Photo Credit: Sergei Belski / USA Today Sports

Rumours of Houston NHL franchise bring Calgary arena issues back into spotlight

To say that the 2017 Calgary municipal election was contentious is a definite understatement. Roughly a month before Calgarians went to the polls, Naheed Nenshi unveiled his plan for Victoria Park – which included a brand new arena for the Calgary Flames.

That announcement was followed by an edict from the Flames a couple days later, declaring boldly that they were no longer pursuing an arena in Calgary, and leading to each side presenting their competing funding models.

With the arena suddenly an election issue, National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman twice weighed in on the future of the Flames in Calgary under incumbent mayor Naheed Nenshi – the first time noting that there would be “consequences” if there was no arena and the second blaming the mayor for the lack of progress. Despite all of these shenanigans, Nenshi was re-elected with a surprisingly large margin of victory over challenger Bill Smith.

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After a brief lull, proponents for a new publicly-funded Flames arena have turned the page in their playbook to a tactic that probably doesn’t sound too foreign to our friends in Edmonton: touting prospective new homes for the hockey club.

A couple weeks ago, word started to surface that super-rich Houston businessman Tillman Fertitta – the new owner of the NBA’s Houston Rockets – was interested in perhaps owning an NHL franchise. Then Katie Strang of The Athletic was able to confirm that the NHL met with Fertitta to discuss the possibility of owning a franchise in Houston.

Then, as if on cue, sources informed Sportsnet’s John Shannon that the NHL considers the Flames franchise to be firmly in the relocation mix due to their arena situation. It’s been confirmed that the Flames still have yet to re-open talks with the City regarding a new arena. And, let’s face it, the relationship between the City and the team is basically non-existent right now.

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While Shannon noted that people close to Flames ownership chairman Murray Edwards would prefer not to move the team, it may come to that without a new building:

These are men certainly not in the business of losing money and their goal is to optimize their investment. At a certain point, without a new arena in Calgary, relocation will become a real option. Over the past 24 hours I can tell you Calgary’s name has been added to the list of teams facing possible relocation. It’s not something fans in Calgary want to hear, let alone consider.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman noted on Saturday’s edition of Headlines that originally the rumour was that Edwards had met with Fertitta about a Houston NHL team before reports were clarified that it was actually the league that went to Houston.

Speaking in Montreal at a Chamber of Commerce function following the league’s 100th anniversary festivities, Bettman poo-pooed the idea that the Flames would move. ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski covered the event, characterizing Bettman as “coy” on Houston’s chances of landing a team:

“We believe in all of the places that we have franchises now. We think all of our markets are capable of supporting clubs. We’re not looking to threaten markets. But there is an inevitability that when a club can’t for some reason get a new facility, ownership has to know what options it has,” said Bettman. “It’s great to know there are a lot of places that want franchises that don’t [have them]. We’re not running around actively soliciting interest. Our preference is to leave all the franchises where they are.”

It’s worth noting that between Houston (the Honda Center), Quebec City (Videotron Arena) and Seattle – whose city council promoted the proposed Memorandum of Understanding for Key Arena’s redevelopment from committee for a full council vote on Dec. 4 – there are potentially three suitors for NHL teams looking for greener pastures.

If all of this seems somewhat familiar, recall the experience of the Edmonton Oilers and their arena negotiations. Team owner Daryl Katz led a delegation to Seattle to tour Key Arena back in 2012, then apologized to fans and all but admitted that it was a negotiation tactic after the Rogers Place deal was signed. The smoke around the three potential future homes for the Calgary Flames are probably similar ploys. Well, for now.

On Saturday’s Headlines, Friedman made a very smart point. Yeah, the positioning of Houston as a future NHL home is probably posturing by the league (and/or Flames ownership) in an effort to put some pressure on the City to sweeten the pot in order to get the Flames back to the bargaining table – Ron MacLean referred to the Houston aspect of things as “a playbook move”.

