Timing, they say, is everything in life – except maybe in Daryl Katz’s life, as the Edmonton Oilers owner must have lost the memo.
As the NHL lockout moved into its second week, with no resolution in sight, Katz finds himself in the midst of a pitched battle with Edmonton city council over the financing of a new downtown arena project.
So what a coincidence Katz turned up in Seattle on Monday, accompanied by former Oilers greats Kevin Lowe and Wayne Gretzky, to take in the Seahawks-Green Bay Packers NFL game.
Gretzky, incidentally, was there as a guest, flying in and out the same day to watch the football game with his son – and didn’t even stay for the controversial final play.
But Gretzky’s presence was duly noted because, earlier in the day, Katz had toured ancient KeyArena, the former home of the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds, to see if it could stand in as the temporary home of the Oilers in case his Edmonton arena deal falls through and he needs to shift the franchise elsewhere.
Talk about bad optics – and bad timing.
Gretzky was unwittingly caught in the crossfire, his presence seeming to endorse Katz’s tactics, when all he was doing was watching a football game.
Katz’s motives were less transparent.
There is a new $490-million (U.S.) arena planned for Seattle, financed by hedge-fund manager Chris Hansen, to house an NBA expansion team. Hansen would look favourably upon an NHL tenant to gobble up what would otherwise be 45 dark nights in his new building.
With the Oilers’ lease on Rexall Place set to expire in 2014, Katz’s veiled message/threat came through loud and clear: Unless he can wring further concessions out of council – Oct. 17 is the drop-dead date to get the arena deal done, according to Mayor Stephen Mandel – he would consider moving the franchise elsewhere.
Sorry for putting your fans through a scorched-earth roster rebuilding program that will ultimately benefit a new target audience.
Sorry for leaving the impression, when he bought the team in 2008 from Cal Nichols and company, that he was in it for the long haul.
Sorry, sorry, sorry.
So how many things are wrong with this picture?
For starters, Katz is trying to gain concessions from city council at a time when NHL play is suspended until further notice because of a player lockout imposed by the owners. Characterizing the labour dispute as billionaire owners vs. millionaire players may be an oversimplification in some markets, but not in Edmonton. Katz is the 13th richest man in Canada and has a net worth of roughly $2-billion, according to Forbes magazine.
The notion of taxpayers further subsidizing one of the wealthiest men in the country so his NHL team can play in a state-of-the-art facility is both unpopular and unseemly.
Secondly, this is dispute is centred in Alberta, where free-market principles reign. Why do so many unabashed capitalists suddenly change their stripes when it comes to professional sports, an industry already heavily subsidized by the taxpayer on multiple fronts?
(You can be sure the Oilers’ primary rivals down in Calgary are watching these negotiations closely. The Flames are in the market for a new building, coming up around 2016.)
The Oilers are seen in Edmonton as something of a public trust.
They play in the so-called City of Champions – and Katz was a fan long before he was an owner. So when his presence in Seattle was “detected,” Katz’s people issued a four-paragraph press release expressed extreme gratitude to Oilers fans “for their patience and loyalty as we work through this process towards what we sincerely hope will be a long and successful future in Edmonton.”
Then, in the next sentence, it bops those same fans over the head with a real-world reality check, noting how “the Katz Group has been listening to proposals from a number of potential NHL markets for some time. After more than four years of trying to secure an arena deal and with less than 24 months remaining on the Oilers’ lease at Rexall Place, this is only prudent and should come as no surprise.”
No, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Jaded observers have monitored this discussion for decade: Should a private sports entity ever receive subsidies from the public purse?
Sometimes, governments give in to the pressure and sometimes, they stand fast.
But the Seattle Oilers?
In a soon-to-be oversaturated sports market that includes Major League Baseball, the NFL, a popular MLS team and a likely NBA expansion team, an NHL team – any NHL team – would be an afterthought.
Honestly, there is no way to see this as anything other than a giant bluff. It would be nice if Edmonton city council saw it that way, too.