The man who hopes to build a 20,000-seat arena in suburban Toronto has been an NHL owner-in-waiting for a number of years and is on a first-name basis with many members of the league’s board of governors, but Graeme Roustan insists he does not plan to pursue an existing or expansion franchise for the proposed rink.
But when you spend north of $300 million to build an arena in the most fertile and underserviced hockey market in the world, you’d have to think he’s taking the approach that if he builds it, they will come to him.
“The answer is no,” Roustan said in a wide-ranging interview with THN.com when asked if he will be pursuing an NHL franchise. “This facility was prepared and designed specifically as a multi-purpose center with the focus on concerts and cultural events and I have no expectations in regards to any professional sports team.”
But make no mistake. Roustan is a hockey guy through and through. The 51-year-old native of Sherbrooke, Que., was raised in Montreal and is the chairman of the board of Bauer, the world’s largest manufacturer of hockey equipment, and was instrumental in taking the company public earlier this year. (Bauer has nothing to do with his attempts to build the arena, however.) The dual Canadian-American citizen was in the running to buy the Montreal Canadiens before a group headed by Geoff Molson purchased the team in 2009. He also turned down a chance to buy the Tampa Bay Lightning a year later and is one of the first people in the contact list of NHL owners and would-be owners looking for investors. One of his companies has been instrumental in building hundreds of arenas around the world and he is currently working with the charitable foundations for both the Canadiens and Ottawa Senators to build public-use outdoor facilities in those cities.
For the purpose of building his Toronto area facility, Roustan has formed a company called GTA (Greater Toronto Area) Sports and Entertainment, along with Toronto developer Rudy Bratty, who was once described by The Globe and Mail as, “the man who built Toronto.” Bratty is the owner of 250 acres in the northeast Toronto suburb of Markham where there are plans to build a $3-billion development called Markham Centre, which will be home to condos, office towers, retail shops and the GTA Centre arena (corporate name to follow, no doubt). Much of the infrastructure and roadwork that a new arena would require are already being planned for the Markham Centre project, which is scheduled to be completed by 2025.
Roustan is in the process of putting together his proposal, which he plans to take to the council of the Town of Markham early in 2012. If the project is approved, construction could begin as early as next spring, with a projected completion date of 2014. He has already secured the services of BBB Architects, which designed the Air Canada Centre, BMO Field and Rogers Centre in Toronto, GM Place in Vancouver and designed the recent renovations to Madison Square Garden. The group also has a building agreement with PCL, Canada’s largest construction company.
The NHL knows about the project and has been in communication with Roustan, but deputy commissioner Bill Daly said in an email to THN.com there are no guarantees in place.
“We are aware (the facility) is being contemplated,” Daly said. “Yes, we have had discussions with Mr. Roustan and he has been informed that in deciding whether to proceed (or not) with the project, he should assume that no NHL franchise will be forthcoming. There is no current contemplation of locating an NHL franchise in Markham.”
But as long as an NHL-ready building is waiting in such a rich hockey market, the rink will always be a target for a possible relocation spot for troubled franchises, of which there are many. Clearly, Roustan does not want to make the same mistake that was made by Jim Balsillie, who was aggressive in his pursuit of an NHL franchise. Roustan would be well-advised to take a page from the book the Winnipeg Jets wrote on patience and silence when it comes to charming the NHL.
Whether that means the Phoenix Coyotes or any other of the league’s troubled franchises will be on the move anytime soon to the Toronto area is open to conjecture. But this much is certain, according to those in the know in NHL circles: The league has absolutely no intention of propping up the Phoenix Coyotes beyond this season and the City of Glendale has made it fairly clear it will not be extending any more $25 million lifelines to offset the team’s massive losses. In nine home games this season, the Coyotes have had four announced crowds of fewer than 10,000 and with no serious owner on the horizon, will undoubtedly be the subject of much discussion at the league’s board of governors meeting next week.
Just reading the tea leaves here, but could the league possibly find a temporary home for the Coyotes for a couple of seasons while a suitable NHL market is found? If that’s the case, you’d have to think the Greater Toronto Area would be at the top of the list.
Even though there are no guarantees forthcoming from the NHL, Roustan plans to forge ahead with his building, saying it has already been deemed to be able to turn a profit on concerts even without an NHL tenant. The group has already had extensive talks with Live Nation Entertainment, which has about 60 percent of the lucrative concert market. When big-name acts come to Toronto, they often find themselves playing one show at the Air Canada Centre and smaller venues around Toronto after that because the arena is booked for hockey and basketball. Another large venue would give them a chance to have more lucrative shows in a metropolitan area of five million people.
Despite both Roustan’s and the NHL’s careful words, you’d have to think it would only be a matter of time before a second Toronto NHL team arrives. By placing the arena where it is, the franchise would not have to indemnify the Buffalo Sabres, but it would have to pay a sizeable fee to the Maple Leafs. The Leafs have long contended they have a veto over any franchise moving into their territory, but the NHL has disputed that notion a number of times.
Roustan did acknowledge his company would be interested in housing an NHL franchise if one became available.
“We will look at every opportunity that comes our way in regards to tenants or use of the facility that is beneficial to the community,” Roustan said.
Ken Campbell, author of the book Habs Heroes, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column.
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