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But what happens if there’s no progress made on an arena deal in two years? At that point the posturing might stop and both sides will either get down to brass tacks, or one side will take a long look at what other options they have.

      • McRib

        I follow the other American sports leagues incredibly close. The Houston Astros just won the World Series and finished 14-15th in attendance. The Houston Rockets are one of the top teams in the NBA with multiple superstars and they’re currently 14th in attendance, in a basketball market.

        Houston is one of the most fickle sports markets in the entire USA, outside of Miami they’re the worst. The Flames would be utterly stupid to move there. Years that they would be a contender they would be lucky to get 15,000 fans, on bad years it would be 8,000-12,000.

        • Roger the Shrubber

          Keep in mind the Astros had been trash the prior seasons and were perfect examples of a team tearing it down to build it back up. As for the Rockets, maybe Houston isn’t a basketball market.

          With all those things said though, I don’t think hockey would be a big enough draw to necessitate having an NHL franchise there. Seattle would be a whole lot better of a market.

  • canadian1967

    The Flames aren’t going anywhere. Either the rink gets built, or the Flames owners will sell to someone who can get the deal done and keep the team here. Or Murray, Ken and Gary will get the same treatment as a race horse with a broken leg.

    But seriously, the NHL kept The Coyotes there by making like 6 people sell the team rather than move it. I can’t see anyone allowing the hypocrisy of moving the Flames if that happened with all those Sunbelt teams.

  • Searsy

    Murray Edwards is the smartest most cut throat businessman this city has ever seen. If you think he won’t move the team because of the lack of a new arena, then you don’t know the man or his reputation. Moving the Flames is a very real possibility if a new arena deal cannot be agreed. And there is zero chance Murray sells the franchise one way or the other.

    • Searsy

      We’re talking about a man who literally moved himself to another continent because he was pissed off at the provincial and federal governments over personal income tax rates. If he was willing to move his entire life to another country over a tax dispute, you don’t think he would move an NHL franchise???

      • supra steve

        So…Betman will not let a team move if they have a fancy new publicly funded arena in the sun belt, but can’t draw a crowd to that arena, like in Arizona?
        Betman will however, let you move if you regularly fill your existing building in a hockey rabid Canadian city, but are having difficult negotiations over a new building with your host city?
        Sounds like a winning strategy. I don’t believe it.

      • Parallex

        No, I don’t.

        1: Murray Edwards doesn’t own the Calgary Flames… he owns part of CSEC which owns the Flames. Ownership as a whole would have to want to move.
        2: I highly doubt that the current owners want to own an NHL team anywhere but Calgary. They’re Calgarians they own the Calgary Flames as a Vanity/Prestige holding and a NHL franchise outside of Calgary doesn’t have that appeal.
        3: Bettman has made it very clear that he only entertains moving teams when there are no local owners to be found. Fairly certain that there will be other potential owners (maybe ones that could actually close a deal without all the public whinging and failing at municipal politics putsch).
        4: Board of Governors would have to green light it… pretty sure the owners in Raleigh, Ottawa, Brooklyn, Arizona and maybe Florida (i.e. teams with present arena/ownership/cashflow issues) will go “Heeeeeeey! Wait a minute! No Buttinskis! Back of the Line Bub!”
        5: A prospective owner in Houston will ask why can’t he pay 200M for the team in Raleigh or the team in Glendale instead of 500M for the team in Calgary.

        This is all just part of the dog and pony show. The Field of Schemes playbook.

        • supra steve

          “4: Board of Governors would have to green light it… pretty sure the owners in Raleigh, Ottawa, Brooklyn, Arizona and maybe Florida (i.e. teams with present arena/ownership/cashflow issues) will go “Heeeeeeey! Wait a minute! No Buttinskis! Back of the Line Bub!””

          Or more likely they line up for a shot at calling the Saddledome home.

