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Saturday, October 13, 2012

City issues.  Okay, really just the arena.

I wrote to my city councillor this week.  I'm happy to share.

Mr. Sohi:

I love the Oilers. I spend money to make sure I'm in the arena a few times a year to see them in person. I pay again to own and wear their jersey. My opinion is the opinion of someone who has no desire to see the team leave.

I've been reluctant to write because Daryl Katz's Seattle stunt enraged me. When the Katz Group negotiates with the city about building an arena, they're happy to define the responsibility for the team as going beyond the financial ownership. The Oilers are more than a business, they argue, it's integrated with the community - the team is a part of who we are as Edmontonians. This has been the argument of many team owners, across sports and leagues, all over the continent. The argument is offered again and again because it has truth to it. It's why a threat, however empty, to move the team has such power.

I've been reluctant to write, because I wanted my anger to fade. I wanted to calmly and rationally examine Mr. Katz's insistence that he only wants what's best for the team and the city. But time is running out before the meeting next week that the Mayor has asked Mr. Katz to attend, and it's telling that despite his apology letter that seemed to acknowledge that he hadn't done enough to communicate with us his side of things, he hasn't left the impression he or anyone from the Katz Group will be attending that meeting to answer questions.

As a private citizen, it makes no difference that I continue to be angry about this. With the lockout, I can't even refuse to attend games to express my displeasure with Daryl Katz. I know that as an elected official, you can't afford to be angry the way I am. You need to make decisions in a calm, rational, professional manner. I would like to offer a suggestion, however.

I was never very happy with the arena deal put together last October - I think Katz got the better of council. Still, like lots of Edmontonians, I think I was willing to say my piece at the time and then go on. In fact, I wasn't angry enough about it to bother writing to you. But things are different now. Katz's Seattle trip was a ham-handed effort to play hardball with Council. Council needs to be willing to play hardball right back.

Make clear that the October 2011 agreement is not a minimum that the Katz Group can hold you to - it's not an initial offer. It was an agreement. If Daryl Katz isn't happy with the terms, council will be happy to withdraw it and start again. In fact, make sure the agreement has a publicly-known expiry date. I know Council worked very hard to come to that agreement. But you have to be as willing to back out as Mr. Katz is, if you're going to negotiate on even ground.

Make clear that Council doesn't think the NHL will allow Mr. Katz to take the team elsewhere. Gary Bettman has indicated that he thinks it was a mistake to allow Winnipeg and Quebec City's teams to move. If the NHL is now willing to double down in Phoenix, where only the Canadian ex-pats care about hockey, they aren't going to quietly let the Oilers leave town. But be equally clear that we aren't going to be blackmailed, even if the NHL backs Katz's play. The Oilers sell some of the most expensive tickets in the league, they have a terrible winning record, and they fill the rink every night. There must be other owners around the league who wouldn't mind moving into this market at all. How happy can Glendale taxpayers be that they continue to subsidize a team that isn't even playing? Be clear that while Edmonton needs the Oilers, the Oilers need Edmonton more. There are very few hockey markets as attractive as ours, and I think it's fair to say there are none that aren't already served by a team.

Finally, offer an alternative. If the city is going to foot essentially the entire bill for a new arena, perhaps we should operate it and enjoy the financial benefits for the good of the entire city, not just one man. I'm sure we could do okay with the Oilers as a primary tenant forty-five nights a year. If the Katz group won't pay for the development, they can't expect to get a piece of every other event that passes through town. Alternatively, sell him Rexall Place, and let him do what he likes with that space. Downtown will continue to revitalize just fine without an arena, thanks.

If none of these deals, including the one he got from Council last year, sound attractive enough to Katz, then to hell with him. Let him try to negotiate with increasingly bankrupt American municipalities instead, if he find the grass so much greener. Best of luck to him.

I don't know the specifics of the financial situation well enough to know which of these suggestions are practical, though in fairness, since Katz refuses to open the team's books, neither do you. What I'm really suggesting is the basic advice - don't be afraid to play hardball with the Katz Group. Don't assume that because he owns a popular team, citizens are on his side in this negotiation. I'm not, and I haven't spoken to anyone who is. We know which side is working on our behalf. In fact, right now, while the lockout has fans even angrier than usual at NHL ownership, this may be your moment to get the best deal for taxpayers. Take a hard line, and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised how many citizens, including hockey fans like me, will be willing to cheer you on.

He responded, quickly and with pretty much the text of the statement you can find on his website.  The real test will come when Council meets this week.