Seattle Has To Get NHL Answers NOW Before Renovating The Key Arena

Hard on the heels of Hartford renovating its 41 year old XL Center for $250 million comes the news that Seattle has given up trying to build a new arena and will renovate the existing 55 year old Key Arena instead. By the time the dust settles, the remodeled Key Arena will have approximately 18,300 seats for an NBA team and 17,100 seats for an NHL team. The renovation will cost $564 million. And it is being reported in Sports Illustrated at least that the plan is to get an NHL team first and then an NBA team.

It all sounds wonderful when you think about the positives. Seattle finally joins the NHL after becoming the first American city to win the Stanley Cup exactly a century ago; the NHL gets another western city to make a symmetrical 32, balances up the conferences and then gets to realign into an NFL structure of 2 conferences of 4 divisions each with 4 teams that allows the league to expand easily to 40 and then 48 teams; the NHL gets another $500 million expansion fee; an obvious hockey market that should have got an NHL team long ago finally joins the big leagues; and Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Las Vegas, and all the California teams get a great new rival. Everybody should be happy. It solves so many problems.

But I’m not jumping on the bandwagon. Hold on a minute. Aren’t there a few expensive and questionable “peculiarities” about all this? For example:

1.

Flames ownership has said that a 34 year old building, bigger and better than the Key Arena is not even good enough to be renovated and a brand new building, part of a project that nobody can even get a clear cost about has to be built. The pouty Flames ownership has even threatened to move the Flames from Calgary if they don’t get their way and earlier this year, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman flew into Calgary and urged the local municipal government to accept this costly project. Just what is wrong with the Calgary Saddledome? Neither the Flames ownership nor the NHL will say. It has been renovated once and perhaps a much cheaper upgrade will do the trick. But if the NHL and one of its teams can’t accept a 34 year old renovated building, one of the league’s bigger and better arenas, how can they accept a 41 year renovated building in Hartford and a 55 year old renovated building in Seattle?

2.

The seating capacity for NHL hockey is only 17,100. That is well below the NHL median of over 18,000 seats. That would make it the third smallest arena in the NHL ahead of only Winnipeg and the New York Islanders. Probably in a few years, Seattle will need a new arena. Is this renovation really worth doing?

3.

17,100. Isn’t that less than the seating capacity that Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, Ontario has? The same Copps Coliseum (built in 1985, so that it is only 32 years old) that many NHL people say is obsolete and that a new arena has to be built for Hamilton to get a team? When poor Jim Balsille tried to get the Phoenix Coyotes for Hamilton, the city council said they would spend $50 million to renovate Copps Coliseum so that it reached the NHL median of 18,500. Yet the NHL says a much younger and larger NHL arena than the one to be renovated in Seattle is not good enough.

4.

$50 million to renovate Copps Coliseum. How come it costs only $50 million to renovate Copps Coliseum to a bigger and better arena than in Seattle while it costs $564 million to renovate the Key Arena to a seating capacity that is less than that in the current Hamilton arena? The money that Seattle will spend on renovation is the type of money that can build a brand new arena. Quebec spent $375 million on a bigger, brand new arena. It has been estimated that a new arena in Hartford will cost $500 million. $564 million sounds pretty expensive for renovations in Seattle.

So will we have sensible sober second thought in Seattle? Or will we have mindless sports franchise worship that is willing to spend countless sums of money on a project that I think is half-assed and could be spent more wisely on a new bigger and better arena that should hold up for decades? And how can this project be accepted by the NHL after its excuses and stand in Calgary and Hamilton? Seattle had better get some NHL answers, even a guarantee before a single cent is spent on this project. Like Hartford, it runs the risk of spending a huge sum of money for either a stopgap or nothing.

 

Sports Facilities Casualty List

In the wake of Calgary’s ultimatum of possibly leaving if the 31 year old Saddledome arena is not replaced in the immediate future, it is good to remind these dwellers in the unreal world of professional sports and especially the taxpayers and (usually) their spineless governments who are called upon to provide most, if not all the funds for new sports facilities, which in many cases do not fulfill the dreams they are supposed to bring about, that in many instances, a huge waste results. Here is a partial list in both hockey and other North American sports of the terrible waste of capital and other resources to build the wrong sports facilities.

