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When NHL rinks outlast their usefulness
Flames' and Senators' arenas may not be old, but they're obsolete in the 'sportainment' era

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Saturday, March 10, 2018 – Page S5

CALGARY -- Seventeen years before he published A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens paid a brief visit to the colony that would eventually become Canada.

In early 1842, the great English novelist and his wife, Catherine, had come to North America where he fully expected to fall in love with the vitality of the United States, only to be sadly disappointed in what he found. When the Dickenses briefly headed north across the border, however, he became enthralled with the power of Niagara Falls, the charm of Quebec City and the openness of the people. What impressed Dickens most, however, was how public structures - roads, buildings - were "all made to last."

Clearly, he saw no NHL rinks in his travels.

Calgary's Scotiabank Saddledome - known previously as the Olympic, Canadian Airlines and Pengrowth Saddledome - is 35 years old. While some might argue it was made to last, it wasn't made to produce revenue in the deep streams demanded these days by professional hockey.

Similarly, Ottawa's Canadian Tire Centre - once known as Scotiabank Place, Corel Centre and the Palladium - is an arena pup at 22 years old. Some could argue it remains in excellent shape, but others will say, as they have said since it opened in 1996, that it is in the wrong place.

Both, their owners and the NHL say, will have to go. And the sooner the better.

In this era of what he calls "sportainment," André Richelieu says that, increasingly, arenas are being built as entertainment hubs, the "jewel box," so to speak of massive developments that go far beyond any sporting event.

Richelieu, who has taught sports marketing at Laval University and is currently a professor at École des sciences de la gestion in Montreal, says "The rationale behind these real estate projects is to trigger traffic all year round in order for the new stadium complex to become a point of convergence for the community and, in some instances, revitalize a neighbourhood."

This, of course, is precisely what is happening in downtown Edmonton with Rogers Place, a spectacular $480-million arena funded by private money and local taxpayers - much of it through a Community Revitalization Levy - that is generating a revival of the city core since it opened in September, 2016.

Both Calgary and Ottawa are also seeking to revitalize troubled areas, Victoria Park in Calgary and LeBreton Flats in Ottawa. Both projects potentially involve billions in new residential, commercial development and other attractions, all connected to the rest of the city by light rail.

"The location and accessibility of an arena are important," Richelieu says. Calgary's chosen spot would be close to the Saddledome. In Ottawa's case, the new rink would be close to downtown, not a traffic jam away in the suburb of Kanata, as is currently the case.

This month opened with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman dropping in on Calgary, where he told local media that the financial situation of the Calgary Flames "continues to deteriorate" in no small part because of its out-ofdate facility.

"This building," the commissioner said, "in its time was a work of art. Its time is long past."

Some years back the Flames' ownership decided this was so.

They had an initial plan, Calgary Next, which would cost $890-million and include a new rink and new football stadium, also said to be badly needed, on the west side of downtown. Council nixed that project by saying the price would double or more when the cost of dealing with contaminated soils was added in.

The plan then switched to redeveloping the Victoria Park area.

The city and the Flames like the idea but have been in disagreement on how that might be financed. Last fall, when Mayor Naheed Nenshi successfully stood for re-election, the dispute over who would pay for what reached a point where the Flames' director of communications tweeted (and soon deleted) that "Having @nenshi as mayor is worse than @realDonaldTrump being president."

Nenshi and council would be open to a three-way split in which the roughly $500-million required for a new arena would come from the owners, a ticket surcharge and some taxpayer involvement. The Flames would rather see a deal where they'd put up a considerable portion of the costs with the remaining many millions coming from a levy similar to that used in Edmonton.

Unable to reach any agreement, Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp. called for an end to meetings the Flames termed "spectacularly unproductive."

Jim Peplinski, a successful Calgary businessman and former captain of the Flames - he won the Stanley Cup with them in 1989 - is still closely connected to the team. The fact that there have been no further talks between council and team for months is not, he believes, a concern.

"The organization is focused on what's important," Peplinski says. "That's serving our customers, winning and competing for championships. We are concentrating on what we can impact. It was time to refocus and get back to our knitting."

