Way, way back in the 1980s, a ragtag group of Calgary businessmen teamed up to purchase the struggling Atlanta Flames and move them to Canada. The team originally played in the old Stampede Corral, a building that was small by National Hockey League standards and already 30 years old when the team arrived.
As you would expect, the Flames got started on a new building almost immediately upon arriving in town. The Olympic Saddledome opened in 1983, funded entirely by three levels of government – $31.5 million from the City of Calgary, $31.5 million from the Government of Alberta and $29.7 million from the Government of Canada – and the Olympic organizing committee ($5 million). Aside from a 1995 renovation – the Flames kicked in $20 million, the City of Calgary $12 million – the building has remained largely the same since the 1980s.
So how did we get here? How long has the building saga dragged on ceaselessly? We dove into the online Calgary Herald archives for a bit of a history lesson.
A brief history of trying
The Flames have been actively working on a new home since the spring of 2006, when the team outright announced that they were working on a new building. At the time, they indicated that their goal was to have a new building within a decade. In 2009, the plan was clarified by Ken King as having a new home by the time the team’s lease expired in 2014. By 2012, King noted that there wasn’t a hurry for a new arena (and that they wouldn’t make the 2014 soft deadline).
The team really made a new barn a focus following the June 2013 floods and the ensuing frantic renovations to get ready for the hockey season. Executive John Bean was made COO, focusing on the day-to-day operations of the CSEC, while King was ostensibly freed up to focus entirely on the business of getting the building done.
In August 2015, after months of whispering, the Flames unveiled CalgaryNEXT – a proposed $890 million complex aimed for the West Village. A lengthy City of Calgary examination concluded in April 2016 that the Flames’ cost estimates didn’t include what they felt were necessary components of the development – such as environmental remediation and infrastructure tie-ins – and the actual cost would be closer to $1.8 billion. Despite initially saying that the Flames had “no plan B” to Calgary NEXT, King seemed amenable to a proposed Victoria Park alternate site unveiled by the city in April 2017. Cost estimates are currently being worked on.
Brother, can you spare two dimes?
Buildings are expensive. The Saddledome was entirely funded by governmental entities of various stripes. So it’s completely logical that the Flames began the building process by asking around for the possibility of some financial help from the government.
For the most part, the involved politicians have been remarkably consistent:
Alberta Premier Ralph Klein (April 2006): no.
“I would be a little ambivalent right now, a little reluctant, to have the province contribute or participate financially,” Klein told reporters Monday. “It’s a business.”
Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier (April 2009): no.
“We have no money,” Bronconnier says, explaining the city has traditionally provided land as its contribution for a new arena. “Anything beyond land would be very, very difficult.”
Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach (September 2009): no.
“It’s very clear: we’re not putting money into arenas.”
Alberta premier Alison Redford refused to finance the Edmonton arena project multiple times throughout 2013 – the presumption is she similarly turned down Calgary. During the 2014 leadership race, Jim Prentice (and the other contenders) indicated he wouldn’t support public funding of arenas.
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was initially quite reluctant (February 2015):
“There’s a lot of talking but no real proposal,” Nenshi said. “I’ve always said that I’m willing to have a conversation when there is a real proposal, but I’ve warned many, many people that the hurdles are very, very, very high.
“From public support to the fact that we don’t have any money, that makes it extremely challenging,” he added.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s “no” was related by King in August 2015.
“The prime minister told me a long time ago that ‘I don’t have money for hockey arenas,’ and apparently that is the prevailing wisdom everywhere, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.”
Alberta Premier Rachel Notley also said no (August 2015):
“There are a number of capital demands on our budget. We need to build schools, we need to build hospitals, we need to deal with drought relief. There are many, many capital requests and the well is, quite frankly, only so deep,” Notley told reporters as she prepared to go door-knocking with Bob Hawkesworth, the NDP candidate in the Sept. 3 Calgary-Foothills byelection.
Nenshi walked back his initial reluctance following the presentation of the CalgaryNEXT project, coining a phrase that he’s gone back to over the past two years:
“I have said for a long time – and continue to strongly believe – that public money must be for public benefit and not private profit.
“The question for council, the ownership group, and all Calgarians is whether this proposal meets that test.”
Location, location, location
Initially, the Flames were talking hypothetically about building their new digs somewhere in Stampede Park. The city seemed on board, as indicated by then-mayor Bronconnier.
“The Flames are an important partner to the city — and we want to do all we can to ensure they remain as our tenant. And if their long-term plans are for a new facility, we’ll listen. But we certainly would hope that would be at the same location.”
A Herald piece in April 2009 cited whispers about two primary ideas: knocking down the Big Four Building and putting a new arena there, or otherwise putting the new building on the north side of Stampede Park.
The CalgaryNEXT proposal was a bit of a departure from the Stampede Park discussions, putting the rink in the West Village area on the western fringes of downtown. Latest discussions have plunked the arena basically where it’s been throughout the past decade’s discussions aside from the two-year NEXT diversion: Stampede Park, two blocks north of the Saddledome.
What we’ve learned
For all the bluster about the city (and specifically the mayor) blocking the project, Nenshi seems to have been the only prominent political figure to walk back his initial funding reluctance. To their credit, the Flames similarly seem to have walked back their “no plan B” bluster and emphasis on developing the West Village. These seem to be smart concessions on both sides, and arguably an important step towards making a deal.
Hopefully something happens to conclude the saga soon, because (as you can see) it’s been going on for over a decade with seemingly no immediate end in sight.