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Inside the NHL: No stampede to build new arena in Calgary; Drouin trade inquiries mounting

When visiting the Saddledome in Calgary, you’re struck by the buzz in the stands and the fact that almost everyone is wearing a red Flames jersey. It’s a wonderful old hockey barn that saw great moments like Stanley Cup finals, the 1988 Winter Olympics (think Katarina Witt) and all those Battle of Alberta games against the Wayne Gretzky-led Oilers.

But its inefficiencies show its time is pretty much past. And that’s not a point being made simply because of the hellacious catwalk reporters have to use to get into the press box. The footprint of the building is small. There are tiny concourses, only a few rows of seats on the lower level, not nearly enough suites and a woefuly small service level.

There’s a plan in place to replace the Saddledome called CalgaryNEXT and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman caused quite a stir in Alberta last week when he made it clear while speaking at a Chamber of Commerce event that it’s time for local leaders to get moving on it. The issue is a price tag of $890 million for a 20,000-seat arena, a 30,000-seat stadium for the CFL’s Stampeders, a public fieldhouse and ancillary development.

“I’m having trouble understanding why there hasn’t been further progress on CalgaryNEXT,” Bettman said. “No matter what anyone thinks of the proposed CalgaryNEXT project or the cost of the project, the cost is never going to be lower than it is today. The longer it takes, the harder the task becomes. CalgaryNEXT needs to happen and as part of the broader project, the Flames need a new arena.”

Not counting Madison Square Garden, which underwent a complete renovation the last two years, the Saddledome will become the NHL’s oldest arena by 2017. Edmonton is moving from Rexall Place into Rogers Place next year and Detroit moves into its new downtown arena and out of Joe Louis Arena for the 2017-18 season. Every other arena will be post-1993 (First Niagara Center opened in 1996). You simply can’t have the league’s oldest arena in a market like Calgary.

“The Battle of Alberta hockey will still be legendary, but the Battle of Alberta arenas won’t be close and that’s no joke,” Bettman said. “The Oilers will have enjoyed their first full season at a transformational new arena. If this project is going to happen the mayor needs to embrace it, the city needs to embrace it. If he’s not prepared to embrace it then the people will have to deal with that.”

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi was not enthused by Bettman’s approach.

“Perhaps in other cities that he has come to, the city councils have just written checks based on back-of-a-napkin proposals without any consultation to the public or without any analysis,” Nenshi said the day after Bettman’s comments. “That’s not how we operate here. We have a comprehensive framework in place. We’ll see what the numbers look like come spring and have a very big public discussion about it.”

Nenshi then lit up his sarcasm meter.

Said Hizzoner: “I know that Calgarians require very wealthy people from New York to come and tell us what we need to do in our community because they understand vibrancy better than we do.”

Ouch.

Bettman was asked point-blank by reporters if the Flames could leave Calgary if the team doesn’t get a new arena. That’s certainly a premature thought, something that’s several years away. But NHL teams have left in places like Quebec and Winnipeg and arena issues were high on the list of reasons.

“I’m not here to suggest that,” Bettman said. “I’m suggesting it’s obviously not a good thing for the franchise or the city if the project isn’t a reality. Beyond that please don’t put words in my mouth.”

Flames president of hockey operations Brian Burke called the Saddledome “embarrassing” last year and made the Edmonton comparison as well.

“There’s absolutely no reason we should watch a new building going up in Edmonton and we’ve got to play in a 1988 building here,” Burke added.

The Flames are said to be willing to contribute $200 million toward the project with the city providing another $200 million. The rest would come from ticket taxes and what’s dubbed community revitalization levies. Nenshi has been opposed to that amount of public subsidy.

The other issue is site remediation. The location on the city’s west end is a long-gone toxic wood preservative that could cost hundreds of millions to clean up. That has not been accounted for in costs and could take a year or longer to do. You could easily see the Flames not in a new building in the next 4-5 years because of it.

Bettman, Flames CEO Ken King and city officials met the next day to further discuss the project. Feasibility studies on the site, which was picked by the team and not the city, won’t be done until the spring.

Drouin worth hype?

There’s plenty of excitement around the league with teams lining up to see if they can get Tampa GM Steve Yzerman to deal them former No. 3 overall pick Jonathan Drouin and remove him from his exile in Syracuse. The feeling is still that Drouin is an elite player who may be miscast by coach Jon Cooper’s defensive leanings and would thrive somewhere else.

No. 3 picks have been solid in recent years with names like Matt Duchene, Erik Gudbranson, Jonathan Huberdeau, Alex Galchenyuk and Leon Draisaitl taken there since 2009. Wherever he lands, Drouin has to prove he wasn’t overhyped.

