Rumours of Houston NHL franchise bring Calgary arena issues back into spotlight

Ryan Pike
November 24 2017 10:44AM

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PHOTO CREDIT: SERGEI BELSKI / USA TODAY SPORTS

To say that the 2017 Calgary municipal election was contentious is a definite understatement. Roughly a month before Calgarians went to the polls, Naheed Nenshi unveiled his plan for Victoria Park – which included a brand new arena for the Calgary Flames.

That announcement was followed by an edict from the Flames a couple days later, declaring boldly that they were no longer pursuing an arena in Calgary, and leading to each side presenting their competing funding models.

With the arena suddenly an election issue, National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman twice weighed in on the future of the Flames in Calgary under incumbent mayor Naheed Nenshi – the first time noting that there would be “consequences” if there was no arena and the second blaming the mayor for the lack of progress. Despite all of these shenanigans, Nenshi was re-elected with a surprisingly large margin of victory over challenger Bill Smith.

After a brief lull, proponents for a new publicly-funded Flames arena have turned the page in their playbook to a tactic that probably doesn’t sound too foreign to our friends in Edmonton: touting prospective new homes for the hockey club.

A couple weeks ago, word started to surface that super-rich Houston businessman Tillman Fertitta – the new owner of the NBA’s Houston Rockets – was interested in perhaps owning an NHL franchise. Then Katie Strang of The Athletic was able to confirm that the NHL met with Fertitta to discuss the possibility of owning a franchise in Houston.

Then, as if on cue, sources informed Sportsnet’s John Shannon that the NHL considers the Flames franchise to be firmly in the relocation mix due to their arena situation. It’s been confirmed that the Flames still have yet to re-open talks with the City regarding a new arena. And, let’s face it, the relationship between the City and the team is basically non-existent right now.

While Shannon noted that people close to Flames ownership chairman Murray Edwards would prefer not to move the team, it may come to that without a new building:

These are men certainly not in the business of losing money and their goal is to optimize their investment. At a certain point, without a new arena in Calgary, relocation will become a real option. Over the past 24 hours I can tell you Calgary’s name has been added to the list of teams facing possible relocation. It’s not something fans in Calgary want to hear, let alone consider.

Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman noted on Saturday’s edition of Headlines that originally the rumour was that Edwards had met with Fertitta about a Houston NHL team before reports were clarified that it was actually the league that went to Houston.

Speaking in Montreal at a Chamber of Commerce function following the league’s 100th anniversary festivities, Bettman poo-pooed the idea that the Flames would move. ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski covered the event, characterizing Bettman as “coy” on Houston’s chances of landing a team:

“We believe in all of the places that we have franchises now. We think all of our markets are capable of supporting clubs. We’re not looking to threaten markets. But there is an inevitability that when a club can’t for some reason get a new facility, ownership has to know what options it has,” said Bettman. “It’s great to know there are a lot of places that want franchises that don’t [have them]. We’re not running around actively soliciting interest. Our preference is to leave all the franchises where they are.”

It’s worth noting that between Houston (the Honda Center), Quebec City (Videotron Arena) and Seattle – whose city council promoted the proposed Memorandum of Understanding for Key Arena’s redevelopment from committee for a full council vote on Dec. 4 – there are potentially three suitors for NHL teams looking for greener pastures.

If all of this seems somewhat familiar, recall the experience of the Edmonton Oilers and their arena negotiations. Team owner Daryl Katz led a delegation to Seattle to tour Key Arena back in 2012, then apologized to fans and all but admitted that it was a negotiation tactic after the Rogers Place deal was signed. The smoke around the three potential future homes for the Calgary Flames are probably similar ploys. Well, for now.

On Saturday’s Headlines, Friedman made a very smart point. Yeah, the positioning of Houston as a future NHL home is probably posturing by the league (and/or Flames ownership) in an effort to put some pressure on the City to sweeten the pot in order to get the Flames back to the bargaining table – Ron MacLean referred to the Houston aspect of things as “a playbook move”.

But what happens if there’s no progress made on an arena deal in two years? At that point the posturing might stop and both sides will either get down to brass tacks, or one side will take a long look at what other options they have.

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Ryan Pike has covered the Calgary Flames since 2010. He's Senior Contributing Editor at FlamesNation, a Senior Writer covering the Flames and the NHL Draft for The Hockey Writers, and a correspondent for the Fischler Report. You can see his hand or the side of his head on TV sometimes.