      • Seattle_Flames

        Calgary isn’t Alcatraz. He’s free to move to wherever he wants to. He’s earned that right & quite frankly, who wouldn’t choose London over Calgary? The tax advantage is something most billionaires get. It’s just one of those life isn’t fair things. Boo hoo.

        • You’re absolutely right. He can move his home wherever he wants. But similarly so if he as majority share holder doesn’t want to pay taxes. Then as majority Share holder his company can GTFO when he wants middle class citizens to pay taxes into his pet project. works both ways.

          • Seattle_Flames

            Ya, I hear you & I get it. But is it also ok for him to take his job opportunities with him too when he GTFO? Or should he just sell locally and move to London? Regarding both The Flames and his oil businesses. Not to get too off topic but he’s investing a lot of money into the tar sands in Ft. Mac, it’s not like he’s just taking and not giving back here.

      • Stu Cazz

        You were fine with your first comment that I happen to agree with. Your second comment is your own made up BS. You have no inside information into Murray Edward’s personal life to say why he left Calgary. You should acknowledge that it is your opinion and don’t speak like you have the facts. You also remain silent on the millions of business tax he pays and employment he provides for thousands of Albertan’s…

        • Seattle_Flames

          Ok, I accept that. Probably I’m just a little tired of ownership being hammered & not having as much of voice for their defence. Not that they need me to take up for them, just trying to add a bit of balance.

    • The reason most people think “the smartest most cut throat businessman” won’t move this team is because it seems to be a bad business decision. Relocating would be a gamble, while the market in CGY can definitely support a team; this Houston business is smoke and mirrors as far as the Flames are concerned.

      • Searsy

        Despite my warnings about Mr. Edwards, ultimately, I still believe an Arena will get done. I also should have clarified that even if a deal does not get done and Murray decides to move the team, I do not believe Houston would be the destination. The Houston scenario would require Murray selling the team to the Rockets owner. I don’t think Murray would want to sell the team. Rather, he would maintain ownership and move the team to a city who provides an appropriate arena – i.e. Seattle. Seattle will have the arena, but no owner lined up.

        • Parallex

          So… he’s going to move the team to a place where he has no other business interests and would get a worse arena deal then here? Seattle is building an arena to get the sonics back so unless Murray Edwards wants to shell out a billion dollars on a NBA team as well he’s gonna be the bottom on any arena deal in Seattle.

        • BendingCorners

          Seattle’s arena owners will charge rent and keep all the non-hockey revenue. The team might move if it’s sold but not before. Just say no and don’t worry about it.

    • McRib

      “Murray Edwards is the smartest most cut throat businessman this city has ever seen”

      *Throws up in mouth*

      Murray Edwards is an opportunistic lawer who moved to Calgary from Toronto at the right time and established a Canadian Oil company when others weren’t around. He didn’t do anything a million others wouldn’t have at the time if he didn’t. There was a market demand and someone filled it, as a society we need to stop thinking billionaires are exceptional and realize what they really are (gready SOBs). If we don’t and millionaire/billionaires continuing horsing the wealth in this world that they are, we will see a massive crash in 10-15 years, as wages aren’t rising proportionately with other costs (salaries have gone up 30% in thirty years, whereas housing costs have gone up 500+%, etc).

      Murray Edwards was born at the right time and came to the right place historically, if he was born anyone other generation he would have been unable to do what he did and would just be another Toronto lawyer in Calgary. All of this can be attributed to luck to be honest, go read a socio-economist like Malcom Gladwell if you don’t believe me.

    • Kevin R

      Yeah, Flames ownership are in no rush. Let the City roll in the stench of their overspending & deficits & their grandeur plans of a Fieldhouse & reclamation of Victoria Park. At some point our dimwitted Mayor will realize that having the Flames as a partner will bring this to reality way before an Olympic bid would get accepted. Maybe Numshi will suddenly become a hockey fan & buy a Flames jersey with Ken King’s name on the back.

