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Oilers arena saga just another part of life in the crazy NHL

Fans in Edmonton have every right to be outraged by the threat of losing Ryan-Nugent Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and company to another city just as the Oilers begin to blossom. (Andy Devlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

In some ways, it's very difficult to know what to make of the Oilers' ownership. There are probably 20 NHL teams -- and maybe more -- that would love to have the fan base that Edmonton enjoys and a group of civic leaders who've been willing to shell out some big bucks to keep the club happy. But that may not be good enough. The team's owner seem to be in the process of backing away from the deal he reached with the city on a new arena and is ostensibly looking elsewhere, perhaps Seattle, for something he thinks is better.

Many believe it is a bluff, designed to get more concessions from Edmonton thrown into the pot for the arena. It sure seems that way, although you can't really be sure.

Here's the background: After four years of negotiating with various governmental bodies and actually forging an agreement on a new downtown arena, the Oilers came to believe that they needed more money. Last October, with the help of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, the team and the city reached an understanding on the ways to finance, build and operate a $450-million building. It's a sum that, Mayor Stephen Mandel now says, might run $475 million. However, a final binding contract has yet to be completed and the negotiations don't sound as if they have gone very well, especially because the Oilers have asked for an additional $100 million in tax dollars for the project on top of the $125 million included in the original deal. Alison Redford, the Premier of Alberta, is adamant that provincial public funds should not go toward a private enterprise. That put pressure back on the city-club relationship.

A frustrated Mandel said last week that Oilers owner Daryl Katz and his group should come before an equally frustrated city council and openly detail what they want and why. The Katz group declined the invitation, saying that they wanted to hammer things out in private.

Then, suddenly, Katz and his entourage, which included team president Patrick LaForge, president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe, and, for some reason, ol' pal Wayne Gretzky (who may or may not be one of those described in a Katz Group press release as "others from the Oilers leadership group;" Gretz denied he was) popped up in Seattle, supposedly to take in a Seahawks game -- you know, this Seahawks game. What fun! And what a coincidence! They just happened to be there the day that Seattle's city council approved a new $480 million arena, and the day that Mandel set an Oct. 17 deadline to -- once again -- reach a deal with the Oilers (here's a CTV report on that).

It wasn't long afterward that the Katz Group statement hit the streets (or, more precisely, cyberspace). It acknowledged that they were in Seattle for the game and, ahem, "meetings." No one admitted that the Oilers were meeting with anyone about moving to Seattle, but sandwiched by pledges to continue working with the city and thankyous to the fans for their patience, the statement contained this: "As the City of Edmonton is aware, the Katz Group has been listening to proposals from a number of potential NHL markets for some time. After more than four years of trying to secure an arena deal and with less than 24 months remaining on the Oilers' lease at Rexall Place, this is only prudent and should come as no surprise."

But it did.

A skeptical Mandel told CTV, "The Oilers have sold out, what, 150 to 200 games in a row (the number is closer to 300)? In Seattle you have football, baseball, if they get an NBA team (they'll have pro basketball), college football, college basketball, and then hockey. I'm not sure you're going to sell out 18,500 seats a game or 18,300 seats a game there at $8,000 a season ticket."

And that was perhaps the most civil response one could find. Ken Campbell of The Hockey News wrote that if he were Mandel, he'd call Katz into his office and "tell him that if he thinks he can get a better deal by moving his underachieving, perennial non-playoff team to Seattle, then he should fill his boots. Oh yeah, and don’t let the door hit you on the rear end on your way out."

Longtime Edmonton Sun hockey writer Terry Jones told Gino Reda of TSN (video) that Katz has pulled this act before with visits to Hamilton and Quebec and the fact that the Oilers would be a tenant in Seattle and share in none of the building's revenue compared to all he'd get in Edmonton where he'd control the new arena makes the notion he'd move the team there nonsensical.

