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Oilers have a dilemma: what to do with their budding star?

Thursday, October 28, 2011 will be D-Day for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Barring injuries or healthy scratches, the home game against Alexander Ovechkin-led Washington Capitals will be his ninth in the Oilers silks. Will he be hopping on the charter plane right after the game, for a quick road trip to Colorado to face the Avalanche the next night, or will he be hitting the road, to drive about 150 km south of Edmonton, to rejoin his junior team in Red Deer?

It’s not going to be his call, even though his efforts between now and then will have major influence on the coaching staff’s (and team management’s) decision-making process.

The debate isn’t only about what would serve Nugent-Hopkins’s development better: remaining in the NHL, or returning to the WHL. The debate is also about what is better for the Oilers.

From the outside looking in, it seems to be a no-brainer: keep the guy. After all, what has he got to learn in junior? It’s the same situation that developed with Taylor Hall last season. Talented like nobody’s business, but … Fans met a suggestion that both Hall and the club would be better served with Hall down in junior with derision. Of course, the club’s options were limited: the Oilers couldn’t send Hall to the minors for a few weeks of learning the professional hockey ropes. The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) wouldn’t permit it. Perhaps the NHL should try to raise this subject when they begin negotiations about a new CBA with the NHL Players’ Association (NHLPA) in less than a year.

And so are the Oilers’ options limited this year, too.

Then there is the option Craig MacTavish used during the 2002-2003 season with a player about as talented and creative as Hall and Nugent-Hopkins: Ales Hemsky. Realizing that he had a gem on his hands, MacTavish decided to ease Hemsky in, rather than throwing him to the wolves. Hemsky was a healthy scratch for a few games here and a few games there, recording 59 games played that season, eventually.

Hemsky at the time was not absolutely pleased with sitting in the press box, but he kept his mouth shut, as a good soldier.

What happens next is not so much about young Nugent-Hopkins’s hockey prowess as it is about his mental and emotional strength. As Jeeves liked to say, it’s all about the psychology of the individual. Thus far, Nugent-Hopkins has proven he’s got most of the tools that a top-notch player needs to survive. Faceoffs are the one glaring omission in his repertoire. Summed up: he’s got most of the tools, but he hasn’t got his toolbox yet. Granted, Nugent-Hopkins seems aware of this shortcoming and, judging by the improvement in the faceoff circle during the game against Nashville (he won 42 per cent) as compared to the game against Vancouver just a few days earlier (a measly 18 per cent), he might become quite competent in this field before the season’s done, too. Of course, he faced better opposition in Vancouver’s faceoff men, too.

This is all very well. But you can bet your last loonie that after the hattrick against Vancouver, the first one of his professional career, 29 teams around the NHL told their video people to get the tape (or DVD) of that particular game pronto, and isolate young Nugent-Hopkins so that coaches can start devising tactics how to stop this budding star. What does this mean? Nothing much, only that Nugent-Hopkins is bound to find the going to get much tougher from now onwards. Goals will stop going in in bushels, his passes will be intercepted, you name it, it’s going to be frustrating.

Nugent-Hopkins will either get nervous, frustrated, even, throwing his arms up in anger, or he will come up with solid answers.

Here’s an example: when Wayne Gretzky saw opposition figured out some of his tricks, he came up with new ones, and when he had a wide enough repertoire, he would start mixing the tricks up, to keep catching the opposition off-guard. His Edmonton Oilers’ former teammate and later, captaincy successor, Mark Messier, had a patented outlet pass from his own zone, not a bad play but, alas, one the opposition figured out. Still, Messier persisted, causing a few unpleasantly dangerous situations for his team in the process.

Of course, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is not Wayne Gretzky. As Edmonton Sun’s Terry Jones quoted Rexall Sports’ president of hockey operations Kevin Lowe, Nugent-Hopkins’s playing style reminds him more of Dale Hawerchuk. A smart player, one who didn’t mind getting his nose dirty while operating near his opposition’s goal.

Still, psychologically, Nugent-Hopkins should pick up Gretzky’s ability to creatively change his ways whenever the situation called for it. That is going to be the toughest part of his development.

