a consortium of five Latvian construction giants appeared to rescue the project. However, they also bowed out in the end, citing the complexity of the project as their reason.
If Latvia had not met the July 1 deadline, it was believed that the tournament would have been held in Sweden.
Construction of the 12,000-seat arena is set to begin in September, as soon as Merks acquires the necessary building permits from the Riga City Council.
The deal ends months of turbulent negotiations surrounding the stadium and that even reached the highest level of government.
Multihalle, a major player in the talks from the outset when it won the initial tender to build the arena, was eventually forced out of the picture because they could neither sign an agreement with Merks nor sign a guarantee for the City Council.
Deputy Prime Minister Ainars Slesers, who former PM Einars Repse blamed for the fiasco, stepped down to let Education Minister Juris Radzevicsas become the government's new representative for the championship.
Multihalle was assailed for an apparent conflict of interests. The main investors - Kirovs Lipmans, head of the LHF, Guntis Indriksons from Skonto and Ojars Kheris, a former basketball player and politician - became a source of scorn for many unhappy with the trials of building the stadium. However, once Multihalle was removed from the negotiations, an agreement was quickly reached.
Still, once it seemed that the worst was behind, arguments broke out between representatives of Riga and Liepaja and Ventspils over the location of the second smaller hockey arena needed for the tournament.
Initially the possible location of the smaller stadium focused on the western port cities of Liepaja and Ventspils. Ventspils was eventually excluded due to an incomplete bid, angering Mayor Aivars Lembergs, who later threatened to sue.
Meanwhile, Liepaja's chances slipped since the city lacks the infrastructure to host the games and has a limited number of hotels.
In a letter from the IIHF to Lipmans, the governing body voiced its preference for Riga as the sole destination for both hockey halls. The federation has since changed course and has handed the responsibility of finding a place for both stadiums to Latvia.
Lipmans, long the subject of scorn for his role in the arena debacle, took more heat when he suggested Skonto for the sight of the smaller arena.
Skonto owner Guntis Indriksons is a business partner of Lipmans.
Should Skonto get the smaller venue, the 6,000-seat stadium would be adapted from an existing building, bringing down the overall construction costs.