Heading into this weekend, the Flames were in a tough battle with at least four other teams for the final wild-card playoff spot in the Western Conference.

"I expect there will be a new building at some time," Peplinski says. "But right now, it's all about getting into the playoffs."

Friday night in Ottawa, the Flames had an opportunity to climb closer to that coveted playoff spot when they met the Ottawa Senators - the franchise with the same new rink concerns but decidedly different prospects.

If ever Charles Dickens's famous opening - "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" - fit, it would be the Senators, who moved from being within an overtime goal to the Stanley Cup final last spring to a collapse that has eliminated any hope of a return trip to the playoffs. Heading into the match with the Flames, the Senators were the third-worst team in the 31-team league.

The Senators' annus horribilis has included far more than just a drop in the standings, though all is certainly connected. Attendance has slipped; the "entertainment" value of a defence-obsessed system has been questioned; and fans grew livid in December when owner Eugene Melnyk called them out on national television for not supporting the franchise.

Melnyk has tried to mend fences through a public-relations strategy that has largely failed.

Last week, he sent a letter to season ticket holders in which he acknowledged his team's shocking demise. "Trust me," he wrote, "no one is more aware of this and more frustrated by it than I am."

Going through such a tough year, Melnyk wrote, creates an opportunity for "clear-eyed evaluation." He said they would not be merely tweaking the lineup but would rebuild around youth and skill.

"I have every intention of rebuilding the Senators to become the finest team in the NHL," he wrote.

It will take some convincing, though. One disgruntled fan began a GoFundMe account to put up a "#MelnykOut" billboard and soon raised more than $10,000.

And Melnyk, rather than going away, is now even more on hand, now operating as team CEO and president, following the departure of Tom Anselmi, who lasted but a year in the job and is remembered for covering up 1,500 seats in the Canadian Tire Centre to give the illusion of a full house.

Before the late-February trade deadline, the Senators conceded that they were into a lost season and began a rebuilding program in which veteran players such as Dion Phaneuf and Derick Brassard were traded away. This, and a flurry of rumours on the national sports talk shows, set the country's capital to fretting over whether the team's best player, Erik Karlsson, might also soon be lost. The two-time Norris Trophy winner comes up for contract renewal after next season and there is much concern that the belttightening Senators will not afford him.

On Wednesday, Karlsson sat between Melnyk and general manager Pierre Dorion for the annual team photo and at times looked decidedly uncomfortable.

The Senators remain a long way from their own financial discussions with the city and National Capital Commission regarding the development of RendezVous LeBreton, but Melnyk's December outburst has had some fans fearing that the team might leave for greener pastures, as happened in 1934 to the original Senators after a season every bit as dismal as 2017-18.

Few, however, take this seriously, not when the value of a new franchise has reached US$650million, which is what Seattle is expected to pay when it joins the NHL. The cost of relocation would be prohibitive even if the NHL somehow agreed to a move.

Richelieu says there can be no such concern in Calgary, which has long proved to be a healthy market for the league. The team is not only competitive, but he notes that the rivalry between Calgary and Edmonton is such that Calgarians would never be able to deal with "the 'shame' they might face should their team relocate."

A solution to the rink financing will be found, Richelieu says. And should Calgary go ahead and bid for the 2026 Winter Games, as Nenshi and council are considering, a new facility would be a lock.

Ottawa, he says, is potentially more problematic.

Trading Karlsson or losing him once his current contract is up because the Senators cannot afford him would be a mistake, in Richelieu's opinion. Karlsson is "what we call in sport marketing 'an emotional anchor' that connects Senators supporters to the organization, a channel that feeds both fans' allegiance and identification to the club."

For this reason, Richelieu contends that Karlsson is actually "worth more in Ottawa than what he would command in other markets." It would be folly, he believes, for the Senators to deal Karlsson "for a very elusive and ill-advised rebuild in a fragile market.

"A new arena in LeBreton Flats will not make mismanagement go away."

Associated Graphic

The Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary is just 35 years old, but most agree it was not designed to maximize the revenue streams needed for a competitive NHL team in the 21st century and that a replacement home for the Flames is needed.


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