Now, Nugent-Hopkins has got a smart head on his neck. Just as his last year’s predecessor Taylor Hall has. Judging just by what they said before and after being drafted No. 1, their words didn’t sound like well-rehearsed clichés. In any case, what they said sounded better than Alexandre Daigle’s infamous words, when drafted by the Ottawa Senators in 1993. Remember? He said he was happy to be going as No. 1 because who remembers the No. 2 draftee, anyway? That particular year, No. 2 was Chris Pronger (and Paul Kariya, by the way, went as No. 4). On the day following his first hattrick, Nugent-Hopkins admitted it was exciting, but now, he was looking to get ready for the Nashville game, and anyhow, he’s got this nine-game or bust deal hanging over his head as the sword of Damocles, and besides, what’s a hattrick worth if it didn’t help the team win.

Sounded like a pretty well reasonable man, wise beyond his age, didn’t it?

Still, actions speak louder than words, and – thus far, at least – we’ve been experiencing what’s known as the “novelty effect.”

Will the grind and the increasing one-on-one coverage by other teams’ best defensive crews slow Nugent-Hopkins (and his development) down, or will he use it as a challenge, coming out as the Oilers’ scoring machine for the year?

Nobody knows the future. What we do know is that Taylor Hall, in a fine effort to prove he can play with the adults and be their equal, at least, overextended himself and got injured. An ankle injury stopped his first season as an Oiler at 65 games played. The word “if” is highly unpopular in the theory of games, but: Hall was tied for second in team scoring last year, with 42 points. Could he have got more if he didn’t get injured? Would he have got more if he didn’t get injured? Absolutely yes, on both counts.

Would he (or could he) avoid the season-ending injury if Tom Renney went Craig MacTavish’s way and didn’t play Hall night in and night out? Again: who knows? But, to use simplified statistics, if Hall had played fewer games, the probability of an injury would have been lesser.

Does the same apply to Nugent-Hopkins? Yes, it does, and a full 100 per cent, too.

Professional athletes like playing (running, jumping, whatever their sport). A laudable, praiseworthy, even, approach. Hockey players are no different. And that’s why their teams employ coaching staffs: to tame these young colts to make sure they’re ready when the big race comes.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is a player who is exciting to watch. Here’s wishing for his, his club’s and, most importantly, his and his club’s fans’ pleasure that he stays healthy and exciting for as long as possible. Even after the “novelty effect” has worn off.

A fair deal? Why not call it highway robbery?

As sellouts go, this one is close to being perfect. The Katz Group drops the no-compete clause demand it wanted to get from Northlands, the city will buy the land, etc., etc., and new arena supporters are ecstatic.

They’ve been taken for a ride and let’s hope the province will not be as foolish. After all, it’s got a strong incentive not to be: if there’s $100 million coming to Edmonton to build this new ice palace, guess what? Next thing you know, Calgary will demand (and justifiably so) that same amount to replace the Saddledome.

The Katz Group won’t be seeking the no-compete clause, and that’s a victory for the city? You’ve got to be kidding: that demand has been illegal from the get-go, and it dawned on the Katz Group leadership at long last that this might end up in court, where they would lose, plain and simple. Some victory, that.

The chutzpah our city parents will show if they approve this deal is endless. So, they will tax Rexall (or whatever it’s going to be called post-Oilers) tickets to help pay for their fancy. If THAT is not an attempt to cut Northlands’ legs under them in order to make the place less competitive, pray elucidate what it is, then.

Let us set aside the argument that putting professional sports facilities in downtown areas in attempts to revitalize those areas has failed all over the place. Yes, even in Columbus. Yes, even in Los Angeles.

The city will make sure nobody will be willing to park downtown, given the fees. They are shamelessly high as it is, and they will go higher still. And that to our enlightened council seems to be the way to drum up custom for downtown.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman did what his job description dictates him to do. But our Mayor is neither an NHL employee, nor an NHL flunky.

This nonsense that without a new arena the Oilers would move is something we’ve heard before. Peter Pocklington got run out of town because of it. Why the difference? Veiled threats to similar effect are cricket just because Daryl Katz claims he’s an Edmonton patriot? How foolish can our council members be? How short are their memories?

Just an aside: it was that same Peter Pocklington who brought the NHL to Edmonton in the first place.

But let’s get back to the main topic: anyone equipped with basic knowledge of economics will tell you that private and public money do not mix. The good old oil and water story. The two have different reasons for their existence, hence, they have different priorities. Or, at least, they should have.

If Daryl Katz is so convinced that his club’s arena downtown is going to be the proverbial goose that lays golden eggs, he should go for it. Himself, with outside (but private) help, doesn’t matter. But not with a cent of public money.

Of course, if he asks other entrepreneurs for help, they will want to know what makes him so sure that the plan will work in Edmonton when it hasn’t worked anywhere else. For whatever reason, our city parents have swallowed his pitch whole, never asking the hard questions.