Wrong Design

1. Montreal Olympic Stadium

The Olympics and their arrogance always want the grandest spectacle possible that usually lasts for the three weeks the games last. Especially to see on the first day, a group of athletes clad in their official attire walk behind two people, one carrying a sign with the country’s name on it and another carrying a pole with a piece of cloth on it which is deemed the symbolic flag of its country. For such a spectacle, the cost of the 1976 stadium was over $1 billion dollars. But after the games were over, most Montrealers decided they did not like watching the CFL Alouettes and the MLB Expos play in that facility. Today the Alouettes play somewhere else, the Expos are gone and probably won’t return until a new baseball stadium is built for them.

2. Toronto Skydome

It was overdue that Toronto get a new stadium in the 1980s. Both the Toronto Argonauts and the Toronto Blue Jays had dreams of playing in some better place. There was talk of getting an NFL team and the Olympics. And a few extra perks like a retractable roof were icing on the cake. If you are going to build something like that, you might as well go all the way. Fair enough. But for heaven’s sake, you choose the right design and build it right. In certain sections of the SkyDome upper deck, nobody can see if a fielder has caught a ball if it is hit to that part of the ballpark. You have to wait for the replay on the big screen to know. Then Toronto Argonaut fans decided they did not like watching football in the stadium any more than the Montreal fans did in theirs. Today the Argonauts play somewhere else. And plans for an NFL team and the Olympics went into the can when it was found out that the Skydome only seats about 50,000 people. A stadium that was built for over half a billion dollars is now only worth about $25 million.

3. Barclay’s Center

The New York Islanders play in the worst arena in the NHL. The arena has the second smallest seating capacity ahead of only Winnipeg. There is bad ice and still worse, 1,000 obstructive view seats for hockey. The Islanders despite having a competitive team cannot sell out the arena. Recently, Hartford sent them an open letter inviting them to move to a renovated XL Center where they would become the new Whalers. The very existence of the franchise in New York is at stake if they cannot find a suitable new arena.

Betrayed Dreams

1. Copps Coliseum, Hamilton

In the mid-1980s, Hamilton built a new arena in anticipation of NHL expansion. Everyone liked it and Hamilton played host to most of the games of the 1987 Canada Cup. The NHL announced plans to grow the league through the 1990s to becoming 30 or more teams. But during the first expansion in which Hamilton was a front runner, the potential bidder, Tim Donut did not like the NHL’s terms and wanted to renegotiate them. The NHL like all North American sports leagues refused to make any concessions and the new Hamilton team became a returned Ottawa Senators. Hamilton’s arena still makes money but did not fulfill the purpose for which it was built. The NHL continues to cold-shoulder Hamilton, thanks mostly to Toronto and Buffalo who want extensive compensation from a new Hamilton franchise. The Hamilton city council has offered to spend $50 million to upgrade the arena. The market is there, the arena is there but one of the two best Canadian markets without an NHL team still has no franchise.

2. Videotron, Quebec City

In 2010, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman issued three factors for the readmission of Quebec, Winnipeg, and Hartford which had lost their NHL teams two decades ago. They had to have a sufficient fan base, a proper NHL arena, and a suitable owner (No mention of a $500 million entry fee). Quebec always had the fan base, now they have the arena, but the NHL cannot abide the potential owner, Pierre Karl Peladeau who made many enemies on the NHL Board by his separatist politics, his obstructionist business practices, his inappropriate racial remarks about an NHL Board member, and his general untrustworthiness and unpredictability. No other suitable Quebec City owner has yet appeared, so an arena that the NHL loves, that has a fanatical hockey fan base, has no professional hockey tenant.

3. Sprint Center, Kansas City

This arena which opened in 2007 was built to get both an NHL franchise and an NBA team. But no investors for either a hockey or basketball team trusts the Kansas City market. The NHL has played exhibition games there which were either half full or a sellout depending upon who played. Other cities are considered well ahead of Kansas City for NHL and NBA expansion. The Sprint Center makes money like its counterpart in Hamilton but still does not have a professional sports team tenant that was supposed to be the main reason for it being built.

