Daryl Katz has owned the Edmonton Oilers for just four years but he is a quick study when it comes to the NHL owners' manual.
Especially with the section on how to extort taxpayers for a free or almost free arena so you can maximize the profits of your hockey team.
So there was Katz on Monday, with several Oiler suits in tow, taking a tour of Seattle's decrepit Key Arena. Wayne Gretzky was said to be in the group as well, another fine how-do-you-do for Edmonton fans, although this would not be the first time the Great One exercised questionable judgement.
Gretzky protested on Toronto radio station The Fan 590 he was only in Seattle to watch an NFL game, but he's been around long enough to know what the optics are like on that.
The local media was tipped off to make sure everyone knew the boys were in town shaking hands with the Seattle politicians and Chris Hansen, the hedge fund manager who is planning a $490-million (U.S.) arena to lure an NBA franchise back to the city to replace the departed Seattle SuperSonics and attract an NHL team as well.
By remarkable coincidence, this was also the day Seattle city council approved Hansen's plan and the day Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel set a deadline of Oct. 17 for the city and Katz to agree on a deal for a new downtown arena. Actually, Edmonton city council thought it had an agreement almost a year ago for a $450-million (Cdn) rink plus a real-estate development for Katz. But when the province of Alberta did not immediately jump in bearing bags of casino money, the Oiler owner decided he needs much more money from the city.
Hence Katz's turn to the NHL owners' manual. This is a time-honoured strategy for the league's owners when their leases are nearing expiry or they would like a new playpen. The Oilers' lease at the Rexall Centre is up in 2014.
Remember John McMullen's noisy flirtation with Nashville a few hours after his New Jersey Devils won the 1995 Stanley Cup? McMullen, of course, was the fellow who pulled his team out of Denver and headed to the New Jersey swamps 13 years earlier. There is also New York Islanders owner Charles Wang and his dance with Kansas City and Brooklyn, with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman eagerly playing the Greek Chorus.
Katz embraced this gambit with exceptional enthusiasm. This is his third spotlight dance with another city. Hamilton and Quebec City were his previous dalliances when the Edmonton councillors were not jumping to Katz's tune.
It's just too bad the NFL's replacement refs made such a hash of the Seattle Seahawks - Green Bay Packers game Monday night. Otherwise, Katz and company could have been the big story of the day in Seattle as well as Edmonton.
Actually, Katz should be congratulated for his multi-tasking during the NHL lockout. We thought both of his hands were occupied helping his fellow owners shake the players by their ankles in order to free every loose nickel. But Katz is dextrous enough to spare a hand to root around in the pockets of Alberta taxpayers as well.
By the way, is there any species more oblivious than NHL owners? With public sentiment running strongly against the owners as training camps are shuttered and pre-season games cancelled because of the lockout, Katz's timing is remarkable.
The statement released by Katz's holding company and attributed to one of his vice-presidents is equally rich. After admitting yeah, we went to Seattle as part of an attempt to strong-arm Edmonton council into giving us more money, there are a few words for the fans: "We are extremely grateful 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 for the Oilers in Edmonton. We have no further comment on the status of our discussions with other markets at this time."
Gee fellas, don't open your shirts or your hearts will fall out.
However, his power play does not seem to have spooked the Edmonton citizenry into advancing on their local politicians with hoods and pitchforks to demand they immediately hand the keys to the vault over to Katz. This is admittedly unscientific evidence but a poll on the Edmonton Journal web site shows an almost even split between those who think the threat to move the Oilers is credible and those who do not.
The results are far more decisive on the question of whether or not Katz is treating the fans with any respect. Eighty-three per cent of the 716 respondents said no.
Knowledgeable fans know any threat to move the Oilers to Seattle is hollow. Even assuming the move comes after the new arena is built (and lot of work remains on that score), at this point Katz would be looking at being the No. 2 tenant in Hansen's building. He would just be a lodger paying rent with no access to all that parking, luxury suite and concession money, money he can rake in by getting a deal in Edmonton.
There is also the question of the NHL looking at Seattle as a rich expansion market or even an eventual home for the Phoenix Coyotes. But that's many hundreds of words for another day.