  • RU63

    1. Tillman Fertitta doesn’t want a tenant, he wants to buy a team and move it to Houston.
    2. Murray Edwards doesn’t want to pay rent, he wants to own the arena.

    Houston and the Flames don’t mix, move on from this please.

  • Lets Get Something Clear

    “We’re not looking to threaten markets.”
    “That’s a nice hockey team you’ve got there. Sure would be a shame if something happened to it.”

  • deantheraven

    The Flames can afford to wait out Nenshi’s term if they have to. Of course they would prefer to have a better building built sooner, but if it comes down to it, they’ll just pull out the playbook with the next mayor.

    • Parallex

      There’s a cost to that though… we all know they’re going to be jacking up ticket (and probably concession) prices when a new arena is built. Probably by about 25% on average so they’re sacrificing 5 years of expanded revenue opportunities if they wait until after the current councils term is done. That’s assuming that any subsequent council is more amiable to CSEC offers (and considering the low term to term turnover on council and the fact that they unanimously voted “No” on the Flames last funding and terms proposal… let’s just say I find that rather unlikely).

  • Styxx

    “It’s been confirmed that the Flames still have yet to re-open talks with the City regarding a new arena. And, let’s face it, the relationship between the City and the team is basically non-existent right now.” Ryan Pike Nov 11th

    Based on your quote from a couple weeks ago Ryan you are obviously more pessimistic now than a couple weeks ago that a deal will get done anytime soon for a new arena.

    I am quite pessimistic and believe it may take up to 2 years to even get both parties back to the table to talk again. The waters are so poisoned and the positions so far apart that any discussions would not even be attempted. The owners are so offended at the response received to their offer to invest $275M in a piece of public infrastructure (versus $25M for the Oilers) that they are more than willing to tell the City to go fly a kite.

    I am actually more convinced that the next statement made by the Flames will be to go in an unexpected direction, and certainly not be subjugated to the heavy-handed and simplistic approaches put forward by the City thus far.

    • Styxx

      For clarity …the Oiler’s total commitment to Rogers Place is 25% ($166M) over 35 years in the form of lease payments (the up-front commitment is ~$25M). Katz is also able to invest in building several commercial and condo high-rise buildings to renew the area, and be able to earn a fair market return based on these investments and the risks they contain.

        • Styxx

          The total investment from the Oilers is $166M. Under the City of Calgary’s “1/3” each proposal the total investment by the Flames will be over $600M which includes their up-front investment, repayment of the City loan, plus repayment through a ticket-tax for the remainder (generated by Flames games etc). Flames would also have to pay interest plus property tax for the “opportunity” to build a piece of civic infrastructure.

          Facts don’t lie …not even if viewed through purple-coloured glasses.

          • Parallex

            Taxes are taxes… not investments. The Flames are not making a single upfront “investment” in the facility. They’re just offering to pay an insufficient amount of rent upfront… seriously who calls rent an investment.

  • Derzie

    This is what happens when money-addicted sociopaths don’t get their way. They can go straight to hell. The Flames belong to the city, owners & Bettman are just profit takers. Flies in the face of all the good charity work the staff and players do. Pay your share. We are not dumb enough to fall for scare tactics (some are but thankfully, the mayor isn’t).

      • MontanaMan

        No kidding. Nice socialism comment. The Flames belong to the owners. Full stop. The owners and the Flames foundation pay more tax and more to charities than most companies so, while I want the best deal for the city, I can’t hammer the club or their foundation for paying their fair share.

  • Seattle_Flames

    A lot of good comments in this section today. Just to clarify though, Flames ownership hasn’t said anything about anything. Nothing about relocating, nothing about selling the team, nothing about a new arena. There are possible relocation markets and the media is putting out stories because that’s what they do. Personally, I think they will wait out this current mayor and council and try again in 4 years. Not a chance they work with nenshi with whatever vision he has for Victoria Park or his Olympic vision. They had their own hopes and dreams wrapped up in the Calgary next project. One of the first things KK said when he was unveiling their plan was that this was about legacy and that cleaning up that site & getting that part of the city functional (and thriving) was a gift. I was super excited about that prospect like I’m sure a lot of you were. But the city treated these guys like lepers instead of the pioneers they are.

