Flames president threatens to move team to Quebec without new arena, CEO says, “Who, us?”

Traditionally, sports team owners love move threats, because they scare the bejeezus out of city officials, but hate actually making them themselves, because they get fans (and potentially those same city officials) really mad at you as a carpetbagger and possibly make it harder to sell tickets once you get the new stadium or arena or renovations or whatever you were trying to shake loose with the threat. It’s a big reason why sports commissioners exist, to go around dropping relocation threats so that owners don’t have to.

The Calgary Flames owners already tried that gambit, and it didn’t go too well. Now, they seem to have hit upon, inadvertently or not, a new tactic: Have one of your team execs make the threat, then disavow all knowledge of anything he said.


At the end of the luncheon Burke was pushed on whether the Calgary Flames have any options other than staying in Calgary.

“You don’t think we could find a place to go? Let’s see, Quebec. They have a new building that meets NHL standards.”

Burke is the Flames’ president of hockey operations, and has previously been dispatched to disparage the team’s current arena in the middle of a nine-season sellout streak (“the finest state-of-the-art 1988 building in the league”), among other tasks. (He’s also memorable for saying of hockey labor talks when he worked for the Toronro Maple Leafs, “My theory is, make the first meeting as short and unpleasant as possible. Sometimes it’s better to just punch the guy in the face.”) So he’s totally the guy you want out there demanding that the city revive the $1.2 billion stadium-plus-arena subsidy plan that it previously declared dead, then threatening to move the team to Quebec City if you don’t get it — and best of all, since he’s just a flunky, when the media freaks out you can just do this:

Ken King, Calgary Sports and Entertainment Corporation President and CEO made a statement hours after the luncheon that indicated Burke did not speak on behalf of his organization:

“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.”

Now that’s some weapons-grade plausible deniability right there. No idea whether Burke ran his mouth off without permission and King (who still isn’t the team owner, mind you, but speaks more directly for the oil barons who actually own the team) slapped him down, or if this whole two-step was part of the plan from the start, but either way, well played, Flames management team! (Except that Quebec probably wasn’t the best threat location to pick, given that the owner of that arena would want to own any NHL team that played in it, but hey, you can’t have everything.)

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, meanwhile, refused to take the bait, as usual:

“We will continue ignoring all of this stuff in the media and trying to come up with a deal that makes sense for Calgarians, that makes sense for taxpayers and makes sense for the team,” Nenshi said.

Makes sense for taxpayers and makes sense for the team is usually a tough nut to crack, which is largely why the Flames still play in an arena built in 1983, which omigod that was more than 30 years ago, had they even invented ice then? We’ll have to wait and see whether Burke’s outburst has any lasting ripples in either the media or the city council, but for now, let’s just enjoy it for the perfect performance art that it is.

17 comments on “Flames president threatens to move team to Quebec without new arena, CEO says, “Who, us?”

  1. He’d be reprimanded or fired if what he said was totally against the company line so saying “he doesn’t speak for us on this matter” is extremely weak. But it’s still rather amazing he waded into those waters. Sounds like a hothead.

    • This is the same guy who went into successive drafts while running the Leafs having told the general public who he wanted…. when he did not have the #1 pick or anything close to it.

      He then stared daggers at other GMs/presidents who, as they were fully entitled to do based on drafte order, drafted the guy Burke said he wanted before the draft.

      Strategy may not be his strong suit.

  2. Now we know why Quebec didn’t get a expansion team. They are the NHL’s threat to relocate city

  3. Lived in Calgary all my life, have shared season tickets since the ‘Save our Flames’ campaign 15 years ago. The Saddledome is antiquated compared to new arenas, built with a roof that doesn’t support anything anymore, limited bathrooms and basically one concourse for 19,000 fans. McMahon is even worse. No one argues that the city doesn’t need a new arena or stadium and the City is even willing to pony up, just not at the location they suggested.
    Most people on the street are sick of Ken King, his whining and his non-threats. Just leave already.

