West Coast Bias: New Calgary arena no simple task

Watch as Calgary Flames forward Jiri Hudler makes a young fans day in Tampa by tossing a puck over the glass.

From afar, the “new arena” situations in Calgary and Edmonton likely seem similar. Two hockey mad Alberta cities, two ageing facilities, two ownership groups with a similarly worded ask for heaps of tax payer dollars…

Edmonton’s new arena opens next fall. Calgary’s should be just a few years behind, right? Well, not so fast.

The two bids are actually wholly different from each other, and if you can believe it, negotiations in Edmonton that took five long years to slog through could well turn out to be the Cole’s Notes version of what goes down in Calgary. Edmonton’s needs were far more distinct and the cost far less murky than the model in Calgary, where mayor Naheed Nenshi has already opened on a rather dismissive note.

“This project was announced (by Flames ownership), frankly, without all the homework being done,” Nenshi said this week. “In fact, I said it’s not even half-baked? It’s not even in the oven yet. So this is a matter of starting to stir the batter and put it in the oven.”

Flames ownership have pitched CalgaryNEXT — a new arena, a new football stadium for the Stampeders, and a public use fieldhouse, all at a cost of $890 million in a neighbourhood that borders downtown known as the West Village. So far, they have promised only $200 million up front, another $250 million in a ticket tax over time, and have made suggestions that the city and provincial governments can tackle the rest of the cost.

That’s par for the course, and not unlike what Oilers owner Daryl Katz did in Edmonton. However, that is where the similarities end.

Edmonton badly needs a new arena, as Rexall Place is nine years older and far more antiquated than the Saddledome. Also, Edmonton’s downtown is vastly inferior to Calgary’s, sorely requiring the boost the new area will bring. Calgary’s downtown is vibrant and just fine without an arena, so that very important political motivator does not apply.

Another major difference is that Edmonton’s rink was built on the edge of downtown on land just waiting for refurbishment, surrounded by opportunity for growth. Already towers are going up for hotels, living space and office use, and restaurants and bars are opening nearby.

In Calgary, the West Village was once home to Creosote Canada from 1924 until 1962. The land is soaked with poisonous creosote that today is being found to have leeched underneath the river into basements on the other side. The tab for cleaning up the site is completely unknown, but could range anywhere from $200- $500 million. No one will know until a study comes back some time in the New Year, and of course the Flames cost projections neglected to reflect that sizeable bill.

The province wouldn’t give Edmonton a dime for its project, so Edmonton city council — wisely or not — decided the downtown would be better for the investment. The City spent the money. It’s doubtful there will be provincial money in Calgary, and with the clean up this project could be twice as expensive as Edmonton’s, the ask for Calgary city council is far, far bigger.

Get ready for a long run on this topic, folks. The good news is, by the time they settle this out, the Flames rink may indeed be the eldest in the NHL.

Colorado has opened with two wins on a crucial seven-game road trip through the East, but the Avs are still mired in last place in the NHL’s toughest division, the Central. It’s starting to appear as if the Avs are spinning their wheels as an organization, going from a surprise playoff team two seasons ago to a club that, should they miss the playoffs this season, will have missed in five of six years.

The core in Denver — Nathan MacKinnon, Gabriel Landeskog and Matt Duchene — was already altered when Paul Stastny went to St. Louis as a free agent, and Ryan O’Reilly was dealt to the Buffalo Sabres. But still, the defence is weak, and now Reto Berra has taken the job from a struggling Semyon Varlamov (.890 save percentage) in goal. Then on Friday Colorado lost Landeskog for two games when he was suspended after his headshot on Brad Marchand Thursday.

Nikita Zadorov and Mikhail Grigorenko, the principles in the O’Reilly trade, have disappointed. Zadorov was sent back to AHL San Antonio this week, while Grigorenko was elevated into Landeskog’s spot on the top line at practice Friday. Still, the Russian forward has three points and just eight shots in 13 games this season.

“I’m not sure he can play in the league right now,” said a scout.

Alex Burrows was scheduled to meet with NHL officials Friday in Toronto. He said some things to New Jersey’s Jordin Tootoo in the penalty box during a recent game against the Devils that were as needless as they were wrong. (We have been told what was said, but will not repeat the words here.)

