On Wednesday night, National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman came to Calgary. Prior to attending the Flames’ game against the Boston Bruins, he made his usual media tour and stumped for a new building for the Flames. He made his usual series of arguments, noting (among other reasons) that a replacement for the Scotiabank Saddledome is necessary to ensure the team’s long-term competitiveness and viability in the context of the league.
The argument isn’t awful on its face, in the sense that the Flames would be more tantalizing to potential free agents if they have a shiny new building and leading-edge practice and training facilities. But one thing that’s often a burr in the saddle to players wasn’t explicitly mentioned: the ice. Players hate bad ice. At best it can ruin play-making and at worst, it can lead to catastrophic injuries. Heck, in Wednesday’s game Bruins forward David Backes caught a rut and crashed into the boards, narrowly avoiding a serious injury. Unfortunately, building a new arena is unlikely to drastically change ice quality in Flames home games if things work out the way they typically have with new builds.
The Saddledome ice plant is old. While we don’t know for a fact that it’s one of the oldest in the NHL, it’s logical to presume that at least some of the ‘Dome’s ice infrastructure is as out-of-date as the rest of the building has been reputed to be. An old or out-of-date ice plant typically results in less than ideal ice, which leads to big ruts and bad bounces, regardless of how hard the arena staff work at preventing them. You know what else leads to bad ice? A busy, warm building. In their look in January at ice quality, our friends at the Hockey News had this observation:
This season, there are 11 NHL arenas that host an additional tenant that requires a different playing surface, be it basketball or lacrosse. That includes buildings in Toronto, New York, Dallas, Buffalo, Colorado, Boston, Chicago, Washington and Philadelphia. That’s to say nothing for the events that also take place atop the covered sheet of ice in all the arenas around the league, which can include everything from concerts and trade shows to pro wrestling and monster truck rallies.
In an ideal world, a hockey arena would be cold all the time and the rink exclusively used for one hockey team, to allow for the ice to recover in between games. That’s not realistic, though, in an era where arenas are so darn expensive that their operators have to fill their calendars to have a chance of making them economical. Heck, Bettman cited how busy Rogers Place in Edmonton has been since it opened as a reason for Calgary building a new venue (as additional events lead to additional revenue for the entity operating the building). But the building being busier seemingly offsets any increase in ice quality you would expect to see from replacing the ice plant (and associated infrastructure) with a newer model. Is it shocking to learn that there have been concerns in Edmonton about the quality of the ice in the NHL’s newest arena?
Ice quality is arguably one of the most pressing issues in terms of the quality of the league’s on-ice product. NHL ice guru Dan Craig even came to a recent Board of Governors meeting to discuss the issue. Replacing the Saddledome with a shinier, newer building probably won’t do much to address this issue.