  4. The best part is Mayor Nenshi knows the whole script from the playbook:


    Mayor Naheed Nenshi told CBC News he sees Burke’s comments as posturing and a negotiating tactic.
    “This is me kind of shrugging,” he said when asked for a reaction. “This is page 26 of the script. It’s always page 26 of the script in every city, and my job now is, I’m supposed to go to page 27 and 28 in the script when I point out that Rogers has given them billions of dollars and they’re not going to let them remove a team from a western Canadian market, that in order for them to go to Quebec, they’ll have to sell the team to Pierre Karl Peladeau, and he’s not going to give them a deal the way they’re going to get in Calgary, blah, blah, blah. I’m not interested in doing that.”

    • I hope Nenshi is the model for all future mayors. And the thing is, when I lived in Calgary 30 years ago, there was no possibility of someone like him (IE: someone committed to doing what is right for the majority of citizens, not just the ones with media companies at their beck and call) being elected.

      Things do change. Calgary is a very different city now than it was just a decade ago.

  5. How refreshing for a civic leader……..Burke got his ass handed to him!

  6. Not sure anyone should be taking strategic tips from a guy who ran the club with the highest budget in the league for 4+ years and actually made them worse via “improvements”.

    It’s not a coincidence either, when he was appointed an “advisor” with the Flames they were a legitimate playoff team with definite upside and a competent GM in place (Feaster). After 2+ years with him at the helm of hockey operations, most of the old guard are gone and the club is nowhere.

    His history in Vancouver as GM was not great either. His sole “win” was in Anaheim…. with a club that had been taken to the final two seasons earlier by his predecessor.

    Scotty Bowman he is not…

  7. Question…if they have sold out for 9 straight yrs why is the current location
    Next to the saddle dome unacceptable?

    • And if a new rink is such a winner, why don’t the Flames build it themselves. They are all good capitalists, not wanting Government interference in their business!

  8. How about moving the Flames back to Atlanta? Philips Arena is being completely renovated.

    • While I like the idea of the Flames returning to Atlanta, Philips Arena is being optimized for basketball, purging the last reminder of the Thrashers’ existence. The next largest hockey-ready arena in Metro Atlanta, the Infinite Energy Arena in Duluth, would be too small (11,000 seats) to serve as a long term home for an NHL club.

  9. Unless the NHL starts up a G-4 style program, the Flames will move. Could be Quebec. Could be Seattle. Who knows? The NHL revenue model is not structured to allow a team to stay in a city like Calgary with an arena like the Saddledome.

    • Small problem with that analysis… the Flames are very much in the top half of the league in terms of total revenue (even accounting for the currency difference). A few years ago, when the C$ was at or near par, all six (no Winnipeg yet) Canadian teams were in the top ten.

      The Flames would earn less revenue in either Quebec or Seattle than they do in Calgary.

      Yes, the league and the club owners would like a free publicly funded building… but there is no potential destination available to them that would bring in more revenue than Calgary does, even if they have to stay in the current building.

      Perhaps they will get a taxpayer funded building and perhaps they won’t. No doubt they will “not” threaten to move again in future, just like they “didn’t” this time though…

    • Calgary also has a huge corporate influence. There are more companies from the S&P/TSX Composite Index headquartered in Calgary than all of BC and Quebec combined (hard to believe but true), and so, in Canada, Calgary lags behind only Toronto for the number of major companies headquartered in the city.

      The only way the Flames leave Calgary is if the Quebec group offers them a ridiculous amount of cash (which is highly unlikely, as Quebec will probably try and grab one of the struggling southern US franchises). And as the ownership group is composed of mostly super-wealthy oil dudes who see themselves as “philanthropists” (God I hate that word), I think they see it as their civic duty to keep the Flames in Calgary (albeit by milking the taxpayer for as much as they can).