"They've been down this road in Edmonton before, a much-traveled route that used to lead to Houston, or Portland, or Hamilton when Peter Pocklington owned the Edmonton Oilers," wrote Mark Spector on Sportsnet.ca. "Now it's Captain Daryl Katz at the helm of Good Ship Oiler, and he'd like you to think he's charting a course for Seattle. For now, that is. We suspect the locales of Southern Ontario, Kansas City, and perhaps Saskatoon to dot the back of Katz's tour t-shirt before the 'Gun and a Mask Tour' closes, begrudgingly, with a deal for a downtown arena in Edmonton."

My favorite retort came from David Staples on his Edmonton Journal blog, The Cult of Hockey. He seems to believe that Katz may not be bluffing. Staples wrote, "For the past few years there’s been a compact between the Oilers and their most important fans — the season ticket holders — that goes like this: if you have patience, if you support the Oilers in down times when the team is losing, that will give management time to rebuild this team properly, bringing in outstanding talent with the high draft picks that come with finishing low in the standings.

"Edmonton fans have responded by filling Rexall Place even as the team has finished 30th overall in 2009-10, 30th in 2010-11, and 29th overall in 2011-12. The team has now rebuilt, drafting first overall picks Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov.

"For Katz to now visit Seattle and to suggest that all bets are off with the future of the team after 2014, when his lease at Rexall runs up, is a slap in the face to any fan who has bought into this deal. Essentially the message is: Thanks for your support, but we might well be moving this team we built partly on your dollar and your patience. Fans in Seattle or Quebec City or some other place will get to enjoy that squad with Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov.

"As this realization sinks in with Oilers fans, I don’t expect speculation about the team moving from anyone in Oilers management or the Katz Group is going to be met with anything but increasing hostility from the Oilers faithful. Nor should it be."

Well said.

Fearful that such ill will might actually come to pass, Bettman hustled to the defense of the pact that he helped broker last year between Katz and Mandel. Bettman's statement read, "We continue to believe that an arena deal is achievable, and with a new arena there should be no reason to have any doubts about the future of the Oilers in Edmonton."

You'd think not. There's already been a sizable investment by the city and ownership, as Terry Jones wrote in The Edmonton Sun last week when the friction erupted between Mandel and Katz. "The city has already spent $25.9 million to buy the arena land and paid another $15.4 million for surrounding property," he wrote. "The city has also spent more than half of the $30 million budgeted for design. Katz has spent $70 million acquiring land and millions more on arena design and development before the city agreed to take over ongoing design costs."

"That four years into this thing, the arena deal has essentially been derailed again projects and reflects poorly on Edmonton. It's a sorry statement about this city," Jones added. "It's remarkable how Edmonton has to drag itself through the muck with the world watching to get things done."

Jones said the problem is shared between a city that has trouble making a commitment and an owner who has been his own worst enemy. Adrian Morrow writing in The Globe and Mail believes the problem is the whole enterprise of using public funds to help out sports teams, and this is a piece well worth reading.

Having already spent at least $56 million on this thing, could Edmonton actually see Katz put his team elsewhere? Retired Edmonton Journal editor Peter Adler, who still kicks in his thoughts on things for the paper, had the very interesting notion he posted on The Cult of Hockey that Katz may actually not be bluffing, that he may want to throw his money into the new Seattle arena instead of one in Edmonton and, jeez, wouldn't that be a nice place to put the Oilers? He wouldn't be a tenant that way and he'd get to share in the revenue from the projected new NBA team as well. It's quite plausible that Katz has entertained those thoughts, too.

One problem: Bettman would almost certainly be against it. It's not like the Oilers are actually suffering where they are, even though Katz has professed that he's losing money (Forbes said the Oilers posted a positive operating income of $17.3 million in 2010-11). There's far less urgency to move them compared to, say, the Coyotes. In fact, there's none. Anyway, Bettman would rather have Seattle as an expansion franchise some day and for that market, he could bring in upwards of $300 million to distribute to the owners. They'd get nothing from a franchise transfer and -- "Hmmm, $300 million or nothing?" -- that would be enough for them to vote against Katz if he ever brought a relocation motion before the Board of Governors.

This story hasn't played itself out yet, however. Katz seems like he's not easy to deal with. But we're used to that in the NHL landscape now. This is just another crazy saga in a league where crazy has become the new normal.

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