Gary Bettman, in his spiel, mentioned it was a matter of economics for Daryl Katz to seek public support. Gary Bettman should stick to his knitting. It had nothing to do with economics. It had everything to do with business. These two terms have different meanings. Business propositions – if the outcome is ideally positive – work for the business entity that is involved. Economics are about society as a whole. Not only that, but economics also take a longer-term view, something many business people tend to forget.

If one were to start pointing out in individual detail where the city has been had and where Daryl Katz must be laughing, it would be a pretty long list.

But the most serious matter here is this: this council seems unable to provide the city with basic services. And yet, it is willing to go ahead and waste money that would be better (and more usefully) spent elsewhere just to satisfy a billionaire who has just found an easy way how to become even more affluent. Would if all of us were so lucky as to have our mortgages paid by other taxpayers.

One of the nicest gimmicks: the city will demand that the Oilers commit to staying here for another 35 years.

Let’s forget some warning signs that professional sports have been losing their spectator appeal the last few years and nobody knows if anyone will care some 15 years down the road that they even exist. Judging by the price hikes, the Oilers will price themselves out of the general market pretty soon, anyhow. The funniest (or saddest?) part is that professional sports clubs owners are of the view that their facilities become obsolete once they hit the age of about 30 years. That means we’ll be at this same point we’re today 30 years hence. A nice perspective if there ever was one.

To sum up: the murder capital of Canada, a provincial capital with the worst infrastructure in the entire country, a provincial capital that says it can’t afford to provide basic services, will have a shiny new arena for one of its professional sports clubs, all that paid using taxpayer money.

In Europe, they’re now so down economically, just because of follies like this, they have expanded their taxation base to demanding fees from farmers for bovine flatulence. Yes, and it wouldn’t be the insanely bureaucratic European Union if it didn’t come up with quotas: the rate is higher in Bulgaria than in Denmark. Why, nobody knows.

Is that where we want to end? Or what else will the city have to tax to help it pay for something private citizen Daryl Katz thinks he needs?

In addition to being a murder capital, we’ll become a laughingstock. Nice, is it not?

To whom is His Worship responsible?

“Obviously, my first duty is to the citizens of Edmonton, but at the same time, it’s unfair to my council colleagues not to be able to brief them on it, which we’re planning to do Friday morning. After that, I’d be glad to answer questions with the media.”

That, my dear friends, is a quote from His Worship Stephen Mandel, the Mayor of Edmonton, following his six-hour meeting Wednesday with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Edmonton Oilers’ owner Daryl Katz in the NHL New York office.

Once again, His Worship has got it all wrong. Yes, he’s right when he says that his first duty is to the citizens of Edmonton. But he must have forgotten one minor thing: members of council are citizens of Edmonton, too. And so is he. What His Worship is proposing is offering preferential treatment to one (very minor) group of citizens, while gaining time to ponder what to tell the rest of us, the masses of the unwashed, and what to keep secret from us.

It would be acceptable only if His Worship were in New York on his own room and board, representing himself. Of course, in that case he’d have no business committing any public money to what is a very private undertaking.

The entire scenario stinks to high heaven.

Facing a shameless deadline from the Oilers’ owner, and an even more shameless (and potentially illegal) demand for a no-compete clause from Northlands, His Worship and his top civic bureaucrat hurry to Big Apple because NHL Commissioner wants to play God. The Commissioner, of course, is talking about money that isn’t his all along. This money isn’t his Edmonton council interlocutors’, either.

In fact, if Gary Bettman wanted to be so helpful, he should have come to Edmonton, rather than pretend he’s an emperor whose wisdom matches Solomon’s, and then some. Not only would it have been more polite (decent, even), it would have cost less, too. After all, Daryl Katz is Gary Bettman’s boss. Takes a certain level of gall to summon one’s boss into one’s office.

In enlightening us on his motivation, Gary Bettman tried to explain that it was pure economics that had been behind Daryl Katz’s demand.

Gary Bettman has got this one wrong, too. It’s been a business sense, mixed with a sense of entitlement. Why should I be paying for the whole thing if I could be entitled to having the taxpayers cover at least a quarter of it, if not more?

Business and economics do not mix easily. There are some major differences between these two, and one would have expected an NHL Commissioner to be aware of those differences. But maybe it’s asking too much. After all, as mentioned, the Commissioner is the league club owners’ employee. He’s got to whistle their tune.

