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Province Delivers Sucker Punch

Rick Charlton - June 20, 2001

It was a haymaker right between the eyes.

And the Calgary Flames are staggering today, punch drunk and not a little sure on how to react.

Not only did the Alberta Government come in well under all expectations with their lottery proposal, but Gaming Minister Ron Stevens also confirmed the province will not contribute to any request for maintenance assistance in operating the Saddledome, saying that would be a matter for the city itself. And the city earlier in the week said it would be waiting for the province to step in first. So consider it dead.

After almost 15 months of negotiations between the Flames, the city and the province, the Flames have emerged with the equivalent of one Clarke Wilm, about $1 million Canadian or $650,000 U.S, the result of a nebulous lottery that may or may not achieve that goal.

So much for Ralph Klein's "feel good" drop in visit to Gary Bettman earlier in the week.

Flames officials seemed stunned by the news.

"We're disappointed so far," Flames co-owner Murray Edwards told the Calgary SUN. "It has been a challenging week. It makes me stand back and question our commitment and whether we're blind."

And it says here the provincial announcement by Stevens is not the end of the discussion. While the Flames will try to work behind to scenes to overturn a decision that can only be described as an insult, the seeds of a legal confrontation are beginning to be sown.

Bettman has already had difficulty keeping a leash on hot-tempered Brian Burke in Vancouver, where the Canucks GM has made little effort to disguise his desire to take the BC government to court in an effort to receive value for the use of NHL logos and results in Sports Select type betting.

For the record, Mark Stevens last night on QR77 essentially dared the NHL to start a fight, saying the government has looked at the issue and is not worried about any legal case the NHL feels it might have.

But that has always been the stick the province has been holding. Time. Or rather the shortage of it. With both the Flames and Oilers in a desperate plight, a legal challenge could take years to come to fruition, with the province knowing full well that neither team will want to hang in long enough to see the end result come to a profitable conclusion. While Stevens can bluster all he wants, the NHL does have a case, a serious one it would likely win. And the NHL has their own legal opinions to back that up.

So this is rapidly turning into a game of bluff.

I've long said in this space that public revenues should not be used to subsidize millionaire owners and millionaire players, even at the risk of losing the teams. And there are plenty of economists out there who would argue that professional sports teams, economically, would not be missed if they were to leave town. Most of the money earned by teams is sucked out of the city by a few well paid athletes and never seen again, while remaining employees are typically earning minimum wages. Lose a team, it is argued, and that money, no longer spent on tickets, is then spread more evenly through the community and actually stays in the community, offsetting the cost of losing a tenant at a city owned facility.

But the lottery revenue issue is a different matter all together. The Flames, Oilers, Canucks and the NHL are certainly entitled to a share of Sport Select revenues when their logos and results are the basis for the game. More so when you consider Sports Select allows governments to employ what can only be described as a cowardly form of taxation on its citizens, avoiding the political time-bomb of having to raise in-your-face taxes to maintain basic services. For governments, lotteries are just as addicting as they are to citizens. In fact, the entire premise of the provincial lottery announcement, even pricing the tickets at $10, was to push the Flames/Oilers out to the sidelines so they didn't interfere or cut into the provincial revenue stream.

Subsidies from public money for the Oilers and Flames are one thing. Business is another.

So the Flames and Oilers this morning are confronted with a dilemma.

Take the crumbs they've been thrown for expediency? Or take the long-term view and start to get tough?

The province also knows full well that 2004, the date for the NHL to negotiate its next Collective Bargaining Agreement, is only three seasons away. It is very probable, given the closeness of that date that the Oilers and Flames can stick it out until then, which puts even less pressure on the province to be accommodating.

As Edwards noted earlier, however, there may be an issue of whether or not the current ownership group feels particularly welcome. A month ago there would have been zero doubt the team would wait the requisite three years.

In light of the slap from the province, that mood might be changing.

THIS IS ALSO NOT A GOOD MORNING FOR FLAMES PRESIDENT RON BREMNER. He's been hacked and whacked about the head in the media for several years now, but was the key man in negotiations between the city and the province, even acting as the point man for the Oilers on the lottery issue. While some have speculated Flames ownership earlier might have tossed Bremner, the truth is he was playing a pivotal role in bringing the bacon home on both issues. Yank him out of the negotiations and the team was back to square one. Unless the disappointing results of the last week can be reversed that barrier will no longer be in place. For the record, I've never had much of a problem with the job done by Bremner given he has increased Flames revenues exponentially since taking over and Flames fans have never had more games to watch on TV than they do now. But the on-ice product, when you boil this right down, may still prove to be the noose around his neck. With a winning organization, a playoff team, no one would be worried about Bremner's job today. What we don't know is how long Al Coates, selected by ownership, kept his job when Bremner may have wanted his own man in place. There are two sides to any argument. But the Flames have never been reluctant to finger a scapegoat when it suited them.