Oilers’ CEO sends out a mass e-mail: why and what for?

As a shot across the bow, it ranks with the strangest of them. Whether it’s on the board or not, only future will tell. And we know when the future begins, too: Monday, October 31, 2011. We only aren’t sure whether it’s Monday, October 31, 2011 first thing in the morning, high noon, or midnight on the dot.

Edmonton Oilers’ president and CEO Patrick LaForge has sent out a mass e-mail (and only he knows how much mass it was or wasn’t). He told his recipients now’s the time to start calling their members of council, e-mailing them, or – should they prefer – just calling the city’s response line (311). The idea being that now’s the time to tell those they contact that they should now begin supporting the city’s funding of a new downtown arena. Patrick LaForge also urged his recipients to call local radio talk shows and write letters to The Journal, expressing their fervent wish that the arena be built using, in part, public money. What he was saying, basically, was that taxpayers ought to chip in.

Patrick LaForge didn’t say, so far as is known, or else. No need to. We’ve already heard THAT message.

He told the interested parties the facts behind the project, LaForge would say later, because that’s what they need to know. Fair enough.

At the same time, LaForge insisted he wasn’t starting a campaign, pressure or otherwise. After all, he didn’t provide his recipients with any scripts, LaForge said in a later interview with The Journal. That’s called playing with words. Telling one’s recipients to start influencing the decision-makers a certain way looks like a campaign, sounds like a campaign, and stinks like one, too.

Besides, as some members of council pointed out, some of the numbers in LaForge’s message are open to question. Tony Caterina, one of council’s staunchest opponents of using public money for the arena, went so far as to use derogatory words to describe numbers LaForge mentioned in his message. He mocked previous statements by Katz Group’s representatives, such as their VP, John Karvellas, too. Mildly put, Tony Caterina described them as fallacy. Judging by facts as known thus far, Tony Caterina’s remarks were on target.

Whether the Rexall Place the Oilers are using now is as dilapidated and useless for NHL hockey as the Katz Group wants us to believe, is another question. It is a known fact that not much has been invested in proper maintenance of the place in the last couple of years. And let’s not sound comical about any major improvements, either. Whether that is on purpose or not would be open to debate. By the way, it’s not a moot point.

In any case, the Oilers’ owner has every right to think his club needs a new barn. Of course, he could have mentioned it when he was buying the club from the somewhat reluctant previous owners in the first place, but, on the other hand, also, the somewhat reluctant previous owners never asked. After all, they had invested enough, they did manage to keep the club in town, and they weren’t getting any richer off it, either.

Be that as it may, if the Oilers’ owner believes his club unconditionally requires new digs, and it requires the new place now, right now, he can go the same route we all do. When we want to build (or buy) a new house, we either have enough money in our accounts, or we don’t. We can, of course, always ask a financial institution for help. Daryl Katz has one more option most of us wouldn’t have when getting ourselves a new home. He can ask other entrepreneurs to join him in this project. These business people would perform what in the lingo is known as “due diligence,” and if they like what they see, they’ll go for it with gusto. If not … well, there are still those financial institutions available.

Getting e-mail messages from someone with a vested interest in the project is NOT due diligence.

Patrick LaForge has done a lot of very positive things for the Oilers. He’s very shrewdly and successfully, and with aplomb, marketed the club even at times when its future looked gloomier than the coming winter. He deserves all the credit for that. He helped create the Heritage Classic that would later find a huge following during the NHL’s Winter Classics. The NHL (and hockey fans) can’t thank Patrick LaForge enough for that.

A recent Journal poll found that 49 per cent of those who answered wanted the project cancelled, while another 10 per cent asked what the rush was. Another 39 per cent supported the idea, and six per cent were worried delays would kill the project. There were 1,946 votes cast. Percentage-wise, the result would be a shocking 104, all told. How THAT could have happened, The Journal hasn’t got around to explaining yet.

Is that poll representative? Not really, to be frank.

As polls go, this one was unscientific enough. In fact, all public opinion polls resemble black magic, at best, and swindle, at worst.

On the other hand: can we dismiss this straw vote out of hand? Well, not so fast.

There’s another way of finding out: have a public referendum, with a clear-cut question. Don’t ask: “Do you want a new arena for the Oilers in the downtown area?” Ask specifically: “Do you agree that the city spends (at least) $100 million to help build a new arena downtown for the Oilers?” No need to load it by asking $100 million of YOUR money. Yes, it seems from time to time that supporters of public money going towards helping a privately owned professional sports club might need that information as a reminder. But still, no need to load the question: they will either figure it out, or not. Or they won’t care, either way.

But, before anybody starts printing the ballots, let’s see what the province is going to do. Remember, without funds coming from the province, all of this debate is academic.

Thus far, the province has been reluctant to commit to anything. The new Premier-elect, Alison Redford, has already announced her preferences. One of them is restoring $107 million that had been cut from Alberta’s education funding. Not a word about a new professional sports arena to be built in downtown Edmonton, using taxpayers’ money from all over the province.

As mentioned, as a shot across the bow, Patrick LaForge’s mass e-mail call to arms was close to being strange. What he, and the Katz Group, should get in reply? Many of us love the Oilers, wish them the best, and feel they’re paying enough as it is, at the box office.

But, and that’s the major distinction, those who DO pay at the box office, do so voluntarily.

That’s the answer the Katz Group should, in all due respect, hear, loud and clear. And no need to wait till Monday, October 31, 2011, first thing in the morning, high noon, or midnight on the dot, whatever the case may be.

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