And the Mayor’s motivation is simple, too. As American economist Thomas Sowell observed, politicians think in election cycles. Economists take a somewhat longer-term view.

So, we’ve got the three motivations behind this entire deal: greed, greed, and some more greed. In all three cases with an incredibly high level of egotism thrown in.

What should motivate us, the mass of the unwashed citizens of Edmonton, those to whom His Worship has a duty, but who will have to wait?

An answer to just one question: would our dear council members be willing to fork over from their own pockets the required $100 million, and whatever compensation Northlands would require if it were to agree not to compete with Daryl Katz’s new arena? And let’s make it biblically simple: Yes? No?

Oh, they can’t afford it?

You know what? Immorality of public funding for private enterprise notwithstanding, Edmonton can’t afford it, either. And if Daryl Katz has got a problem with it, congratulations, he’s got something we don’t.

Case closed.

 

Summons to Big Apple a sign of bad manners

If there ever was an example of bad manners, this is it: NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman invites Edmonton Oilers’ owner Daryl Katz and Edmonton mayor Steven Mandel to drop by for a chat about the downtown arena issue, and the two hicks accept and go, one of them, presumably, at public expense. No, wait, make it two of them: city manager Simon Farbrother is going, too, and nobody can expect him to pay for his flight, room and board.

Why bad manners? On two grounds.

Gary Bettman is Daryl Katz’s employee. He should be coming to see his boss. Not the other way ’round.

And Gary Bettman wants something from Edmonton’s council. Not the other way ’round. Again, he should be coming to Edmonton, hat in hand, and wait in the reception area until council is ready to hear him out.

Other than that, Gary Bettman is doing what he should be doing: trying to push his employer’s point of view. But, as a good employee, one would have expected him to do his homework first.

Even if city council gives in and binds taxpayers (its employers) to paying $100 million, there is still the minor issue of no commitment from the province. Without that particular commitment, everything’s been just so many puffs of hot air. And it doesn’t seem the province is in any spectacular hurry to commit a cent towards the project.

The other issue is much more simple: Daryl Katz is demanding a firm commitment from Northlands that what is known today as Rexall Place won’t compete with however the new downtown arena is called. There exist laws that specifically forbid such behaviour. Ever heard of anti-trust legislation? Not that such legislation pleases anybody who’s all gung-ho for free markets, but still, it’s on the books.

Gary Bettman, as mentioned, is Daryl Katz’s employee. He can’t be ordering his boss around, but he can offer him advice. Wise advice. Here’s what its gist should be: don’t waste your time looking for public money. If you want a new arena, build it. Downtown Edmonton, any of Saturn’s rings, wherever tickles your fancy. If you’re not a member of the proper clubs where moneybags gather for afternoon siesta, I could introduce you to some that have for their members people for whom your fortune is their weekly allowance. You can talk to them and ask them if they would want to chip in. You can also go and see your friendly neighbourhood bank manager about mortgage. But stop feeling you’re entitled to getting public money. You’re not entitled to anything. The period of overwhelming demands for social and financial entitlement is behind us. Live with it.

Both Messrs. Mandel and Farbrother should decline Mr. Bettman’s invitation. If they don’t, the mayor should reimburse us all for his and his city manager’s Big Apple extravaganza. The realization they can’t be doing as they please will only happen when our elected politicians become personally and financially accountable for all of their decisions. That’s when they might begin to see the foolishness of their ways.

In the meantime, they need to be reminded they are our servants, we’re not their serfs.

The Oil Change TV series returns: THREE CHEERS!

Oil Change is coming back. That’s very good news.

The six-part series of one-hour documentary shows that looks behind the scenes as the Edmonton Oilers have been going through an intensive re-building phase of their existence used to be broadcast on TSN. It became a favourite, developing an almost cult-like following right across Canada, and throughout the U.S., too.

This year, we’re going to see six one-hour parts, again, except the show has found a new home, on Sportsnet West and Citytv Edmonton. Quite logical, considering Sportsnet carries some 60 Oilers’ games this season.

If last year’s experience is any indication, we can expect fast-paced, very honest and open documentaries made by an incredibly talented crew concentrated around Edmonton’s own Aquila Productions. The Oilers have opened their doors to the creators in an unprecedented fashion, and the creators have never betrayed the trust. Still, the behind-the-scenes footage must have amazed even the crustiest of viewers.

Don Metz will again serve as executive producer, with Gord Redel returning as the show’s producer.

