Fanning the Flames: Team and city at standstill over new arena
Thursday. May 25. 1989.
That's the day "we" won the Stanley Cup.
I remember Friday, May 26 too - because that morning, I boarded the school bus wearing a Flames jersey, a Flames hat, and carrying a homemade Flames flag - a little something for all the Oilers fans on board to see. (Growing up near Didsbury, central Alberta was what you'd call disputed territory - kids could cheer for either Calgary or Edmonton and still be able to justify it geographically. I chose Calgary)
I am still one of those people who says "we" when referring to a team I am no way part of. "We" won the Stanley Cup in 1989, and then "we" lost in 2004, when "our" goal against Tampa Bay in game 6’s overtime wasn't counted by the ref.
Hockey fans hate losing, but if there is one thing they may hate more, it's being taken for granted by their team.
And this week, that's how many boosters are feeling.
On Tuesday, Flames president Ken King said the team was abandoning its push for a new arena in our city. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman was by his side.
"I thought we really had something that would work,” King glumly stated, adding "and it seems pretty clear that it's not."
For his part, Bettman was quick to mention Edmonton’s splashy new area.
"This is an arena that can't compete with Edmonton any longer," he said. "I don't know what the long term future holds."
The team and the league say there is no point doing business here - implying the city is making it too difficult and maybe the Flames should move to Seattle, with its brand new arena, where they'll finally be appreciated.
Perhaps league brass thought this would cause a panic among Flames fans. It appears to have simply caused anger instead. And not at city politicians.
At a time when thousands of Calgarians (many, no doubt, Flames fans) are just getting back to work after months or years of unemployment, the notion of subsidizing billionaires doesn't sit well.
Let's not forget, a CTV poll two years ago found just 23 percent of Calgarians willing to put tax dollars towards a rink. A city commissioned poll this spring mirrored that number.
Some ask, if taxpayers can spend hundreds of millions on a new library, why can't they do the same for a rink?
But that’s a flawed debate - the books inside libraries aren't owned by billionaires.
Also, according to Forbes, the Calgary Flames made $121 million last year. That’s about $121 million more than the library, which, presumably, narrowly missed this year's Forbes list.
Don't get me wrong - I spend far more time on my hockey pool than I do at the library - and I absolutely believe professional sports teams are a large part of a city's culture and its character.
Let's be honest, we don't see a lot of people wearing jerseys with the name of their favourite librarian on the back. But I'm also very aware that pro hockey is a business. I am a customer. The Flames are the product. Pro hockey isn't a "public good" the same way that literacy is or say, publicly-funded health care.
Arena advocates say Mayor Naheed Nenshi over played his hand; that he risks becoming "the mayor who lost the Flames"
Most Calgarians aren't that naïve, nor are the other mayoral candidates.
"The mayor who chose millionaires over taxpayers" is far more of a scarlet letter, even though it's admittedly also overly simplistic.
That's why I’d be stunned if either of Nenshi's perceived main rivals for his job, Bill Smith and Andre Chabot, commit to a rink before the October 16th municipal election.
"Open to negotiations" is about as far as they can be expected to commit right now.
For the Flames, experts said it was a public relations bomb. And the legitimate economic argument for some public funds supporting the project was lost.
There is an upside to an updated facility that can be used more than 70 times a year. Filling the building more than 20 percent of the time, whether it’s for a UFC fight or a Paul McCartney show, can bring useful outsider cash. Though Garth Brooks’ recent run of seven shows in the "antiquated" Saddledome may somewhat deflate that argument. Heck, he even told CTV, Calgary should build a new arena, but with a pretty huge caveat: Only if the city can afford it.
On a micro level, as Brian Burke likes to point out, keeping the Flames here means keeping two dozen millionaires paying local taxes.
On a macro scale, and this argument is also used to promote Calgary's possible Olympic bid, is the belief that the more people who visit our city, the more likely they'll want to stay.
And the more people who want to move here, the more likely someone will bring a business with them and a greater tax base.
(Anyone know how many hockey fans work for Amazon these days?)
Agree with them or not, diverting tax money, offering a loan, or putting up land aren't necessarily absurd ideas.
You'd think they would've gotten the message a few months ago when Burke told Calgarians they should thank the team for wanting a taxpayer-funded arena.
The backlash was quick and the Flames soon pointed out Burke didn't speak for them on this topic.
Then, 48 hours after vowing that negotiations were off, both Flames staff and city politicians were scaling back the rhetoric.
They all know moving an NHL team isn't an easy task. Supporting one doesn't seem to be either. And, that's why many Calgarians appear to be reminding the NHL that there is a vast difference between loyal fans and ignorant ones.