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Make no mistake: almost-approved Markham arena is for an NHL team

Rendering of the proposed GTA Centre in Markham, Ont. (BBB Architects)

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Rendering of the proposed GTA Centre in Markham, Ont. (BBB Architects)

The people most directly involved with building an NHL-caliber, 20,000-seat rink in suburban Toronto held another news conference on Saturday. The mayor of the City of Markham, Frank Scarpitti, talked about the rink being the permanent home for the Clarkson Cup, an off-shore team in a Chinese professional basketball league and perhaps even an Ontario League team.

But this rink, the GTA Centre, is about the NHL. Always has, always will be. Everyone involved in this project is tiptoeing around the subject of an NHL team because they all want to play nice. But nobody is going to take on a project like this one without visions of an NHL team dancing in their heads. I’ll write this again so everyone knows it: the NHL is the end game here. And as the City of Markham closes in on a crucial vote on whether or not to accept the financial framework Tuesday night, that’s a crucial point

“What I can promise the City of Markham and the residents of Markham is that nobody will work harder than me at attracting hockey at every level possible,” said Graeme Roustan, chairman and CEO of GTA Sports and Entertainment. “I’m going after everything. And for those of you who know me…I go after everything 100 percent, seven days a week and 24 hours a day.”

Does that sound like somebody who wants to fill his building with Bruce Springsteen and Trans Siberian Orchestra concerts? And the prediction here is that if the GTA Centre gets its vote next Tuesday night and this building becomes a reality, the push for an NHL team will begin immediately.

For example, there is no coincidence to the timing of this vote. It is being held one week before the league’s board of governors meets for its annual meetings. And with the building already having partnerships with companies owned by Jeremy Jacobs and Ed Snider, you can bet the vote will be brought up during the New Business portion of the meeting. Rogers Sportsnet just paid $5.2 billion for the Canadian television rights and will want all the Canadian programming it can get. That’s a deal that, by the way, will cost Rogers more if the league expands further in Canada.

And from there, you can watch the dominos fall. There are already whispers that the league would like to expand to 32 teams. There is also speculation that an announcement on that front could be made after this season, with two more teams being put in place to begin play in 2017, which would coincide with the 100th anniversary of the league.

Seattle is a lock, which leaves either suburban Toronto or Quebec City. And the betting is if the league adds two teams, one of the concessions made by whichever eastern team gets in the league is that it will have to play out of the Western Conference in order to balance both conferences at 16 teams each. That would also coincidentally give Rogers more Canadian teams playing in western time zones, which is something it reportedly wants. Imagine how much Rogers would like it if it could air one Toronto team playing in the eastern time zone, then another immediately after with the other Toronto team playing on the west coast.

The news conference on Saturday was to basically allay the fears of taxpayers who think the GTA Centre will be a drain on the public purse. It’s a convoluted structure, but basically speaking, the City of Markham will borrow $162.5 million and, as first reported by thn.com, Roustan’s group will put up the other $162.5 million. Originally, the city was going to borrow the entire amount with Roustan’s group paying back its share, but that plan has been scrapped.

Of that $162.5 million, $32.5 million (plus interest) will be paid to the city in the form of lease payments on the building amounting to $2.6 million a year for 20 years. The other $130 million (plus interest), will be collected from developers in the city, $80 million of which (plus interest) has been committed in just the past three weeks. The lease with the GTA Centre is for 49 years.

So essentially, no taxpayer money is supposed to be used, unless for some reason the city cannot make up the $50 million or if the economy goes south and results in the developers not building new projects and leaving town. Is it an ironclad, no-possibility guarantee? No, but it’s about as close as anyone can hope to get. So far $80 million has been guaranteed by the 12 developers in the area who will make up 80 percent of the further growth. Apparently that’s how they do things around here.

So the GTA Centre is, for those who support it, tantalizingly close to becoming a reality. And if you follow the money that can be made by everyone on the project, the NHL will probably not be far behind.

Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Ken on Twitter at @THNKenCampbell.

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