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Calgary Flames and Gary Bettman turn up the heat on arena talks

An ice-cleaning machine floods the ice at the Saddledome in Calgary.

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

Just one day after watching Seattle cut in front of it on the NHL waiting list, Quebec City got another taste of life as one of the league's failed suitors.

Ken King, the president of the Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp., which owns the Flames, just happened to pick the day NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was in town – yes, I'm sure it was just a coincidence – to announce he was no longer interested in talking to Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi about a new arena. Not when the mayor figures the best plan would see the Flames pay one-third the cost, the city one-third and the fans, the other third.

The club paying a whole one-third? Jeepers, Mayor Nenshi must think a sports franchise that's worth at least $500-million (U.S.), based on what the Vegas Golden Knights paid to get into the NHL, must be made of money. The nerve of the guy.

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King insisted, at Tuesday's news conference, that the Flames are not about to move. That is a far cry from what both he and Flames president Brian Burke said back in April, the last time they made their frustration with Nenshi public. Both of them mentioned the possibility of moving. Then again, with Bettman there on Tuesday, King didn't really have to say anything.

Video: Calgary still ‘at the table’ for arena talks with Flames, Nenshi says (The Canadian Press)

Bettman's message to Calgary voters was, "You need to make your voice heard if you think the city is moving in the wrong direction." Did I mention that Nenshi is up for re-election in about six weeks?

This is where Quebec City and the proponent of its campaign, Quebecor Inc. chief executive officer Pierre-Karl Péladeau, comes in. Along with pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the league, the other function of prospective owners and their cities is to serve as bargaining chips for the NHL commissioner and the owners. Any time local politicians drag their feet on having the taxpayers pay for new playpens for billionaire owners, there is a threat to move the team to the city that has an NHL-ready arena and another billionaire looking to be the owner if necessary.

This is a time-honoured strategy for the NHL going back to the early expansion days in the 1970s. It's why Hamilton has had a 17,000-seat white-elephant arena since 1985 with no team. And why Quebec City opened its own new rink in 2015.

Before news about an arena deal in Seattle surfaced on Tuesday, with an NHL expansion team sure to follow, that city was the leading threat for NHL owners. Don't we all remember Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz's ham-handed public visit to Seattle, with Wayne Gretzky in tow, when he was trying to push Edmonton city council into an arena deal?

Before Seattle it was Winnipeg. It doesn't even have to be a city that's interested in the NHL. For years, going back to the 1990s, Portland and Houston were the favoured threats. Any time a city balked at either a rent-free arena lease or paying for a new one, talk was sure to hit that Microsoft billionaire Paul Allen would buy the club and move it to Portland. It wasn't until people finally figured out that if Allen really wanted an NHL team he could have bought more than half a dozen at any time that such threats moved on to different cities.

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The deal for cities such as Quebec City is to keep quiet while the strong-arming is going on if they want their reward. Not that they're fooled or anything. Back in April when King and Burke were talking move, Quebec City Mayor Régis Labeaume said he knew it was all part of the game. Another funny thing: Mayor Labeaume has not been too talkative on the NHL since then.

One more note about Quebec City's value as a decoy: As long as the city doesn't have a team, Bettman can also hold off talk about a second team for the Greater Toronto Area. No government would force the NHL to break the Leafs' monopoly on the biggest and richest hockey market in Canada when there is no team in Quebec City.

But the thing is, these tactics work. Every time an owner or Bettman threatens a move, they know hundreds or even thousands of fans will put pressure on the politicians. Most of them are voters. And certain members of the media can also be counted on to carry water for the league.

In a lot of cases, the threats are just bluffs. It makes no sense for Calgary to move, for example. The Flames have a strong, loyal and affluent fan base, a hated rival nearby and play in a division stocked with teams from Western Canada. Why would the NHL really want to give up a market like that?

However, there is enough substance behind the threats that they cannot be merely waved off. Seven years ago, Winnipeg came within 15 minutes of getting the Arizona Coyotes. Bettman told city council in the suburban city of Glendale, Ari., it had until 5 p.m. on Friday, May 21, 2010 to guarantee $25-million against the Coyotes' losses for a second time or the team would be sold. Winnipeg was in the wings. Glendale council caved 15 minutes before the deadline. That made it $50-million Glendale taxpayers flushed down the drain.

One year later, Winnipeg got its reward with the Atlanta Thrashers. Seattle is a lock to get a $600-million expansion franchise by 2020 if there are no problems with the arena deal. It will probably take Quebec City a lot longer but there is enough hope that serving as a bargaining chip makes a lot of sense.

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About the Author
Hockey columnist

A native of Wainfleet, Ont., David Shoalts joined The Globe in 1984 after working at the Calgary Herald, Calgary Sun and Toronto Sun. He graduated in 1978 from Conestoga College and also attended the University of Waterloo. More

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