Bettman ‘optimistic’ for new Flames arena, but no progress to report

‘If we’re going to hold any league events here, there needs to be a new building. I don’t think that comes as a surprise to anybody’

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National Hockey League commissioner Gary Bettman met with Calgary Flames ownership Wednesday, with an update on progress toward a new arena for the team on the agenda.

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Speaking to media in Calgary during the first intermission of the Flames’ playoff-opening win against the Dallas Stars on Tuesday night, Bettman said he remains hopeful a deal can be reached to replace the aging Saddledome.

“I’m always optimistic,” Bettman said. “Obviously there’s nothing going on right this second to report that would indicate there is going to be a solution immediately, but my hope is that everybody can figure this out.”

A previous, $650-million arena deal between the City of Calgary and Flames ownership collapsed in late 2021 over cost increases, only weeks before construction was set to begin.

Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corp. officials said they saw no path forward for the project after the city added about $16 million in infrastructure and climate resiliency expenses, $6.4 million of which would have been covered by the city.

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Bettman didn’t suggest any possibility of relocating the Flames. That’s consistent with his comments after the previous arena deal collapsed, when he said the team was committed to Calgary despite the setback.

A view of the Saddledome before a game on Sept. 26, 2021.
A view of the Saddledome before a game on Sept. 26, 2021. Photo by Al Charest /Postmedia

But he did say Calgary will miss out on the opportunity to host major events such as the entry draft or all-star game until a new arena is built.

“If we’re going to hold any league events here, there needs to be a new building. I don’t think that comes as a surprise to anybody,” Bettman said. “Ultimately, this building has to be replaced, I don’t think there’s any question about that.”

Calgary city council recently formed the event centre committee, with a stated goal of creating a new events facility for the city.

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Committee chair Coun. Sonya Sharp has been bullish on prospects for a new arena, asserting it’s a matter of when, not if, a deal is inked.

Sharp told Postmedia on Wednesday she was encouraged to hear the NHL reiterate its support for a new arena in Calgary, and said she agrees it needs to be a priority for the city.

It didn’t come as a shock for her to hear Calgary won’t be in the running for major NHL events until the Flames have a new home.

“We’ve heard comments like that before, and we’ve heard a bit about losing concerts, Calgary not getting to host certain concerts,” Sharp said.

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“A comment like that isn’t a surprise, and I think what it does is highlight how important this project is for our city and adds a sense of urgency to move forward with it.”

City administrators have picked a third party to approach Flames ownership about re-entering negotiations, but details on the party haven’t been made public. The event centre committee was slated to meet this week, but that meeting has been pushed to May 25 due to scheduling conflicts among members.

Sharp said city administrators are slated to present a larger update on arena progress at that meeting.

Bettman said he didn’t have plans to meet with any city officials, including Mayor Jyoti Gondek, during his brief Calgary visit. The two have connected since Gondek took office in October, however.

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“Since the new mayor has become the new mayor, we’ve chatted a few times on the phone,” Bettman said. “I think everybody understands everybody. At least I hope they do.”

Fans celebrate a goal by Elias Lindholm in the first period of the Flames playoff game at Scotiabank Saddledome on Tuesday.
Fans celebrate a goal by Elias Lindholm in the first period of the Flames playoff game at Scotiabank Saddledome on Tuesday. Photo by Derek Leung /Getty Images

Calgary-based sports economist Moshe Lander said Bettman’s decision to visit Calgary early in the post-season was curious. He said his visit doesn’t materially change anything about the city’s arena situation.

“There’s no logical reason why he should be in Calgary,” said Lander, a professor at Concordia University. “It doesn’t make sense why, if you’re going to make an appearance on the opening night for four playoff series, that you chose Calgary, other than if you’re coming to remind everyone that we need to get the arena built.”

The Flames continue their first-round matchup against the Dallas Stars on Thursday, with an 8 p.m. puck drop scheduled at the Dome. Calgary leads the series 1–0.

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A long run for the Flames, who have locked up home ice through at least the first two rounds of the playoffs, could change the tenor of the arena discussion, Sharp said.

“It adds energy to the conversation, and positive energy,” Sharp said. “Having the Flames doing so well, having the city so excited, after coming through two years of the pandemic and not being able to go see events, I think it adds to the whole narrative.”

Twitter: @jasonfherring

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