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How the Flames arena deal turned ugly and where it’s headed

Sportsnet logo Sportsnet 2017-09-13 Eric Francis
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Three days before the players hit the ice, Calgary Flames ownership hit back at a mayor who tried to disingenuously use the arena as part of his re-election campaign.

Fed up with mayor Naheed Nenshi’s disinterest in trying to solve an arena problem that could ultimately send the Flames packing, team president Ken King announced Tuesday the club would no longer play along with Nenshi’s façade.

"We had an owners meeting today and have determined that we’re no longer going to pursue a new facility," said King, flanked by Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly who flew in for a hastily called owners meeting to provide answers to questions about their options.

"We’ve been meeting for months and they’ve been spectacularly unproductive and that’s unfortunate."

The owners met after Nenshi kick-started his re-election campaign with a video outlining his vision for the east village and Victoria Park area, which is next to the 34-year-old Saddledome.

In the video, with former Stampeders running back Jon Cornish, Nenshi says his vision includes a new arena as part of a "cultural and entertainment district."

Curious as to whether the mayor was eager to re-start talks that ended abruptly on July 31, King called Nenshi’s chief of staff only to learn "their message is, ‘It’s not going to work.’"

King felt it was time to set the record straight, refusing to be a pawn in the mayor’s political posturing.

"I may have misled our city because I’ve been optimistic all along, believing our position was fair and it should work, but it’s not," added King Tuesday.

"There’s a different view of what’s fair. And what the participation should be. It doesn’t look like we’re going to get there and I think it’s time we stopped pretending and were a little more direct and honest about it with our city about that fact."

It’s a jarring response from a frustrated Flames group that had offered to pay $200 million of the arena’s cost as part of their CalgaryNext building in the west end of downtown. They were willing to make a similar contribution for the city’s east side counter proposal. 

Not enough, said the city, prompting the Flames to end the ruse that things were moving along behind closed doors.

Clearly, Nenshi and King don’t see eye to eye in any shape or form. Their clash of egos has been a major part of the narrative as Calgarians watch the wheels spin throughout two years of failed negotiations.

So, for now, it’s a dead issue.

So say the Flames, who insist they will simply continue to operate out of the NHL’s oldest building (outside of the renovated Madison Square Garden), "as long as they can."

Missing out on 34 concerts that went to Edmonton’s shiny new arena in the last year, the Saddledome simply doesn’t generate the revenue today’s modern buildings can, putting the Flames at a competitive disadvantage with, say, Edmonton.

"Apparently we can’t beat (Edmonton) on the building front but maybe we can beat them on the ice," quipped King.

"We’re not running for any office so it’s not an election issue for us."

They’re choosing, in a very dramatic way, to try changing things up as nothing was going to progress until well after the Oct. 16 election, if ever.

Unfortunately for die-hard Flames fans, Nenshi is essentially a slam dunk to serve a third term, seemingly leaving the Flames in an arena bind moving forward.

Nenshi seemed to be open to the outside possibility of contributing some public dollars to an NHL facility, but reiterated in his re-election video that he was willing to share some of the risk only if the benefit to Calgarians was significant.

Right or wrong, Nenshi is armed with the belief the majority of Calgarians are against spending money on such a project. The naysayers are certainly louder than the arena supporters, of which there are many.

So, sticking his neck out for a sports team isn’t high on a list of his priorities, clearly.

Those who point out the Edmonton arena took a decade of brutal negotiating and threats need to be reminded of a major difference in the Calgary situation: Edmonton had a mayor firmly behind finding a way to broker an arena deal. And he could justify it easily because it was to be built in a derelict part of the downtown core that desperately needed revitalization.

Mission accomplished, as it was some of the best money the city has ever spent.

That’s not the case in Calgary at all, as the new rink would be located hundreds of metres away from the current arena.

Few people in Calgary really believe the Flames would ever leave town, which is the implied threat in all this. However, with Nenshi in charge and this battle of bravado looming, the question is how they proceed productively from here.

Bettman added fuel to the political fire by urging Calgarians to "make your voice heard if you think the city is moving in the wrong direction.”

Indeed, this is likely the largest election issue out there, prompting fans to wonder who they should back.

King steadfastly refused to throw his support behind any candidates.

Bettman and the Flames weren’t interested in discussing the obvious possibility of relocating to Quebec City or Seattle, where a plan was proposed Tuesday to expedite the remodeling of KeyArena in time to host a team in three years.

Those sort of threats turned many in Edmonton off as they ring hollow during public/private arena negotiations.

The implied threat is getting a mixed reaction here too, where the issue is as divisive as this city has seen in decades.

While the team will run itself, no one actually believes it’s "business as usual" for the Flames owners, as part of their tack now will now have to include due diligence on options elsewhere.

As successful businessmen they’d be foolish not to, especially now that they’ve called out the mayor.

Caught off guard by the team’s stance late Tuesday, Nenshi refused comment until Wednesday when he’ll discuss the situation with council and address the media afterwards.

It will be fascinating to see how he responds.

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