If the '13 selection could be redone, Drouin might not be in the top 10. Also taken after Drouin in that first round were the likes of Seth Jones, Elias Lindholm, Sean Monahan, Darnell Nurse, Rasmus Ristolainen, Bo Horvat, Valeri Nichushkin and Max Domi.

Pretty much every team in the league, including the Sabres, has inquired about Drouin. There’s a widely held belief the Lightning want to ship him to the Western Conference, lest they have a Tyler Seguin-kind of trade to deal with for many years.

Twitter tidbits

• Tampa Bay goaltender Ben Bishop, who grew up in suburban St. Louis, shut out Colorado Tuesday night and promptly tweeted a take-that to Stan Kroenke, who has the Avalanche among his holdings but has the team in the name of his son, Josh, to satisfy NFL cross-ownership requirements. The game came just a few hours after the NFL’s decision to allow Kroenke’s St. Louis Rams to relocate to Los Angeles.

Said Bishop: “Feels good to shutout Kroenke’s hockey team the day he moves my childhood football team! Sad day for Rams fans!!”

• Blue Jackets’ official feed about last week’s Powerball drawing: “We’re sure the @EdmontonOilers can’t win this … right?”

Responded the Oilers’ official feed: “We’ll send you some #luckysocks”

The socks reference is to the pair of lucky socks with Canadian flags on them that Oilers assistant GM Bill Scott wore to the draft lottery in Toronto last April when Edmonton won the right to take Connor McDavid.

• An outgrowth of Florida’s amazing 12-game winning streak is that their player of the game is now given a blue-hooded sweatshirt with a celestial-backgrounded image of Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey on the front. Fourth-line forward Derek MacKenzie got what’s called the “SpaceyInSpace” shirt after the Panthers’ 5-1 win here on Jan. 5. What’s it all mean? It’s top secret. About the only thing reporters following the team have uncovered is that veteran Shawn Thornton introduced it to the team.

Spacey, meanwhile, got wind of the new fad and tweeted his approval: “Only I really know what #SpaceyInSpace means. Hope it continues to bring good luck! -K #FlaPanthers.”

Jets getting grounded

Losing to the Sabres on Sunday and San Jose on Tuesday didn’t sit very well in Winnipeg, where a stretch of nine home games in 10 games started 0-2. Winger Blake Wheeler said he didn’t sense the emotional investment in games among his teammates.

“We’re playing like nothing’s gone our way this year,” Wheeler said during a deep give-and-take with reporters Wednesday. “We’re playing like we’re frustrated and like we’re feeling sorry for ourselves a little bit.”

The Jets made the playoffs last year for the first time since returning to the league in 2011 but were swept by Anaheim. They’re on the outside looking in this year and there were actually a few hundred tickets available for Thursday’s game against Nashville in MTS Centre. That’s pretty much unheard of there since the league returned.

“Do we need to get Dr. Phil in here, is that what you’re saying?” Wheeler asked one questioner who inquired about players-only meetings. “There needs to be an investment in one another. I think that’s kind of what you’re getting at. I agree with that. How you get that? I don’t know if sitting in a circle and singing songs is going to do the trick.”

Sabre points

• No, calling up Robin Lehner is not a tank move, even after his mediocre stint in Rochester. Lehner is the No. 1 goalie and they traded a first-round pick for him. He needs to play 25-30 games so the organization can see what it has. And it also allows Linus Ullmark to be the unquestioned No. 1 in Rochester. Remember, no plan had him playing 19 NHL games this season.

• It’s funny how social media blows up every time a player goes on waivers, imploring General Manager Tim Murray to grab the guy for the Sabres. What exactly did people want Murray and Dan Bylsma to do with Detroit defenseman Jakub Kindl? The return of Mark Pysyk already gave the Sabres eight blueliners, a situation Bylsma loathes. This team needs forwards who can put the puck in the net, and you generally don’t get those on waivers. At this point in their rebuild, this corner is a big no on the Sabres rummaging through other teams’ trash bins.

• A couple huge chunks of ice were dislodged early in the Sabres’ game Tuesday in Minnesota, causing a five-minute delay, and there was chatter during the morning skate that conditions weren’t very good at XCel Energy Center. Minnesota media have been reporting similar complaints from the Wild, who have lost five of their last seven home games.

The issue is that the ice sheet has apparently been made thicker than normal because the building is hosting the U.S. Figure Skating Championships Jan. 16-24. Different skates, different ice. The two don’t mesh very well.

• Speaking of the Wild, coach Mike Yeo and captain Zach Parise chatted alone at practice for nearly 30 minutes Thursday during the first workout after the team’s first-period flameout against Buffalo. Asked by reporters what the discussion was about, Yeo went into not-giving-it-up mode and said simply the weather. Told that was a long weather conversation, Yeo said, “Well, it’s been really cold.”

email: mharrington@buffnews.com

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