Robertson’s Rant: River City Ransom

Over the All-Star Break, CBC released the results of an NHLPA poll that included many of the usual topics: favourite coach, best player, the instigator, etc. One of the questions in that poll was, “Which team would you least like to play for?” Coming in second with 20% of the votes was Edmonton (first: the Islanders at 27%). Dan Tencer, a local radio host, initially said on Twitter that, “[the] Number will change dramatically when [the] team gets better”, but then followed it up by saying, “[a] New building in [the] next few years would [also] improve the number.”Oh, geez. Not the arena thing again.For the past few years, the Oilers have been trying to extract some amount of government assistance in the construction of a new arena to replace their current home. Rexall Place (nee Northlands Coliseum) was built in 1974 for a World Hockey Association team, without many of the considerations that went into more modern facilities: luxury boxes, seating for more than 17,000, etc. Despite that, it’s a highly-touted concert and entertainment facility, that’s still considered to be in the middle of its life-cycle. All the same, I can see why the Oilers might want a larger, more state-of-the-art facility, something like the Bell Centre in Montreal.In principle, I don’t have a problem with the Oilers replacing their arena, even if I will miss the historical appeal of the current one, but I do oppose having the government get involved in building it. Part of this is out of philosophical opposition. Multimillion-dollar sports teams are not a public trust, and having the government pay for a new facility to make the team’s billionaire owner more money is abhorrent when we have many other, more pressing social ills and practical needs. Part of it, too, is because I know my town’s next. Calgary and Edmonton have long been like two feuding siblings, and what one has, the other “needs.” If Edmonton gets a taxpayer-funded downtown arena in the next couple of years, Calgary will want (and probably get) a taxpayer-funded replacement for the Scotiabank Saddledome soon thereafter. This, despite the fact that it is much newer (1983), much larger (19,289), more centrally located (just outside downtown on the Stampede Grounds), and much more distinctive. Having attended literally hundreds of games there over the last few years, I don’t think we need a new arena in Calgary any time soon, and I certainly don’t want to be footing the bill for it, especially if it goes bad. Thus my interest in the Edmonton arena situation.So with that, I’d like to go through some of the more common arguments that have been made in favour of building this new ice palace, and try to debunk them.1) “We won’t be able to attract free agents with this old thing.”Leaving aside the aforementioned historical charm and relative good health of the facility, there was another interesting piece of information coming out of that poll that counters this assertion. Rexall Place was voted as having the best ice in the League, which is a bit of a surprising result, considering the ice plant is old and has been in need of replacement for some time, but the players should know best. Combine this with the recent $3.5M renovation to the Oilers’ dressing room and training facilities and one is left wondering what could be so bad that players would refuse to come. It’s not like they’re stuck with long bathroom lines and cramped concessions. Tencer had it right the first time: when the team starts winning, the players will come. It’s not like anyone moves to Detroit for their health.2) “The Oilers can’t support themselves in the current situation.”The Oilers currently have four players on one-way NHL deals playing in the AHL: Sheldon Souray ($4.5M salary), Jeff Drouin-Deslauriers ($1.05M), Alexandre Giroux ($500K), and now Zack Stortini ($700K, pro-rated about $275K for the rest of the year). Add in Robert Nilsson’s $416,667 per year buyout, and you’re paying around $6.5M for guys not to play here this season. When the Oilers are losing “several million dollars” per year while not making the playoffs, one wonders whether making better financial decisions might not be a more efficient way to address the problem from both ends. Certainly, the fact that the Oilers have a bunch of bad contracts – and I’m not even getting into Khabibulin, Strudwick, Jacques, and MacIntyre, none of whom should be on an NHL roster at this point, never mind making a combined $5.6M this year – isn’t something the taxpayers should be rectifying.3) “Quebec City’s getting money from the federal government.”Not necessarily, and also an apples-and-oranges comparison, partially because Quebec City no longer has a team, whereas Edmonton still does, and partially because Prime Minister Stephen Harper doesn’t need to buy votes in traditionally-conservative Alberta like he does in Quebec. Furthermore, it’s worth pointing out that even if this Quebec arena gets built, it’s no guarantee that they’ll ever get an NHL team. On the one hand, Gary Bettman is on record as saying that former NHL cities like Winnipeg and Quebec would likely get first dibs on any potentially relocated franchise; on the other hand, he also indicated that there no immediate plans for relocation and expansion. Furthermore, as Mario Lemieux can attest, the existence of an empty facility in another city can be a powerful, ah, motivator in convincing government officials to back your arena plan. Quebec, like Kansas City, is then left with a white elephant. It’s a deeply flawed, politically-motivated plan, and using it as justification for publicly funding an arena on the other side of the country is bad business.Update: In the time since I started this article, this story’s become a bit of a moving target. After initial reports that the federal government was considering a number of different funds to help support the venture, the province and city eventually agreed to foot the bill for just about everything. While this does set an unfortunate precedent for the situation in Edmonton, I believe that my overall point stands: the government paying for an arena so that a private corporation might get ownership of an NHL team at an indeterminate point in the future is a poor plan to emulate.4) “The Oilers could move to [Hamilton/Quebec City/Kansas City/Houston]!”Bull. Back when Katz bought the team three years ago, much was made of the fact that he was born, raised, and educated in Edmonton, made his billions in Edmonton, and was a friend of the old Boys on the Bus; as such, he naturally wanted to ensure that the team would remain there forever. Even if one were to believe that he’s willing to move the team – and I don’t – every Oilers owner since Peter Pocklington has threatened, with varying degrees of subtlety, to move the team; no one’s come close since Pocklington himself nearly succeeded in 1998, and times have changed since then. The Canadian dollar has been near par for years, making it once again possible for Canadian teams other than Toronto and Montreal to hold their own against the larger American markets. The economic downturn has deflated a lot of once-fat wallets, meaning there’s probably no one waiting in the wings to pack up the team and move them: certainly, Jim Balsillie isn’t interested in moving a Canadian team to Hamilton. Even if there were, the NHL has renewed its commitment to stability and a strong Canadian presence in the face of several dysfunctional ownerships in recent years; Gary Bettman wouldn’t stand for it. He just spent three years and many millions of the other NHL owners’ dollars ensuring that the Phoenix Coyotes, a financially insolvent team with a long tradition of losing that regularly plays before four-digit crowds in an inopportunely-placed arena, stayed put. The Oilers have too much history and too much support – in terms of both fans and local business – to go elsewhere, and any implications otherwise are absurd. Of course…see my response to #3. Even if it’s a crazy idea when you think rationally about it, the emotional reaction to such a threat is strong enough that one level of government or another probably will be blackmailed into doing it eventually, either to placate the people or to score points as “the guy[s] who saved the Oilers.”The bottom line is: there’s really no good argument for any level of government to pay for the Oilers to build a new arena. It’s not something we do here in Canada, it’s rife with risks to the public purse, and it’s highly unlikely to help the city’s economy or transform the surrounding area as advertised. More to the point, we the taxpayers have spoken up and said we don’t want it; we have better things to spend that money on. So do the right thing, Edmonton. Don’t give in to the emotional blackmail. Make Daryl Katz pay for his own arena, for all of our sakes.Glove tap to Andy Grabia, who’s been persistently following this story on Battle of Alberta and Why Downtown? since November 2006; his archives proved invaluable in tracking down many of the primary sources cited here.

