'We're just not that pathetic, as a city': Political panel doubts NHL arena tactics will work in Calgary

The NHL may have been able to push other cities around but its strong-arm tactics could backfire as it presses for an ownership-friendly arena deal in Calgary, say this week's guests on the CBC Calgary News at 6 Political Panel.

'So many other cities have so weakly capitulated when Bettman ... made the exact same threats.'

Globe and Mail reporter Kelly Cryderman, independent pollster Janet Brown, and National Post columnist Jen Gerson weighed in on the arena debate as part of CBC Calgary's political panel. (CBC)

The NHL may have been able to push other cities around but its strong-arm tactics could backfire as it presses for an ownership-friendly arena deal in Calgary, say this week's guests on the CBC Calgary News at 6 Political Panel.

League commissioner Gary Bettman spoke out again this week on the topic of a new arena for the Calgary Flames and the prospect of the team moving to a different city.

"One of the reasons Calgary is in this situation right now is because so many other cities have so weakly capitulated when Bettman and their billionaire buddies have made the exact same threats," said National Post columnist Jen Gerson.

"Edmonton is the clear example of this. I mean, clearly, so much of Edmonton's flagging, sad, little ego is tied up in their hockey success that they needed to sign a scam of a deal to give a sweetheart arena over to (Oilers owner) Daryl Katz. And now all of a sudden the expectation is that Calgary is going to fall in line?"

"I'm afraid we're not that pathetic," she said. "We're just not that pathetic, as a city."

In an interview with the Calgary Herald this week, Bettman said he is "contacted all the time by people in markets that are interested in having a team," and he doesn't know "how long [the Flames] can hang on" in Calgary without a new building to play hockey in.

In the same interview, he insisted he wasn't trying to influence Calgary's civic election, set for Oct. 16.

"I don't weigh into politics," Bettman said.

But Janet Brown, an independent pollster and political commentator, wasn't buying that.

"He definitely is trying to throw a bomb into this mayoralty race," she said.

"He could've saved these comments for a couple of weeks and they wouldn't have been political. But they're very political now."

'It's probably going to backfire'

Brown believes Bettman is trying to hurt incumbent mayoral candidate Naheed Nenshi's chances of re-election after the city refused to give the Flames the public funding the team wanted for a new arena.

The NHL has "played exactly the same game with other cities," Brown said, but she thinks "it's probably going to backfire" in this case.

"We do need a new facility but Calgarians are not prepared to accept this at any cost. It's got to be a deal that makes sense for the city. And the NHL is giving Nenshi the opportunity to own that very position… and it's really hurting his opposition," she said.

"Nenshi's been able to position himself as the guy who's prepared to stand up to the rich guys and protect the taxpayers."

Globe and Mail reporter Kelly Cryderman said the NHL and Flames' political tactics have seemed "a bit chaotic" if their goal is defeat Nenshi or at least weaken the city's bargaining position.

"It doesn't seem organized," she said. "You wonder why someone like Gary Bettman is wading into this from afar."

'Most reviled man in the NHL'

That said, Cryderman said Nenshi is vulnerable to the narrative that he hasn't been a friend to the local business community, but the Flames and the NHL aren't the ideal opponents to put the mayor up against, if the goal is to defeat him.

"I think if any strong opposition is going to come from that community, it's not going to come from the Gary Bettmans or the Ken Kings or the billionaires," she said.

"It's going to come from the small businesses in the city that have seen their taxes increase outside the downtown core."

Gerson offered a more blunt assessment of how well the message coming from Bettman — who is routinely booed by even the most ardent hockey fans — is likely to be received in the city she calls home.

"If the most reviled man in the NHL thinks that he's going to come to Calgary and threaten the electorate to vote in the way that he wants them to in order to get taxpayer money for billionaires' arenas — my god, I don't think I can express my feelings on television on that one."


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