    • dontcryWOLF

      Pioneering with the cities money (ie you and me).

      CalgaryNEXT would have required over a billion dollars of public money. They wanted it for their own benefit. I don’t think for one second they factor “helping the city” into their business plan. It’s all about making money. I get that, but it’s our civic responsibility to draw the line.

      Flames ownership reminds me of a 6 year old in a toy store. Obviously the want everything and don’t care what mom and dad have to pay. That’s how selfishness works.

      If Murray Edwards cared about looking out for the city he wouldn’t have moved to avoid contributing to our tax base. Again, I get his motives, but no chance I’m going to support tax dollars working to his benefit after that move.

      • Seattle_Flames

        I believe CalgaryNEXT would have benefited the city. Yes it was a big project with big dollars. But CSEC was also putting up big dollars. We all know the breakdown of what they were proposing, it doesn’t seem worthwhile to revisit it since that ship has sailed.

        I have to laugh now though when I read these articles on the Olympic bid and the costs that come with it. So if $1,000,000,000 was too much for CalgaryNEXT which had potential to be the centre piece of the city for the next century, then how is $4,000,000,000 for a 2 week 1/3 of the world event even being considered? What was even more embarrassing was when nenshi suggested that Edmonton & Calgary join hands & sing koombaya in order to get the Olympics. Because of course Edmonton has that beautiful arena & then of course they would host the Olympic hockey games & other premier ice events while Calgary takes the scraps & mountain events. That is just embarrassing. I remember when we used to have an attitude that we could stand on our own 2 feet, when we had the attitude that anything you can do I can do better. Now it’s gotten to the point where we ask our big sister up north to help us out, and with no shame either. Just embarrassing. Cmon Calgary! You are better than this!

        • Parallex

          “But CSEC was also putting up big dollars”

          No, they weren’t. They were willing to “put up” approximately 1/6th of the cost on a facility where they would be the only ones to claim any revenue. In exchange for this they expected to pay no rent, pay no property tax, and I wager get all those extra goodies they demanded in Vic park (but didn’t tell us about: Hat Tip to Carrie Tait of the Globe and Mail for finding that out).

  • Stajanforadirtyboot

    On a side note I’ve heard hot dog and nacho sales have been up in every rink the Flames have played in the last 10 games with the exception of the Little Ceasers arena in Detroit…..odd.

  • Justthateasy

    I’d like to take the lot of them around back of the barn and kick their butts so hard they end up in the hayloft.
    Suddenly we’ve got enough money now for the Olympics.
    Shame on you Nenshi!!!
    Bettman you’re the ultimate sleeze.
    And owners, how much money is enough money?
    It’s always about more more more money money money. It’s never enough.

    • class1div1

      Suddenly we’ve got enough money now for the Olympics.

      No ,this is just the noise coming from the mayor.The security alone would probably run over a billion.No one could even put a cost estimate on security. I t will be a open budget.But Nenshi’s all in,for some reason.Total waste of his time and the taxpayers money.Where’s the rage.

      • Avalain

        I dunno, I think that the rage would only come if it actually becomes a reality.

        The Olympics bring a lot of money into the city, but lately it just isn’t enough money to pay for the incredible security costs. They need to figure something out or the IOC is going to struggle to find places that want to host… Or can afford to.

        • Justthateasy

          You are wrong about the Olympics being a money maker. The study just released said not only was it a net money loser, but the sole purpose of having the Olympics was to put your geographical location on the map and to create an infrastructure for sports.
          That’s it!
          We are already on the map and a target for every refugee, economic or otherwise, in the world.
          This idiot mayor is an egoist, a dreamer and a spendthrift.
          Did I mention it’s my money dammit!

