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Burke says Flames will ‘just leave’ without new arena, but CEO King puts out fire

Calgary Flames president of operation Brian Burke said the team could leave without a new arena before CEO Ken King released a statement smoothing things over.

The Calgary Flames want a new arena and have for some time now. So, when asked at a business luncheon what would happen if the franchise couldn’t work out a new place to play, president of operations Brian Burke didn’t mince words.

"We're not going to make the threat to leave,” Burke said Wednesday at the Canadian Club of Calgary, according to the Calgary Sun. “We’ll just leave. We still have a building that was built in 1983, the oldest in the league by more than 10 years. They figured it out in Edmonton. Where they know that a new building can rejuvenate the downtown. But I guess we're just smarter than that here.”

When prodded to name a potential spot for relocation, Burke said Quebec has “a brand new building that meets NHL standards,” according to the Calgary Sun.

As one could imagine, Burke’s comments were met with an immediate uproar, and Flames president and CEO Ken King tried to put out the fire. Shortly after Burke had spoken, King released a statement on the Flames’ website that read: "Brian Burke runs Hockey Operations for the Calgary Flames and he and many Calgarians have strong views about this topic. However, he is not our spokesperson regarding a new events centre for our city. We remain committed to our dialogue with the City and very optimistic we will get to a positive conclusion. We admire everyone's enthusiasm on this subject.”

When it comes to the Flames playing in one of the league’s oldest buildings, Burke is on the money. The Scotiabank Saddledome was constructed, as Burke noted, in 1983, and with the Detroit Red Wings pulling up stakes and shifting from the storied Joe Louis Arena to the Little Caesars Arena, the Flames will be playing in the league’s oldest arena in 2017-18. (Madison Square Garden is older, built in 1968, but the building underwent $1 billion in renovations from 2011 to 2013.)

The Saddledome has become a talking for commissioner Gary Bettman, too. In a March visit to Calgary, Bettman called the building “old, antiquated (and) inefficient,” according to CBC, saying that it isn’t up to snuff with the rest of the arenas around the league. Bettman said that arenas simply aren’t built like they were when the Saddledome was constructed, and though he said the arena was “historic in many ways,” he added that it wasn’t the type of building most NHL clubs currently play in.

“I don't think anybody would doubt that this team and this city need a new arena,” Bettman said in March. “The key is going to be what is the vision for the arena, where is it going to be and how do the economics of it work. And those are things I know are being worked on.”

Calgary’s pursuit of a new arena has gone on for some time now, and it was back in August 2015 the Flames unveiled plans for a $900 million arena project called CalgaryNEXT, which would be the home of a 20,000-seat NHL calibre arena, 30,000-seat football stadium, presumably a home for the CFL’s Calgary Stampeders, and additional room for public use. That proposal hit a snag, though, when it was concluded the location for the arena was not a feasible site, leading to a second proposed location close to the Flames’ current home at the Saddledome.

The biggest hurdle facing the Flames is a matter of public money. The proposed CalgaryNEXT project would have required hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars. Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi has made it very clear he’s not interested in public money going to the arena and Nenshi added that, judging by what he’s heard from constituents, neither is the city of Calgary.

“It’s interesting that the calls to our office, the emails, the comments have been, I would say 99.999997 per cent saying, 'Please Mr. Bettman, stay out of it and ‘No, there should be no public money for this,’ ” Nenshi said in March, according to Metro Calgary.

When asked about Burke’s comments regarding the arena, Nenshi held firm on that position and stated that the comparison between Edmonton and Calgary wasn’t apt. Edmonton, Nenshi said, was in an entirely different situation when they built their arena and that the city was attempting to rejuvenate the downtown. That’s not the case in Calgary and, Nenshi said, according to the Calgary Sun, “It can’t just be: Give us the deal the guys up the road got.”

Don’t take any of this to mean the Flames are heading anywhere, though. As Nenshi pointed out, threats like this have been commonplace in recent years with several sports teams looking for public funding for new buildings, and it’s not as if Calgary hasn’t shown an interest in at least researching possibilities for a new home for their NHL club. In late-April, Calgary’s city council voted to keep the CalgaryNEXT proposal alive for the time being and to continue looking into the potential for a new building in the second proposed location in Victoria Park. 

So, an arena deal is still well within the realm of possibility for Calgary. That’s not to say there aren’t still hurdles to clear, the biggest of which may be ironing out the details and finding a way to get the Flames’ new home arena without having the taxpayers foot too much — or any — of the bill.

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