On Monday, Calgary’s City Council will look at a proposed tentative agreement with the Calgary Flames to construct a brand-new hockey arena (or “event centre,” in City Hall’s parlance). This represents the most significant development in a saga that has dragged on for well over a decade.
Here’s a trip down memory lane to showcase how we got to this point in the arena negotiations.
Kicking tires on a Victoria Park arena
As the 2004-05 lockout began to wind down, the Flames turned their focus to the future. The club began preliminary work on a new arena in the spring of 2005 – primarily stakeholder discussions and trying to turn their notions for what they needed in a new building into something concrete.
By the spring of 2006, those discussions had progressed to the point where the vision was for a building somewhere on the Stampede Park grounds – coupled with the demolition of the Saddledome once the new barn opened. The club was hoping to have the new building up and running by about 2016.
A Spring 2007 poll by Leger supported public funds going towards either assisting the Flames with building a new arena or retrofitting the Saddledome to extend its lifespan – oil was $80 and on its way up, so everyone was feeling optimistic about the economy.
In June 2008, the Stampede Board unveiled their optimistic expansion plans. They hoped to expand and completely overhaul Stampede Park, including within their plans a spot for a new Flames arena as they hoped to turn the park into a place people would hang out all year round – not just during 10 days every July. Talks had progressed to the point where the Flames opened spoke (via the media) about being ready to solicit proposals for designs early in the 2009-10 season and Gary Bettman stopped into town to bang the drum about the need for a new arena.
Through all of these discussions, the provincial and federal governments were cold to the idea of investing in a new arena while the city left the door open – they didn’t say yes, but they also seemed to go out of their way to avoid definitive nos.
The development of CalgaryNEXT
With Dave Bronconnier stepping down as mayor, insurgent candidate Naheed Nenshi surprisingly was elected in October 2010 – he began with 1% polling support in July, but managed to beat out council member Ric McIver and newscaster Barb Higgins for the big chair. With a platform that leaned heavily on modernizing the city’s transportation infrastructure, it was immediately apparent that carving out capital funding for a new arena might be a bit of a tough sell. Regardless, the Flames began meeting with his staff in the summer of 2011 to discuss plans and possibilities.
The plans changed significantly in 2012, though. The Flames bought the Calgary Stampeders and became intimately familiar with the state of McMahon Stadium. Simply put: yikes. That shifted their priorities from just replacing the Saddledome to trying to update the city’s pro sports infrastructure more broadly. They began exploring the idea of putting something around the Mewata Armory area in the west side of downtown, coincidentally near the original home of the Stampeders at Mewata Stadium.
The June 2013 flood accelerated plans. The Saddledome was flooded to roughly the 11th row of lower bowl seating, completely wiping out everything on the building’s event level. An insurance payout facilitated repairs – but didn’t allow for upgrades – making the building’s warts painfully obvious. Following the successful repairs – made in time for pre-season hockey in September – John Bean was promoted to chief operating officer and president Ken King’s position began to focus more on the arena side of things.
In June 2014, president of hockey operations Brian Burke reiterated the need for a new building and labelled the Saddledome as antiquated. The Canadian Taxpayer Federation responded by starting a petition trying to block use of public dough on building later that week. Bettman met with Nenshi during his January 2015 visit, also taking time to publicly bang the drum for a new Flames building.
After weeks of whispers, the CalgaryNEXT proposal was formally unveiled at an August 2015 press conference.
The death of CalgaryNEXT
The immediate reaction to the CalgaryNEXT unveiling was mixed. While the location seemed like a decent fit on paper and the ideas to replace both the Saddledome and McMahon Stadium in one fell swoop made sense, the financial plan was incomplete (as were the plans to figure out transportation logistics).
In November 2015, City Council looked hard at the proposal. While Nenshi declared the pitch “not even half-baked,” council directed city administration to cost out CalgaryNEXT. A few months after another Bettman visit to wrangle support for the project, the verdict came back from City Hall in April 2016: “Administration has come to the conclusion that CalgaryNEXT is not feasible in its present form or location.”
Despite follow-up efforts by the Flames, Nenshi publicly declared CalgaryNEXT “dead” at the end of March 2017. (King rebutted that it was “just resting.”)
Back to Victoria Park
Following the April 2016 report on CalgaryNEXT, council asked administration to take a look at options back where the Flames had originally looked at building: the Stampede Park area. A report came back in April 2017 detailing the feasibility of the spot.
Simultaneously, the Flames and administration began kicking around ideas for what a Victoria Park arena proposal could look like. Even before the feasibility report came back, things had progressed to the point where term sheets were prepared by both sides. By early summer, whispers around City Hall were indicating that a deal could come together quickly.
Things fall apart
Almost as quickly as momentum was built in talks, it disappeared due to a tumultuous City Hall meeting at the end of July 2017. The Globe and Mail reported that both Nenshi and Flames ownership chairman Murray Edwards were in attendance, neither was horribly pleased with the meeting, and that was the last meeting they had for awhile.
In September 2017, in the run-up to the municipal election, Nenshi posted a campaign video trumpeting a Flames arena as a crucial component of a cultural and entertainment district. The Flames responded by announcing that they were pulling out of negotiations. Following a tense election campaign, Nenshi narrowly beat Bill Smith to remain mayor – but more interestingly, Calgary voters sent an even more fiscally-prudent group to council.
Things come back together
While the new council wasn’t really gung-ho about spending money on an arena, they had also just spent a lengthy campaign period listening to voters’ reactions to the never-ending arena saga. Looking at the possibility of re-engaging with the Flames – if nothing else, the council members could say that they tried – council voted to form an Event Centre Assessment Committee in May 2018.
(There were some minor developments arena-wise in the aborted 2026 Winter Olympic bid, but at most it would’ve swapped funding for a “mid-sized” Olympic hockey venue towards the construction of the new NHL building.)
The committee spend its time doing dull but important work, setting boundary conditions for any possible negotiations with terms of reference compiled through council’s direction. They began to re-engage informally with the Flames in late 2018 – with broad “hey, this is sort of what we’re looking at…” talks – before formally re-igniting negotiations this past March.
Prior to the Stampede, council (and media) were told that talks were progressing. And now? We may finally have an end to the never-ending story of the Flames and the city negotiating for a new arena.