          • Justthateasy

            Speaking about taxpayer money, the news is out about The new rink in the shadow of the parliament buildings that is costing 5.6 million.
            Another joke by our great leaders spending my money.
            There will be no hockey no figure-skating no this, no that, except a Peewee tournament that will cost 1.3 million.
            Then it will be torn down in February and will be given to a vulnerable Community somewhere. That’s our Monument to the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of this great country.

  • WillyWonka

    It’s like, not only do I have to let you rape me, but I have to dress pretty, buy my own drinks, AND like it. Then say thank you when you’re done.
    That’s how Bettman makes me feel when he smugly refers to “consequences” of not liking his deal.
    This has literally tainted my joy and interest in this team and the sport.

  • Derian Hatcher

    Ok – so I’m old. True story : my first year of organized hockey was when I was 7 and the Edmonton Oilers were in the WHA playing out of the Edmonton Gardens (told you I was old). The Winnipeg jets were in town for a Saturday night game and my coach (Martin) got our whole team tickets to the game. Now the good part. He tried calling 3 downtown hotels until he found the one the jets were staying at. He asked for Bobby Hull’s room and, amazingly, was put through. Bobby answered and Coach Martin explained that Our minor hockey team would be at the game and would Bobby have time to meet with the team before the game if we arrived early. Well wouldn’t you know, we got there early and out strolls Bobby Hull for autographs and pictures. Remember it like it was yesterday. Boy has hockey changed – all business, all money and lots of greed – everywhere. (I do realize that Hull signed for 1 million at that time – but he was still great to a bunch of awestruck little kids)

    Thanks for indulging me.

    • Off the wall

      That’s a great story. The ‘Golden Jet’, Bobby Hull. I’d be thrilled beyond belief too!

      What a great coach, to even think of something like that for his team.

      Did you get a photograph with Bobby and a signature from him?

      And.. you’re not old- just seasoned, at least that’s how I describe myself.

      I’m assuming this happened mid seventies?

  • buts

    All you Murray Edwards dissers remember the guy employs thousands, his company operates in Canada so trust me he/they pays a lot in taxs….who cares about his personal tax. The flames problem in all of this is Ken King who has lost the PR battle….this guy is NOT a salesman, he comes across as slimy and untrustworthy. When I played hockey against him years ago he was a dirty player haha…true. Regardless when King said the ticket tax was flames revenue I then knew the guy is the wrong man. King told a friend of mine 7 years ago the new arena would be built by the flames at the old big four building. Then edm got there sweetheart deal and here we are wondering if the flames are going to move. Where is the stampede board? The stampede board had a 500 mill expansion planned. If the flames get partnered with the stampede board, get rid of King, get a better PR person and sit down to negotiate there is a deal to be made. Hey Nenshi, and Notley our carbon tax queen, what are doing about the creosote that’s leaking into the bow?

  • Avalain

    Is it just me or are there a lot of people who don’t normally show up regularly at Flames Nation but do show up to posts about the new arena? They seem to be very pro-ownership.

  • Garry T

    There are perfectly great markets and buildings in Saskatoon they rendered a report that they could sell out the rink in five business days. Quebec City, new building and would sell out in five days and backed by billionaires, and then there is Hamilton who would sell out in a heartbeat but need to remodel the building. Again there would be several backers for a team in Hamilton with Billionaire status for that area. Calgary is a world Class city and has loyally supported this team. The ownership has a junior hockey franchise, a lacrosse franchise, a CFL franchise that all make money as well. Edwards the largest shareholder has more money than God. If he does not want to continue as an owner, there are multiple wealthy people here that could pool their resources and both manage and run the club as a sub cap club. I hope they never leave. But opinions here have shown a lack of financial support for a new building. Nenshi is a non supporter and had there been a contestant with support by Calgarians that knew how to run an election Nenshi would be back home with Mom and Dad watching the soaps. Go Flames Go