Early in my career as a sports radio reporter, I spent about a week at Toronto city council while the basketball Raptors closed the deal to build the Air Canada Centre. I remember thinking, "Who wants to cover this full-time?" Some things haven't changed.
On Tuesday, there is a council meeting in the north Toronto suburb of Markham, Ont., that may determine the future of the proposed 20,000-seat GTA Centre. There is a lot at stake. Essentially, two councillors have proposed a motion that would force the city to stop doing any work on this project.
Initially, it seemed ridiculous that this arena would be in any kind of jeopardy. There was an 11-2 vote from this same council last April OK'ing the framework of the deal. But opposition mounted when it was learned most of the discussions came in private meetings. Approval came less than one week after the financial plans were first revealed.
By November, The National Post's Sean Fitz-Gerald reported that seven of the city's 13 councillors were united in opposition. That's a majority -- and that's bad news for this project's supporters, who include Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti.
In the four hours before Hotstove Tonight
aired Saturday on Hockey Night In Canada
, those for and those against the deal threw so much mud at each other that it made Gary Bettman versus Donald Fehr look like a tickle fight. I don't feel like getting sued, so you're not going to hear a tonne of it.
Basically, what is comes down to is this:
The GTA Centre is budgeted to cost $325 million. The "face" of the project is W. Graeme Roustan, who stepped away from a strong run as chairman of Bauer Hockey to concentrate on this project. But the real money comes from Remington Group, owned by a very successful developer named Rudy Bratty. It is to pay half of that fee.
Of the remaining $162.5 million, Scarpitti said Saturday that 95 per cent of that will be collected through a levy on newly built homes ($5,000 per unit), townhouses ($4,000) and condominiums ($2,000) in the city. Several developers took out a back-page ad in the local newspaper, The Markham Economist & Sun, indicating their support for this idea.
No expansion plans
Former NHL Players' Association executive director Paul Kelly and Hockey Night
commentator Glenn Healy are scheduled to appear in support of this plan. Via text message, Kelly said he is planning to attend the meeting because he believes in the "project and the Roustan/Bratty team. I also believe that having an arena and eventually [hopefully] a second NHL team in Greater Toronto is in the best interests of the players, the league, hockey fans and the citizens of York Region [where Markham is located]."
Kelly's right. And I'd love to see it.
The problems? Look, we all know a second team in the Toronto area is a license to print money. You could bathe in all that cash. And no one is going to be shocked if this eventually happens.
But there's no guarantee. Ask Hamilton and Kansas City. The NHL is not going to say, "Build this rink, you're getting a team," especially after the recent lockout in which the NHLPA asked several times if the league had expansion plans and were told no.
Also: "You can't ignore the fact that the Maple Leafs have territorial rights," former Montreal Canadiens owner George Gillett said Sunday. "And that's not going to go away easily." (More on Gillett later)
That has the opposition very concerned with the financial framework. The plan involves the city borrowing the $325 million, then having it paid back in installments from the developer and the aforementioned fees. The statement you most often hear is, "We're not against the idea of an NHL arena. We're against this particular plan."
They see privately funded buildings in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. Yes, Edmonton got public money, they admit, but argue that the Alberta capital already has a team, so it's different.Gillett in the mix
The two people at the forefront are Roustan and player agent Anton Thun.
Roustan's floated around NHL circles for a while. In 2012, The Hockey News ranked him 38th on its annual list of "People in Power." He's claimed a link to potential ownership groups in San Jose, Montreal and Tampa Bay. But his credibility is under attack and some legal issues remain unresolved
Several years ago, the city of Markham considered the idea of building a smaller arena of around 5,000 seats. Thun, who lives in Markham, said he wrote to some of those councillors, believing that project didn't make any sense, and suggested a larger footprint along the lines of what Roustan is pursuing now. After some discussions, it didn't go anywhere.
Thun said he learned about the potential GTA Centre through a public-meeting notice last April in The Economist & Sun -- the meeting where the financial framework was first revealed. He attended and heard the pitch, including a claim that Roustan was "a finalist to buy the Montreal Canadiens." So he started looking into it.
On April 23, Thun sent an email to Mayor Scarpitti and the city councillors that included the following passages: "I made a few telephone calls yesterday and received an interesting response from representatives of Mr. George N. Gillett. They asked me to contact you on their behalf to arrange a meeting this week to discuss the project."
And: "Notwithstanding his busy schedule, Mr. Gillett has graciously offered to fly to Markham to meet with you, the Mayor of Markham, to discuss his interest in this project. Perhaps he can also shed some light on Mr. Roustan's claim that in 2009 he was 'a finalist to acquire the Montreal Canadiens' as it was Mr. Gillett who sold the Montreal Canadiens at that time."
Asked about this email, Thun said Sunday that he got a call from the NHLPA shortly after sending it. Someone had forwarded it to the union, clearly hoping to get him caught in a conflict of interest.
"A lawyer at the NHLPA called me. I was asked, 'Do I have a financial interest in this?' No. 'Am I a partner of [Gillett's]?' No. If I was partners with anyone, I'd resign as an agent.
"I was told it was a dead issue, doesn't contravene agent bylaws. There's been no discussion ever since. I have no financial interest, no equity interest."
An NHLPA spokesman confirmed Thun's account of the conflict accusation.
Thun thinks it's a bad financial deal.Raucous meeting expected
To be perfectly honest, I didn't know about Gillett's potential involvement until Saturday afternoon (Some reporter, huh? Only eight months after the email). He definitely met with nine councillors. He reportedly met with Rudy Bratty. So what is Gillett up to?
"I'm on my to way to Europe and several of the council asked me if I'd take a few minutes and have breakfast ... give them some perspective on professional sports," he told a couple of reporters, one being CBC's Ivy Cuervo.
"I'm not making comments on current efforts or that sort of thing ... I am not here trying to replace anybody or scuttle anybody."
Gillett added that the city should decide its vision before choosing how it wants to proceed and who it wants to proceed with. It is believed he advised them to copy the Staples Center model in California, where the arena is surrounded by a development known as L.A. Live. It's been very successful.
"At a later date, if some time goes by and they decide to approach it a different way or a broader-based way and they wanted me to come back, I would certainly come back," he said. "If someone said today, 'George, we want you to do it,' I would not do it because I think my intentions would be misunderstood."
So there you go.
You can see why Roustan and Scarpitti would be worried about this, especially if the big dollars behind the bid (Bratty) spent time with Gillett. Beforehand, several of councillors were coy about its existence and purpose. The mayor did not even attend.
It should be a raucous meeting Tuesday night. There is interest in building a rink. But it comes down to whether or not it will be this one. I don't know who is right and who is wrong, but I know there's a lot at stake and the knives are out.Follow Elliotte Friedman on Twitter @FriedgeHNIC
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