The Calgary Flames have clinched a playoff spot for the second time in three years. But at a time where the fanbase should be rightfully celebrating a pretty successful season, everybody is fretting about the potential new arena deal and the future of the franchise in Calgary.
Here are a few thoughts on where we are, what’s going on, and how the heck everything got to this point.
HOW WE GOT HERE
The Olympic Saddledome was built in 1983 to serve two purposes: to provide a home for the National Hockey League’s Flames as well as strengthen the 1988 Winter Olympic bid. The International Olympic Committee was super-impressed that the various levels of government worked together to get shovels in the ground before the bidding was completed, which helped Calgary get the Olympics. The building was funded through a mixture of government sources.
The Flames were originally merely a tenant, but became the operator of the building in 1994 via a lease with the City (which they agreed to during a lengthy negotiation that led to the only large-scale renovation in the building’s history). The logic behind the move was likely that the Flames, as the primary tenant, would be well-suited to the nuances of finding other dates to fill up the building’s calendar. The City remains the owner of the building, and presumably has to work with the club to deal with any maintenance issues.
The Flames got control of the building’s calendar and revenues (while being on the hook if they can’t fill the dates), the City retained some financial risk in terms of remaining the owner but avoided the hassles of actually running the building, and various charitable foundations have benefited (via the Saddledome Foundation) from the team leasing the building from the city. Generally-speaking, it’s been a pretty good deal for the parties involved and spreads the risk around rather nicely.
SO WHAT’S THE PROBLEM?
The Saddledome is old. Once Little Caesars Arena opens in Detroit this fall, the Flames will be playing in the oldest building in the NHL – aside from Madison Square Garden, which has been extensively renovated on a regular basis and is effectively a new building in an old building’s shell. While the Flames have been able to fill their building with hockey dates rather easily, given they own an NHL team and a Western Hockey League franchise, the advent of newer, shinier buildings in surrounding markets has probably made it a challenge for them to attract concerts and other major attractions. The Saddledome roof has a problem with handling weight at the best of times, and it gets worse during the snowy months of the year (which causes challenges for touring acts that hang stuff from the ceiling) – the Ultimate Fighting Championship was reportedly given a very narrow window to run a show here because of the roof-rigging concerns. Given that the Flames operate the building, seeing a shiny new building in Edmonton not only fills Flames brass with envy, but also a fair amount of dread at the prospect of losing further dates to their northern neighbour.
From the City’s perspective, they may not necessarily be sympathetic to the Flames’ cries for help, but they’re also working with the Stampede Board to modernize Stampede Park. If you’ve been down to the grounds in recent years, a polite description of Stampede Park is “out-dated.” The area is a series of buildings plopped down in-between parking lots without much thought towards what would go where. The City has finally started to roll their sleeves up and actually develop the area, which includes knocking down the old Stampede Corral to upgrade and expand the conference facilities at the neighbouring BMO Centre. It’s a big project, but it also connects with their efforts to develop the East Village and to expand C-Train access throughout Calgary via the Green Line. It’s probably in their interests to have a long-term plan for the Saddledome’s future as part of this process.
A PROBLEM OF PERSPECTIVE
From the Flames standpoint, here’s what Calgary NEXT is (or was): a solution to a bunch of their problems, and several of the City’s. The Saddledome and McMahon Stadium are old and out-dated, and replacing them would greatly help the Flames owners run better businesses. The Flames likely saw the City’s unfunded infrastructure priority (the field house) and an undeveloped area in the West Village and felt that they would be scratching the City’s back by combining all their needs and the City’s needs with the location and scope of Calgary NEXT. Everybody wins, right?
From the City’s perspective, they probably saw the Flames proposal and exclaimed in frustration “But we already are working on Stampede Park.” The City’s been budgeting capital investments to develop the area around Stampede Park for years, ideally connecting the East Village cultural developments and the 17th Avenue developments with a revamped Stampede Park to create a cohesive and integrated entertainment district with tons of transit access. They don’t need to be developing two competing entertainment districts at the same time, particularly since developing one at a time is a risky enough proposition. It’s likely that this topic came up in early discussions between the two bodies prior to the August 2015 unveiling of Calgary NEXT. Seeing the price point of the development, the extensive involvement of public funds (and public risk), and the location of the proposed development probably led to even more government frustration.