The series’ subtitle is Overdrive. Quite fitting, really. The Oilers have given their fans several years of frustration that developed into last year’s season of hope. As we all know, hope springs eternal, but who knows whether fans’ patience does, too.

In any case, Oil Change gives Oilers’ fans a unique chance to look what is really going on, and to appreciate their development with more knowledge and, dare we say it, empathy.

Last season’s series was a masterpiece. Not only was it deserving of its Gemini nominations, but, frankly, it should have won some of these awards, too.

Aquila can’t say what each episode will be about. They couldn’t say it in advance last season, either. Yes, they do have a rough idea that is based on some events that they can predict (first nine games for Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, for example, the trade deadline, and such), but other than that, they follow their subjects’ lives as they live them, and film their series as life dictates, rather than going the other way round.

That, by the way, is one of their strengths. So is their skilful and very creative use of music, and incredible camera work and editing. Besides, unlike many who claim they know how to document, creators of Oil Change are aware that pictures are much worthier than any number of words. And so, there’s not too much talk in the series, just the bare and necessary minimum. The rest is action.

And that’s what hockey is all about.

If you wish, clip the information below and attach it to your fridge. You will need it.

Episode 1

· Citytv Edmonton – Friday, Oct. 21 @ 8 p.m. (MT)

· Sportsnet West – Sunday, Oct. 23 @ 11 p.m. (MT)

Episode 2

· Citytv Edmonton – Friday, Nov. 25 @ 8 p.m. (MT)

· Sportsnet West – Sunday, Nov. 27 @ 9 p.m. (MT)

Episode 3

· Citytv Edmonton – Friday, Dec. 30 @ 8 p.m. (MT)

· Sportsnet West – Sunday, Jan. 1 @ 9 p.m. (MT)

Episode 4

· Citytv Edmonton – Friday, Feb. 10 @ 8 p.m. (MT)

· Sportsnet West – Sunday, Feb. 12 @ 9 p.m. (MT)

Episode 5

· Citytv Edmonton – Friday, Mar. 16 @ 8 p.m. (MT)

· Sportsnet West – Sunday, Mar. 18 @ 9 p.m. (MT)

Episode 6

· Citytv Edmonton – Friday, Apr. 20 @ 8 p.m. (MT)

· Sportsnet West – Sunday, Apr. 22 @ 9 p.m. (MT)

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.

The proof’s in the pudding: Columbus arena not such a success, after all

Columbus, Ohio, now there’s a prime example of how downtown revitalization works when wise investors (read: authorities claiming they act on behalf of their employers, read: taxpayers) put money that isn’t theirs into building a professional sports arena, plus an array of entertainment facilities around it.

That’s what supporters of taxpayer involvement in building a new downtown arena for the Edmonton Oilers would have us believe. They have been dismissing case studies collected from all over this continent. Case studies proving the concept just won’t work, they said, were so much old drivel.

Guess what? The Columbus dream of riches seems to be headed to the poor house even now.

Here’s what officials in that fine city managed to come up with: the Franklin County Convention Facilities Authority (read: taxpayers) would buy the arena from Nationwide Realty Investors (read: a private concern), using casino revenues. In exchange, the Blue Jackets would stay put until 2039. Here’s the financing model: the Authority would use state and other loans. It would get part of tax revenues from a casino being built in Columbus.

Meanwhile, thus a WCMH-TV report, Nationwide would invest $52 million in the Blue Jackets and take a 30 per cent interest in the team. That amount won’t even match this season’s salary cap, by the way.

Not a done deal yet, the mayor and county commissioners need to have their say.

A bit of difference, of course

In Alberta, it would be difficult to go for casino money to finance the Oilers’ new arena downtown. The Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission seems to be willing to give casino licences mostly to non-profit groups so they can finance their worthwhile activities. The AGLC must approve of these activities first, before those groups spend a cent. These groups earn their money from those who are willing to spend it, gambling. So, they don’t have to ask government for support. Relatively fair. Why relatively? Ask the significant others of those who have no issues with feeding the one-armed bandits. But that’s another story.

What caused the turmoil in Columbus? Here’s a verbatim quote from the original report: “The plan was developed amid economic concerns about the district around the arena.”

Of course, what complicates matters is we’re talking about Columbus, Ohio, not Edmonton, Alberta. That’s what we’re bound to hear from the supporters of Oilers owner’s proposition that taxpayers contribute towards building a new and gorgeous arena for his club downtown. For the record: the Blue Jackets have made the playoffs once in their 11 years of existence, and attendance at their games has been declining throughout. In all fairness, the Oilers have not been much better through the last 11 years, the one trip to the Stanley Cup finals notwithstanding, and still, their arena has been sold out throughout.