League Treachery And Arrogance

1. Dome Stadium, St. Louis

St. Louis opened a 70,000 seat domed stadium in 1995 to lure the NFL back to the city. There is nothing wrong with this facility and the Rams got good attendance. But St. Louis is not as big a market as Los Angeles, the second largest market in the United States. So when Los Angeles, which had snubbed the NFL for two decades finally decided to build a suitable stadium, the NFL immediately cooked up phony excuses and shifted the Rams back to where they came from. The Rams were soon followed by the San Diego Chargers and then Oakland was moved to Las Vegas. Both the Raiders and Chargers played in older stadiums which the arrogant NFL long hated and was only waiting for a “better deal” to come along to move the teams. Of course the NFL only had to expand the league and no city would have lost its team but that was never a considered policy of the most arrogant and ruthless sports league in North America which allows franchise shifts, sometimes on only the mere whim of a prissy billionaire owner. That extensive casualty list includes both Los Angeles teams, Oakland (twice), St. Louis (twice), Cleveland, Houston,  San Diego, and Baltimore. It is also important to note that there were websites listing Minnesota, Jacksonville, and Buffalo as well as the three victim cities as other potential casualties. So much for fan loyalty, tradition, and local investment.

Wrong Location And Bad Product

1. Gila River Arena, Phoenix

13 years ago, the then Phoenix Coyotes were glad to move into this new arena, built especially for them in Glendale, Arizona. Today both Glendale and the NHL have publicly declared they are finished with each other after only 13 years. Each side claims that the arena is too far away from downtown Phoenix and Glendale further asserts that nobody is going to support a team that in truth has only produced one contending team for the Stanley Cup in its entire existence. Suburban Tempe turned down a chance to build a new arena. A bill to provide more public funding for yet another arena has come to nothing. An arena, only 13 years old now has no professional league tenant with the blessing of its community.

 

So Calgary and its taxpayers are fully justified in taking their time and closely examining any deal for any new sports facility including the joint NHL-CFL Calgary Next mega-project. In the fickle world of North American professional sports, the entire project could blow up in their faces leaving an immense bill to be paid that could be financially crippling. You only get one shot with these immense sports projects so you better take your time and get it right.

As for the Flames and their threats of moving, they should be showing cooperation, not unbridled arrogance. They are only saying what they are saying because of the fanatical devotion of their fans. As mentioned in a previous article, nobody is talking about leaving or tearing down the Empire State Building even though it is 86 years old. There are no complaints about old Wrigley Field and Fenway Park in baseball. Just what IS wrong with the Saddledome? What does it lack? It has never been completely spelled out. There were no complaints by the Flames 31 years ago.

This is just a power play, more of the arrogance from the unreal, greedy world of North American professional sports. Go ahead and leave Flames, if that is what you want. But Calgary without the Flames would not only be heartbreaking for their fans, but an embarrassment for the NHL. What does the league want, another Phoenix situation? There should be more answers and explanations on the table that are owed to the Calgary taxpayers. They are not a bottomless pit. Since when are arenas and stadiums “owed” to sports franchise owners? And since when does the public have to deal with blackmailers? If the Flames were to move, Calgary would be better off without such owners and its league.

 

Sad Fall Of The Islanders

Of course it is unofficial but the New York Islanders may be the first Eastern Conference team to be eliminated from playoff contention. Unless they go on an unexpected long winning streak, the Islanders are playing for a top draft choice next year.

It is a bitter outcome for a franchise that finally won a playoff round (against Florida) for the first time in eons of years. At the end of last season after the playoff victory, it seemed that if ownership and management made the right moves, the Islanders would finally enter the ranks as true Stanley Cup contenders. Instead the Islanders lost talent and now find themselves near the bottom of the whole league.

It would be tempting to place the blame on the players, coaching, management, and even the ownership. Unfortunately the Islanders problems run deeper than that. The very environment in which the Islanders dwell bears a heavy share of the blame.

This situation is even more sad when one remembers the glorious history of the Islanders. They joined the league in 1972 and immediately set the then record for worst expansion team in NHL history. But the Islanders hired Al Arbour as coach and in only their third NHL season, the Islanders became the fastest expansion team (still a record) to become a true Stanley Cup contender.

