Paying the Kings ransom

For as long as there have been professional sports teams and leagues, there have been teams and leagues that have threatened to leave cities that don't give them the business deal they want.

Sometimes those threats are hollow, sometimes not.

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Would the Calgary Flames have left Alberta if the city hadn't agreed at the end of 2019 to build a $550 million arena to replace the aging Saddledome? 

Hard to say but guaranteed the political pressure put on the mayor and city council by fans to get a deal done was enormous.

On a much smaller scale, the pressure was on Prince George city council this week to reopen Rolling Mix Concrete Arena to allow the Prince George Spruce Kings to play the 2020-21 B.C. Hockey League regular season in their home rink.

Would the Kings have folded or left town if city council had stuck to its guns and insisted the team play in CN Centre or Kin 1?

Again, hard to say. 

City council voted 8-1 to open RMCA, deferring not one but two significant financial issues down the road.

Mike Hawes, the team's general manager, made a point of stressing during his presentation to mayor and council Monday night that it was the league, as opposed to the local non-profit society that owns the team, forcing them to insist on playing in the old Coliseum, instead of sharing CN Centre with the Prince George Cougars of the Western Hockey League.

"The biggest hurdle is the branding. The BCHL will not support a broadcast (of our games) with WHL branding on the ice. They would not support us playing in that facility," he said. 

That sounds like an ultimatum, as opposed to a negotiation.

If city council had voted to keep the RCMA closed due to COVID-19 or just because it wanted to save some money, would the BCHL really have pulled the plug on its reigning league champion (no champion was crowned last season due to the pandemic outbreak in March) because it didn't like the WHL and Cougars logos on the ice?

Once more, hard to say.

This is a unique situation because Prince George is the only municipality in B.C. trying to juggle the interests of two junior hockey teams. Wait, you say, what about Kelowna and Victoria? Kelowna has the WHL Rockets but the BCHL Warriors play in West Kelowna, its own municipality on the other side of Okanagan Lake. The WHL Royals play in Victoria but the BCHL's Grizzlies play in Colwood, again its own separate municipality.

Based on the comments made by mayor and council Monday night, they likely wouldn't have voted to reopen the RMCA if it was just for the junior hockey team.

"The Spruce Kings aren't the sole reason to reopen the Rolling Mix Concrete Arena," Coun. Brian Skakun said, stressing how other user groups will also benefit from having the arena open.

Opening the RMCA and CN Centre adds another $400,000 to an estimated budget shortfall of $6.4 million next year.

"It's the right thing to do, to use the facilities we have," Coun. Garth Frizzell said. "It's going to help out all those people. (But) there will be a cost."

As it stands right now, that cost may come in the form of a whopping six per cent increase in property taxes, which everyone - not just Spruce Kings fans and arena users - would have to pay next summer if the city can't find significant cost savings elsewhere.

And if the BCHL is serious about its teams playing in their own rinks, the Spruce Kings will need a new rink to play in soon, since that old Coliseum is on its last legs. Dusting off and updating the plans to build Kin 4 at the current Kin Centres complex might be the best option but the city would likely require funding help from the provincial and/or federal governments to erect a rink that would cost somewhere between $30 million and $50 million.

If this city council or the next one decides that kind of investment is not worth it, are the Spruce Kings done in Prince George or could a deal be worked out to share space with the Cougars in CN Centre?

Last time, hard to say.

Every city, big or small, eventually faces the prospect of how bad it wants professional sports teams in its community. 

For now, the City of Prince George has done its part to keep one of its junior hockey teams going. It could be a different story in the years to come.

- Editor-in-chief Neil Godbout

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