Bluntly: one set of customers discriminates, the other, not so much.

Also for the record: that same group of supporters of taxpayer support for the poor old Daryl Katz has been singing praises for the Columbus project the last few years. Columbus, they said, was a blueprint, a shining example of how to make such projects work.

And now, their dreams are shattered to smithereens.

But does all this mean putting a new arena downtown makes economic sense? No, it does not. The arena will be crowded 41 nights a season, plus four pre-season games, and who knows how many playoffs games, if any. Will THAT change the structure of downtown? No, it won’t.

If you wish a summary: it’s a risky proposition, at best.

Who knows what to do with downtown areas? Nobody

As mentioned on a number of earlier occasions, the emigration from downtown areas has become a fact of life in North America. Numerous studies have tried to figure out the reasons for the trend. Without knowing ALL of the reasons, we can hardly hope to turn the trend around. Alas, as it is, we don’t seem to know at least half of the reasons. So, how can anybody even begin to pretend they know how to slow it down, stop it, and turn it around? An old word describes them best: snake-oil salesmen.

All of this still hasn’t touched upon the immorality of suggesting taxpayers should be paying for a professional sports club’s digs. It’s a private entity if there ever was one, and one that its owner plans to keep private.

Quite a few people have invested their emotions in the Oilers’ fates. Some have gone so far as to let their emotions wreak havoc on their intellectual abilities. So far as they are concerned, there’s nothing else to live for in Edmonton than to see their beloved Oilers win (or lose) their share of games. If the new arena downtown goes ahead, with or without taxpayer support, most of the supporters won’t be able to afford single tickets, and never mind parking and – possibly – a bite to eat and a sip to drink during the game. You can bet your last dollar on that.

But, again, this is just one of the many practical angles.

The overwhelming angle is simple: as even the Columbus case has shown, no, downtown revitalization using professional sports arenas and entertainment areas just does NOT work.

Why should Edmonton’s taxpayers pay to see yet another proof, this one closer to home?

More questions than answers in Katz Group’s explanatory statement

So, the Katz Group has come up with an explanation why they need to have the arena deal closed, sealed and delivered by Halloween.

No, no, no, it wasn’t blackmail, you can read between the lines of a statement put out under the name of company vice-president John Karvellas. The company has had pure business reasons that have led them to making the demand.

The Katz Group has exhausted its right to extend the option on the land, the statement said. Besides, even if the first hole were dug today, it still would be close to impossible to see the new arena ready by 2015. That would make it one year AFTER the Edmonton Oilers’ lease for Rexall Place expires. The Oilers’ owner is on record as saying his club won’t play there after the lease has expired in 2014. Indeed? Pray tell: where will the club play in the meantime?

Another open-ended question, not answered in John Karvellas’ statement: “Soon we will lose the opportunity to be in a new arena for the 2015 season. And construction costs are rising, as we have feared they would.”

Indeed. Is he indicating the cost for the entire project will be higher than the planned $450 million? The rest of the statement seems to say that, without even hinting at potential budget overruns. Who will cover those?

The most galling part of the statement: it takes for granted the idea that taxpayers ought to contribute. Why? Well, because it’s the best way. Best way for whom, pray tell? For taxpayers who will see a part of their taxes go towards building a professional sports club’s new digs, and that part would be withheld from the province of Alberta – nyanyanyanahnah? It’s money that is supposed to help pay for such minor, inconsequential services as education. Let’s get it straight: they ARE minor and inconsequential. Compared to what? Compared to a megalomaniac dream of making Edmonton’s downtown a new Acropolis, or something to that effect.

By even agreeing to talk to the Katz Group council is confirming it doesn’t know what its job is. Their conversation should have been brief: you want to build a new arena downtown? Fine. Why don’t you apply for a development permit? We promise to process it with all speed. No, you can’t get a discount on the fee. Don’t provoke us or we’ll slap you with a higher fee, for fast-tracking your request.

As it is, the city spends millions like drunken sailors on shore leave, just to pay for legal and consulting help.

The Katz Group statement also lists its own expenses, saying that combined with those, the final cost of the project would be more than the much-ballyhooed $450 million. More by at least $100 million. And where is it supposed to get the money to cover this shortfall? Money doesn’t grow on trees, after all.

No, money doesn’t grow on trees. It seems the Katz Group, aware of this strange biological phenomenon, would like to get access to an alternative source: taxpayers’ pockets.