Tootoo told the league that Burrows said some inappropriate things about his “personal life and family,” and we are left to ponder: Is Tootoo right for breaking “the code” and bringing this issue off the ice and into the public eye, as Burrows criticized him for? Or do we blame Burrows for saying some things that, in the NHL game we once knew, he would have thought twice about saying years ago.

Talk about unintended consequences — this is one of the unwanted results of a game that used to police itself. There was a time when Burrows would have had to answer for tasteless comments in a fight. Not anymore however, and many are happy about that evolution.

Meanwhile, the hockey world gets dragged through the mud by a player who has pushed various envelopes throughout his career. We’re only lucky Tootoo hasn’t publicly repeated exactly what was said.

We’re going to guess that V.P. of Hockey Op’s Colin Campbell will head up the conversation with Burrows. What will he say? It will start with, “Grow up, Alex…”

The goalie mafia is cracking, in the same way “omerta” went by the wayside inside the cycling peleton. There, cyclists cracked one by one as those who were getting caught decided they weren’t going to protect the drug cheats anymore.

So far, goalies Jonathan Quick, Devan Dubnyk, Karri Ramo and Andrew Hammond have all admitted a preference to shrinking equipment over expanded nets, agreeing that they could get by with more form-fitting gear. Also, goalies-turned-analysts Mathieu Biron, Greg Millen and Corey Hirsch have all admitted the Great Goalie Equipment Ruse had gone too far.

We sense a crew that does not want to be responsible for a history-changing expansion of nets. “By far the worst idea,” Hammond says. “By far.”

According to the ESPN.com attendance web page, the Edmonton Oilers are the seventh-most popular road draw in the NHL this season, behind the No. 1 Rangers, then Detroit, Montreal, Anaheim, Toronto and Pittsburgh. As a comparison, their provincial rival Calgary Flames rank 26th — about where Edmonton sat a year ago.

Obviously, this is the Connor McDavid effect. It will be interesting to see how far the Oilers fall in his absence, though tickets that were purchased (often by scalpers) prior to McDavid’s injury should cushion that descent.

I know Florida isn’t a Western team, but I had a Twitter exchange with some jacked up Panthers fans after firing off a tweet about the tiny crowd that watched Calgary play in Florida on Tuesday night. Two nights later, the BB&T Center looked like this for a game against Buffalo:

Those Panthers fans are great hockey fans, and will defend their team to the end. But after 22 years in Florida, you have to wonder when the turnstile of owners and endless empty seats will cease?

Meanwhile, an emerging concern could be San Jose. That city has been undoubtedly Gary Bettman’s most successful Sunbelt expansion project, yet suddenly has a ton of empty seats for Sharks games.

“You’ve got massive sections just not even there. You’ll see two people in a row,” Michael Kriegbaum — a season-ticket holder for the entire 25 years of the Sharks existence — marvelled to the San Jose Mercury News. “It’s kind of surreal, because it’s been solid for so many years. There’s just no energy.”

The Sharks once enjoyed a five-year run of sellouts (205 straight games), and played to 99.8 per cent capacity for a nine-year stretch. This year they’re down to about 91 per cent capacity — and that’s the announced crowd. Actual attendance is said to be far less on some nights.

For the first year the Sharks have their AHL affiliate — the San Jose Barracuda — playing out of the same arena. According to HockeyDB.com they’re announcing crowds of just over 4,000 per night.

So, how does this happen?

The once-stingy Calgary Flames are last in the league in goals allowed. In 17 games Calgary has allowed 66 goals to Montreal’s 33 in the same number of games. The Flames also rank 30th in goal differential (minus-25). Last season, the Flames finished the season ranked 14th in goals against, and were eighth with a goals differential of plus-25.

So, let’s find a reason. The stat that points to goaltending is this one: Calgary is middle of the pack, averaging 30.1 shots against per game. But they’re dead last in team save percentage, at .873. They’ve given up three or more goals in 13 of their 17 games.

In a 3-2 league, you know how that tale going to end.

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