About Doug Stolhand 26916 Articles
Doug Stolhand is one of the co-founders and co-hosts of the Puck Podcast and has been a member of the NHL media since the show's inception in 2006.

3 Comments

  1. Of course, right after I fired this off, Tyler Dellow reminded me of a) the claim that the Oilers are a $120M business (and yet they’re losing money?) and b) the notion of the Columbus Arena District as a model for the Oilers to follow (it hasn’t made the perpetually-terrible Blue Jackets financially stable). So by no means is this an exhaustive look, either.

  2. Ranter,
    I hear your point about contract mismanagement and coping with big contracts both AHL, NHL and Buyouts are a huge cost right now. The Oilers managment must be looking into the future and know that if they ride out these payments they’ll have cap dollars to resign the current stars of the future and/or attract free agent talent. I think the province and city need to make a wise decision about the agreement of any funding project. Maybe Katz should agree to keep the Oil Kings in Rexall and have the new building until the life of rexall as a concert venue can keep events like the Rodeo Final, Etc… I’m a relocated Oiler fan so it is no longer me paying the taxes but if I were there I would be for the funding project but not at a bad deal.

  3. I guess the big question to me is, what constitutes a good deal? I would say that it has to be both good for the team and good for the city, both economically and fiscally. So far, I don’t know that there’s been an example of that.

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