The gall! The chutzpah, even! We haven’t got what it takes to do it on our own, help us, or we’ll take our toy and go elsewhere. Do you not remember the fact-finding missions to Quebec City and business missions to Hamilton? Where have we seen this movie before? Oh yes, do you remember Peter Pocklington, drummed out of town for precisely the same antics the Katz Group is showing us now?

Or, how about this deal: fine, the City of Edmonton will pay for the entire arena, and the Katz Group undertakes to pay for the upkeep of the city’s infrastructure, including basic services? Fair enough for you?

But joking aside: this city’s administration shares a bit of the guilt for the fact Edmonton’s downtown now looks and feels the way it does. They did all they could to discourage investment in the area, to discourage commuting to the area (and parking there). This, added to other reasons that influence the North American trend of downtown deterioration, has made our downtown a basket case.

Economic case studies from other North American cities that have gone down a similar path are unanimous: building professional sports and entertainment complexes does not stop or reverse the trend of emigration from downtown cores. Yes, it does slow them down for a few years, in what is known as “novelty effect,” but once this effect wears off, the numbers go back to previous levels. Nobody has bothered to show why Edmonton, of all places, would be different.

The only thing we see is that a grasping billionaire doesn’t want to commit to a project, and tries to keep a loaded gun aimed at his community’s collective head. He doesn’t say it’s robbery. But that’s precisely what it is.

Call 911.

NHL: a nanny for new media-savvy players?

The NHL is walking a fine line between freedom of speech and censorship.

But, then again, so are other professional sports leagues and, indeed, so is society at large. We’ve been losing the sense of who we are since the arrival of political correctness on the scene. Just imagine a member of a race making a joke about his (or her: see, another nod to political correctness) own race. A humourless member of his own race might take offence and the joke-teller will end up before a human rights commission, a quasi-judiciary body with many judicial powers and no judicial responsibilities. The joke-teller will be guilty until he proves he’s innocent.

But that’s another story for another day.

NHL players took to modern new media technologies like Pooh Bear to honey, and the league has been looking askance since then.

And then it came up with what it thinks to be the most appropriate reaction. Basically, it tells the players of the many risks they might take if their speech becomes too uninhibited, and it reminds them of their obligations as employees.

The latter reminder is quite understandable: no company likes being badmouthed by its own employees, and most companies would just hate being badmouthed by their own employees on company time. A player IS at work from the moment he arrives at the arena for morning practice, until he leaves the premises after the game.

There have been known cases of players tweeting between periods of playoff games. Well, at least they didn’t tweet between their shifts during those games! In any case, they won’t be able to continue with this shocking habit. No more tweeting or facebooking two hours before the game. Get your warmup in, get concentrated on the task at hand. Play some soccer backstage if spirits move you. But no tweeting.

Of course, why the league has to remind its member clubs’ employees about their responsibilities is another question. One would have expected they’ve got enough motivation to be responsible. But, as the saying goes, boys will be boys.

New media are all about the lack of inhibitions, for better or for worse. Good old stuff about bulletin board material that would rile up an opposing team and bring pain upon the material’s author, that stuff gets peels of derisive laughter in return these days. Quite rightly, too. If a professional athlete needs insults from an opposing athlete as a tool to get motivated, that athlete should begin looking around for another profession.

Professional hockey players have been known as nice enough lads, friendly, outgoing, but terrible interviews in most cases. Yes, there definitely is no I in team, but Wayne Gretzky’s habit of speaking about himself in third person singular was perfectly annoying. Or: a player speaking of his injury in first person plural (such as: “We will do this or that”) sounds more like a member of the medical profession than a professional athlete. Except in exceptional situations, one-on-one with a journalist they trust, hockey players prefer clichés that won’t get them in trouble. That is why players such as Brett Hull or Jeremy Roenick have been so popular. They never succumbed to this oppressive code of omertà (Italian Mafia’s habit of keeping one’s mouth shut or else).

And into this comes the liberating spirit of social media. A breath of fresh air.

Athletes can talk directly to their fans. And their fans can talk directly to them. Nothing beats this direct contact. It promotes the game, and the club, and the league, too. What is better than a recent Twitter admission by two Colorado players that their team had stunk out the joint in a game against Los Angeles, but they solemnly swear nothing like this will happen again. Ever. And they addressed it to fans whose hard-earned dollars went to waste through no fault of their own, making the apology sound even more sincere.

