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Photo Credit: Sergei Belski / USA Today Sports

A new Flames arena won’t solve ice problems

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it’s one of the oldest in the NHL, it’s logical to presume that at least some of the ‘Dome’s ice infrastructure is as out-of-date as the rest of the building has been reputed to be. An old or out-of-date ice plant typically results in less than ideal ice, which leads to big ruts and bad bounces, regardless of how hard the arena staff work at preventing them.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.

  • Temple

    I seem to recall during the playoff run of ’06 that our ice was thought of as one of the top surfaces in the NHL. Yet more recently, thoughts that our ice is somehow less than ideal have surfaced. What changed?

  • Captain Ron

    I don’t get how an old ice plant would contribute to ruts in the ice surface. Isn’t that caused by the players skates? Or are you thinking it chips easier because it is either too cold or not cold enough?

    When Backes crashed last night it reminded me of a similar incident I had in my playing days. I strained the ligaments in both of my knees at the same time. Caught a rut going into the corner. Hurt like hell. Not surprised that Backes was moaning on the ice after it happened.

    • McRib

      Was Calgary Next ever really a thing? Or was it always a diversion attempt to try and create a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Stampede Council to put another arena on Stampede Grounds?

      One only had to look at the grainy Calgary Next architectual drawings and half a**ed financials to think it was never meant to be anything more concrete. Judging by the beautiful populous designed architectural drawings that leaked a few years ago (with the lowering roof for Hitmen games), I’m sure the designs for the actual new arena are long completed and the Flames are justing trying to come together in a land deal with the Stampede.

      I even believe the Flames have hinted at a new stand alone arena proposal recently (which IMO was always the primary plan), so even if they were pretending that Calgary Next was “a thing”, I believe the Flames have abandoned pretending that was the real concrete idea.

  • dontcryWOLF88

    If Calgary decides to pitch in the funds for this I would want to see it go down in a way that would benefit the taxpayers of Calgary. There are ways for that to happen. However, unfortunately, many cities get rail-roaded by team owner interests. Arena’s can be a very valuable tool for supporting the local economy, but only if city hall plays hard ball and insists on retaining the upper hand in any key decision making/ revenue sharing/ building ownership.

    In any event, now is probably not the time. The city budget is already a shoe-string, and a new arena is hardly a priority compared to the many other issues already on the plate. However, things are looking up in this city/province economically, and if that continues, I would think something should be workable in 2-5 years time.

  • kittensandcookies

    I think the Saddledome ice making equipment has been replaced multiple times over the years.

    IIRC it was replaced during the 2013 flood.

    Problem is it’s too effective – the ice is too cold, which is why the puck keeps bouncing so much. It’s also why ruts happen – skate edges chip away big pieces.

  • class1div1

    I have a hard time believing bad ice is caused by a old ice plant.It is the control of the plant and all the associated conditions such as air temperature and humidity in the building.These controls can be modified and upgraded and I’m sure they have been.The ice plant is basically a compressor,a few vessels,and a lot of piping.

  • Burning Ring of Fire

    Any chance someone at FN could talk to the person in charge of making ice at the Dome. It would be interesting to hear their perspective on this topic.

  • beloch

    As part of the 1994 deal with the city, the Flames bought out the Stampede’s contract for $20 million and took over management of the facility. While the city and Saddledome Foundation paid for the 1994–95 renovations, the new agreement required the Flames to pay for future arena maintenance and repairs, as well as any further renovations.

    Wikipedia

    This deal, which did give the Flames all Saddledome profits, is also why no major renovations have been done since 1994. It’s also why the ice plant is unlikely to see significant upgrades. To be fair, the ‘dome’s ice isn’t consistently bad at this point. There are bound to be a few off-days when the temperature outside swings wildly, as it often does in Calgary.

    As for Bettman, he should either shut up or stop propping teams up in markets that don’t want them and use the money saved to help pay for the Flames’ next arena. (A sports league paying for it’s own venues is a foreign concept, I know.) I’m sure some idiot city council in a place with palm-trees would be happy to build Bettman a new arena, but that doesn’t mean fans will fill it.

    • The Doctor

      Yes, that is the Bettman model — find some place with palm trees to stick a hockey franchise, and then spend subsequent years begging, cajoling and rationalizing out the ying-yang while said team draws about 8,000 fans a game on average.

  • Eggs Bennett

    With the state of the economy as is (even with recently higher oil prices), there are still few jobs. Taxpayer money should prioritize job creation before this. Bettman needs to offer some $$$ to get something done or stop offering his useless opinions…

  • Newbietwo

    I was in the Machine rooms on a tour after the flood renovations they replaced all electrical and machinery because it was housed below.. so there is that and one would assume a blog all about the Flames would know that

  • slapshot444

    Ryan

    No where in Shayna gold mans ice article is Calgary mentioned as having an issue. I’m not sure if the Calgary compressors were replaced after the 2013 flood but all of the controls and electric pumps are brand new. Apparently making more of a difference is air circulation and humidity both of which are fine in the Dome, ( ever noticed it’s cool and draughty) The ice at the dome is probably the only thing that doesn’t need to be modernized. It’s all a moot point until we arrive at the end of this recession or Murray Edwards decides to fork over half a billion bucks of his own hard earned money. Both scenarios are likely to be a while coming. Regardless,the jist of your article seems to be that the dome has an ice problem but none of the linked articles actually name the dome. What were you intending to say?

    • jupiter

      After reading Beloch,s response above you may conclude ,or not, that the Flames took over the maintenance responsibilities of ice plant sometime in the 90,s.It may be that there maintenance budget to keep plant in top condition was reduced and the ice plant has suffered as a result.Pure speculation on my part.

  • Backburner

    I don’t know anything about making ice. But I would assume there is more to it than just replacing the ice equipment, ice technicians, or even how often you hold special events. I think the quality of the arena probably has a lot to do with the ice surface as well (how well it’s insulated, location, structure, even design). If that’s the case I could see a strong argument here. Any thoughts?

  • Fan the Flames

    Bettman saying Calgary can attract free agents with a new building is a laugh . The only thing that attract free agents is money, warm winters and tax breaks .
    A new building brings higher taxes , higher ticket costs and concession costs ask Edmonton about the cost for their playoff tickets.

    • Randaman

      That’s like my father saying that he won’t buy beer anymore because they cost more than 50 cents or that a car used to cost less than 10 grand. Ever look at your utility bills lately? Every price on anything you buy is climbing at a rapid rate. Prices go up when you have new buildings. Simple concept really.