There followed a steady path to the top when Islander ownership and management, headed by General Manager Bill Torrey seldom made an error. First Denis Potvin was drafted, then Bryan Trottier, and Mike Bossy followed. Smart trades filled in the holes. In 1980 the Islanders finally won the Stanley Cup and began four invincible years as champion. Only two previous Montreal Canadiens teams have managed to win four Stanley Cups in a row or better. It took the mighty Edmonton Oilers led by Wayne Gretzky, in their third attempt to stop the Islanders streak. No other American expansion team has done so well. No other NHL team has come close to the Islanders streak since.

But once the glory years ended the Islanders tumbled to the bottom of the league and have mostly stayed there ever since. They seldom had star players on their roster. The current star, John Tavares is probably the Islanders best player since the dynasty.

The two main reasons for this state of affairs are probably the arena and the environment. Once the glory years were over, the Islanders reverted to being the poor cousins of the New York Rangers. They would be joined in this status by the New Jersey Devils across the river. Ironically since joining the league, both teams have done better than the original Manhattan resident Rangers. Both the Islanders and Devils more than merit better status among New York hockey fans than the New York Rangers but they retain the shabby status of being a hockey after-thought to this day. Is the greater New York area of 19 million residents big enough for three NHL teams? All things point to the answer, “no”.

After the glory years, the Islanders more than merited a new, modern, larger arena, but nothing would be done. The Islander tradition, heritage and success would be belittled and forgotten. In 2014, the Islanders moved to the new Barclay arena in Brooklyn which incredibly is even smaller than their old arena which was the second smallest in the NHL, ahead of only Winnipeg. Even more ridiculous is that over 1000 seats are considered “obstructive view”. No wonder attendance this year is so low.

A sports arena is part of a franchise’s team. A too-small arena that cannot generate enough revenue means that ownership and management cannot sign enough star players to build a credible team. If they cannot do that, the franchise will never be able to become a champion and might as well not be in the league. It is shabby treatment for a team with such a glorious heritage.

Incredibly the Islanders still cannot sell out the Barclay’s arena. Currently they have the second worst attendance in the NHL, ahead of only Carolina. They average 12.5 thousand fans a game, which is only 80% capacity of the arena. There is talk of building yet another new arena in Queens. Would that end the image of the Islanders being the poor relation of the Rangers?

In any sports situation where things are going sour, there is usually an answer to the situation. Get rid of the players, fire the coach, replace the incompetent general manager and upper management, make the cancerous owner sell. But many of the Islander problems may be beyond the capacity of even the ownership. Do the New York fans even want the Islanders and Devils (who have the sixth worst attendance record)?

If the New York fans do not want these teams, there are plenty of cities who do, most notably Quebec. One year a large delegation of Quebec fans journeyed down en-masse and bought a large quantity of unsold Islander tickets to show their determination to get back in the NHL. But a new Quebec team would have a Nordiques logo, not an Islander one. Other cities that may be in the hunt for an NHL franchise are Hamilton, Seattle (if it can solve its arena and ownership problem), Portland, Saskatoon, Milwaukee, and possibly Houston, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City.

But after the glorious history of the Islanders it would be a black mark on the NHL if the team left New York. Not to see the Long Island logo in the NHL any more would be a terrible blow to the league. It is one thing for inglorious Atlanta to go to Winnipeg. It is quite another for a team with such a history and heritage to leave. It would be a terrible blow to the status of the NHL in the United States which has been trying since Commissioner Gary Bettman’s appointment to prove to everyone (particularly to American television networks in order to get a rich contract) that the NHL is a “big 4″ American professional sports league.

True that since the dynasty years, the Islanders have iced bad teams, but New York fans have stuck with the Rangers who at times have done far worse. Since the Islanders and Devils have joined the NHL, the score in Stanley Cups reads Islanders 4, Devils 3, Rangers 1. Why the Islanders and Devils are unpopular after such successes is one of the NHL’s mysteries.

As noted above, trading players, firing coaches and management, and getting rid of incompetent owners seem to be easy solutions compared to the situation the Islanders are in. The previous sentence I wrote implies an obvious answer to franchise problems. But the Islander problem is even worse. For them there is no immediate, obvious answer. Is a new, modern, larger, more convenient arena the solution? For the second-status New York Islanders, it had better be.