Of course, if a player writes his club lost because he had only 90 seconds of ice time, and how is he supposed to help his team on that limited opportunity is beyond him, he would land in a soup. More with his teammates and, potentially, coaching staff, than with his club’s management. His teammates and his coaches see him every day in practices. If anyone should know how he copes, it would be these people.

More enlightened clubs have gone about the thing the most enlightened way: do as you please, they tell their players, so long as you don’t hurt anybody. And do it on your own time. The smartest clubs have gone one step further: they’ve hired new staff specializing in social media and began flooding social networking sites themselves, too.

The entire thing carries considerable risk with it. Social media networks have been known as spots that don’t care much for security. Can you imagine a young player’s shock when he’s told he’s got a page on Facebook, while he is perfectly certain he’s never created one? Can you imagine a grizzled general manager’s surprise when he finds out he’s got a Twitter account where he moans and chastises himself for trades he made (and didn’t make), not to mention his draft choices?

The clubs thus afflicted sent these matters to the NHL’s own security people, and they, in turn, forwarded them to appropriate police authorities. No results announced yet, which is quite normal, considering that neither of the two incidents was publicized too much, and who knows how many more have gone either unnoticed or unreported.

In any case, social media is here. Whether to stay, now, that would be a different question. What if people realize that they’re becoming friends with someone who they think lives on another continent – and then they find they’ve been talking to a neighbour who’s been living across their own street all along? That embarrassment in and of itself should be reason enough to think again about social media and – especially – re-consider our own participation.

But, as mentioned, social media is here. Say hi to your favourite players on Facebook, and tweet them if you didn’t like their new shoes.

Racism – or storm in a tea cup?

Wayne Simmonds picked up speed, skating in on a shootout attempt against Jordan Pearce when a banana flew by and landed close to his path.

Simmonds did score on Detroit’s Jordan Pearce, but his Flyers lost the exhibition game in London, Ont., nevertheless.

As it was, until that moment, your typical pre-season NHL game, both teams testing rookies and line combinations for the moment real shooting starts in less than a fortnight. The banana changed the picture. Everybody’s up in arms, the league issues a strongly worded statement under Commissioner Gary Bettman’s signature, the teams join the angry chorus, a huge number of players run to their electronic devices so fans see them tweeting their indignation, and Wayne Simmonds himself declines to comment on the incident.

So far as everybody is concerned, throwing a banana at a player whose colour of skin is dark constitutes pure and unadulterated racism.

A somewhat premature outcry, don’t you think?

A devil’s advocate would ask a simple question: how do you know the person who threw the banana was racist? Do you know who it was, in the first place? Have you spoken to that person yet?

Phrased differently: are you not putting the cart before the horse?

Some of us, for example, might remember old movies, you know, the strong silent type of movies, black-and-white, too, where throwing banana peels in the path of someone pursuing somebody else used to bring the pursuer to a spectacular fall, the more spectacular, the louder the explosion of laughter in the audience. So, what if the unknown perpetrator just wanted young Mr. Simmonds to slip and not score in his shootout attempt? Ridiculous, granted. The ice is slippery enough as it is. But still: who has proof that it was a racist slur rather than an idiotic attempt to influence the outcome of the game?

Young Mr. Simmonds, unlike the general media and many of his NHL colleagues and bosses, seems to be wise enough to decide the incident is nothing he would care to talk, let alone think, about.

Something else should have happened: the referee should have stopped young Mr. Simmonds, call it a game, and award the win to the visiting team. The home team didn’t do its job. It is supposed, among many other things, to make sure there’s enough security in the arena and no debris should be flying to the ice (with the exception of hats when someone scores his third goal in that particular game).

Of course, it’s the same company that owns the Flyers (Comcast) that also owns the London, Ont., arena. That would mean the game would go to the Wings, as it has, anyhow. But still: the time to react to unacceptable debris on the ice would have been then, and not the flood of stories decrying racism that would appear later on.

By the way, a devil’s advocate’s next question would be: are you (meaning those who automatically assume the banana-throwing incident had racist connotations) not racist yourselves? Why are you so fast jumping to conclusions? Just because they are politically correct?

Yes, yes, yes, there is this question: who in their right mind would be bringing bananas to a hockey game? But how do we know it’s not part of the perpetrator’s diet, as prescribed by her or his physician?

The incident was (and is) deplorable, no doubt about that.

But the lynching of a perpetrator whom we don’t know, whom we haven’t asked at least about what he was thinking when he threw the banana, is deplorable, too.