And that’s where things seemingly began to fall apart.
A PROBLEM OF COMMUNICATION
If it seems like the City, particularly the Mayor, hasn’t been receptive to Calgary NEXT, it’s probably because of the way the proposal was presented. Months and months of discussions resulted in the project being unveiled in a public setting reportedly before City Council was clued into what the Flames’ vision was. From there, we’ve gotten roughly 18 months of the same basic pattern.
- Ken King talks and uses terms like “legacy,” “transformative,” and “unprecedented,” and then waxes poetic about how nice Edmonton’s building is (without mentioning the challenges of running a building while competing with shinier arenas for non-hockey dates).
- Naheed Nenshi steers the conversation towards how other markets have funded their buildings, and repeats that any public investment must have public benefit. Occasionally he’ll make jokes.
City Council is still awaiting a cost breakdown of what an arena-only project in Victoria Park would cost so that this “Plan B” can be compared to NEXT. During this prolonged lull in having details to debate, one or the other has usually gotten snarky about the issue. During the past two weeks, Nenshi has commented on Calgary NEXT being “dead” (which was later framed as him sharing his opinion rather than making any definitive declarations) leading to King making Monty Python jokes and openly pondering the Flames’ future in Calgary if nothing can get done for them arena-wise.
WHAT WAS SAID AND WAS WHAT MEANT
King was on Primetime Sports on Sportsnet 590 The Fan in Toronto on Wednesday. The arena came up, and host Bob McCown asked “At what point, Mr. King, can we expect you to commence your (Darryl) Katz-like tour, where you horde the favour of other markets because you’re threatening to move your team?”, referring to the Edmonton owner’s series of trips to prospective NHL markets that preceded the Oilers’ arena deal.
Here’s what King said:
So, that’s interesting. I think that’s what people think is a logical step, regrettably. And I told a group this this morning… Our ownership group, who are wonderful people, are not going to have their reputations tarnished. They’re not going to be ridiculed here, not that Mr. Katz was, he was successful. There would be no threat to move, we would just move. And it would be over. And I’m trying my level best to make sure that day never comes.
And who in the right mind would say ‘Are you kidding? Calgary, Alberta without an NHL team? It just doesn’t make sense.’ If people smarter than us, in more powerful positions than ours, don’t feel we’re a critical piece of the social, economic and cultural part of our city, who are we to argue with that?
Nowhere in there did King say the team was going to move. His basic premise, which frames the issue in a horrendous manner, is that if the City decides they don’t want the Flames to be in Calgary (by virtue of not being willing to work together on an arena project) that they’ll leave. Let me break some news, folks: the Mayor doesn’t hate the Flames. He’s been to games before. He’s a fan. But he’s also a guy that got elected on a very infrastructure-heavy agenda and he’s up for re-election in October, and he’s running a City that would have already built themselves a field house if they had the money to do so. (They’re also likely building the Green Line LRT in stages because of cash-flow issues with infrastructure funding.) It’s understandable that he’s skeptical of the prospect of throwing a lot of the City’s money into a project, as is much of Council, especially given that they still are waiting on Plan B’s financial details.
A PROBLEM OF RAGE FATIGUE
If you’re like me, gang, you have what I’ll term “rage fatigue.” I’m cranky that Flames presented such an incomplete proposal. I’m cranky that the City has been so publicly snarky about the whole thing. I’m cranky that King has constantly doubled-down on warm-and-fuzzy rhetoric instead of making a business case for the City’s investments. I’m cranky that the Plan B proposal’s details still aren’t ready, because then we might be able to discuss the merits of the two competing proposals. I’m cranky that this stupid issue has dragged on for almost two years.
Mostly, though, I’m exhausted by the whole thing, and particularly in listening to Nenshi and King’s ongoing war of words. As much respect as I have for both gentlemen, neither has really acted like a strong representative of their side. It’s been almost two years. We need to have an actual adult conversation about the various options, the extent of city involvement, and whether that’s in everyone’s best interests. The Flames ownership is all local. They want to be here. The City gains a ton from the Flames being here. They want them to be here. Everything else is just bullshit and noise. It’s time to get the numbers on Plan B for City Council, and then lock everybody in a room together to figure things out once and for all.
Like many in this community, I’m exhausted from being pissed off about the arena saga for this long. I’ll be thrilled when we can get back to hockey.