Gary Bettman turns up heat on Ottawa, Calgary to get arenas built

Kyle Bukauskas and Chris Johnston examine the possibility of an NHL franchise in Houston following Gary Bettman's words on the subject.

MONTREAL – So, have you heard that they need new NHL arenas in Calgary and Ottawa?

The commissioner is certainly aware.

Amid growing talk about Houston’s desire to land a hockey team, and with Seattle pushing towards finally getting an NHL-ready building, Gary Bettman gently pointed out that his league has some budding dance partners. Lest anyone forget in the only two cities where teams are known to be lobbying for a new facility.

“We believe in all of the places that we have franchises now,” Bettman said Friday after a luncheon with Montreal’s chamber of commerce. “We think all of our markets are capable of supporting our clubs. We’re not looking to threaten markets, but there is a certain inevitability if a club needs a new arena to stay competitive, to stay viable and have stability, that if it can’t for whatever reason get a new facility then at some point ownership has to look at what options it may have.

“It’s great to know that there are lots of places that are interested in having a franchise that don’t, but we’re not running around actively soliciting interest. We listen to whoever wants to come and talk to us, and we’re aware of the interest, but our preference is to have our franchises right where they are.”

Translation: This isn’t code red.

But if you’re a fan who sits among the “C of Red” it’s pretty clear what’s being implied in that answer. There’s no guarantee the Flames will continue playing in the outdated Scotiabank Saddledome ad infinitum.

The debate around public funding for a new arena became a central issue in the recent civic election there and the Flames threw their public support behind a candidate who lost to incumbent Naheed Nenshi.

Bettman didn’t sound an optimistic tone when asked if there was a path forward with a mayor that both he and senior team executives have verbally sparred with in the recent past.

“As far as I understand – and this is a question you should put to the Flames – they discontinued well before the [Oct. 16] election any pursuit of a new building in Calgary because they believed it was futile,” said Bettman. “And I’m not weighing in to the political scene in Calgary any more. Not that I weighed in to begin with, all I did was answer questions as truthfully as possible and people didn’t like my answers. I’m sorry.”

Senators owner Eugene Melnyk is in the middle of a different kind of negotiation. He’s part of a group trying to gain control of a coveted parcel of land from the National Capital Commission where an arena could be built just west of downtown.

That team wasn’t able to sell out all of its playoff games while reaching Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final last spring, and Bettman cited the suburban location of the 21-year-old Canadian Tire Centre as a reason why.

“The Senators are very, very focused on LeBreton Flats,” he said. “They know that the useful life of the Canadian Tire Centre is nearing its end and … I think a downtown arena is vital to the future of that franchise and Eugene Melnyk is working very hard to make LeBreton Flats a reality.

“Which if it can be a reality, and we’re hoping it can, I think it would be extraordinarily positive not just for the Senators, but for Ottawa.”

In many ways, the mirror has been turned.

There are issues in our own backyard to go with those in Arizona, Carolina and Florida. Expansion isn’t on the immediate horizon and relocation only comes when absolutely every other option has been exhausted, but … there are big dreams taking shape in big American cities.

Bettman had a large media audience after the NHL general managers met here to commemorate the league’s centennial and he seized on the opportunity to remind everybody about that fact.

During the chamber of commerce luncheon, Montreal Canadiens owner Geoff Molson openly supported the possibility of the NHL returning to Quebec City one day. He also made it clear that he wouldn’t seek any extra payment for a team impeding on his territory if it ever happened.

“The Quebec Nordiques were in this market before and they went away,” said Molson. “These types of decisions, they fall into the responsibility of the NHL to evaluate and put together a business plan to recommend, but under no circumstance would there be one team that would benefit financially from it, no.”

The sparkling Videotron Centre is just sitting there waiting for a tenant. It is home to the QMJHL’s Quebec Remparts and has hosted Canadiens exhibition games since opening in 2015, but it was built with much grander ambitions in mind.

However, Bettman is unapologetic about the fact the Nordiques haven’t yet been reborn to play there.

“I am extraordinarily comfortable that the record is clear … because we never tell anyone to build a building on our account,” he said. “If you choose to build a building you build it. But you do see what happens when a market loses a team because there isn’t an adequate facility or the prospect of an adequate facility, it’s very, very hard to get a team back. How many years did it take Winnipeg to get a team back?

“But we never threaten communities. Whatever happens, happens, in the natural evolution. If a team needs a new building and can no longer survive without one and they can’t get one, then things happen.”