Commentary – Holding a city to ransom

Joe McWilliams

It’s always good fun watching a city and a sports team duking it out in public over a stadium. That’s what happened last week ago in Calgary when negotiations broke down between the Flames and the City of Calgary. Out came Flames’ President Ken King, shooting from the hip, saying (with some exaggeration, apparently) that the city had broken off talks, and there was no point in continuing. Next thing you know, there was NHL President Gary Bettman, that obnoxious (insert your own adjective here) speaking far too soon and making things worse. Making himself look ridiculous under the circumstances as well, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say he believed every word he was saying.

Look – there are ways to get these deals done. Edmonton did it. Not without some hard negotiating and an uncomfortable expenditure of public cash. No city council should be rushing to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money on a sports arena. Mayor Naheed Nenshi and his team are doing exactly the right thing by driving a hard bargain for every penny of public money. It can’t and shouldn’t be otherwise.

King’s outburst should be regarded for exactly what it was – a ploy to rile up the hockey-loving public so as to put pressure on the city. And then Bettman, that rascal, as much as threatening that Calgary would lose its NHL team if it doesn’t pony up.

Let them go!’ said one commentator, gleefully.

Send them Northlands Coliseum, said another, in what must be one of the more brilliant cartoon ideas in recent years. It showed Northlands on a flatbed truck, headed for Cowtown.

Nice joke, but it doesn’t solve Calgary’s problem. The trick for Nenshi and co. is to figure out what their limit is, when it comes to the city’s contribution.

It’s a scary business letting an NHL franchise go. Just ask Winnipeg. That was like the heart of the city getting ripped out when the Jets decamped for the desert in 1996. With them went certain economic benefits, hundreds of jobs and so on.

But the millions the city didn’t spend on saving the Jets were available for boring stuff like roads, sewers and social services.

Should Calgary be breaking the bank to keep the Flames? No way.

However, there’s a political angle the mayor and council are no doubt considering. Too hard a line and they might actually lose the Flames to Seattle.

That might be good enough to also lose an election. Speaking of which, King’s ploy by going public just before a municipal election – a coincidence? Not a chance!

He’s figuring this is the perfect time to ramp up the pressure on Nenshi, who does not want his campaign to consist of nothing but angry questions from Flames’ fanatics.

It’s all politics. Politics and money and who can get away with getting the most while spending the least.

As far as I’m concerned, the Flames can leave town. But in saying that, I have to wonder if I would be willing to say the same thing if it was the Oilers and the City of Edmonton we were talking about.

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