Oilers talking relocation to Seattle or playing arena deal hardball?
The NHL owners and executives may be muzzled right now during the lockout, but as Edmonton Oilers owner Daryl Katz just proved, you don't need to say words to cause a ruckus.
You just need to tacitly threaten to move your team.
The same day Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel admitted his own frustration with the slowly progressing negotiations to build a $450 million downtown arena, setting Oct. 17 as a drop dead date for the Katz Group to lay out its demands (one of which is reportedly a multi-million dollar subsidy from the city), Katz fired a shot of his own: Visiting Key Arena in Seattle, along with team president Patrick LaForge and Wayne Gretzky.
You know, just in case things don't work out in Edmonton.
It is, ostensibly, little more than a negotiating tactic.
The Oilers released a coy little press release late Monday that basically spelled it out. From Bob Black, Executive Vice President of the Katz Group:
"I can confirm that Daryl Katz, Patrick LaForge, Kevin Lowe and others from the Oilers leadership group are in Seattle for meetings and to attend the Seahawks game.
"We remain committed to working with City Administration to achieve a deal commensurate with what Winnipeg and Pittsburgh have done to sustain the NHL in those small markets. If we can achieve such a deal, the Oilers will remain in Edmonton and we can get on with the important work of developing the new arena and investing in the continued revitalization of Edmonton's downtown core.
"Nonetheless, and as the City of Edmonton is aware, the Katz Group has been listening to proposals from a number of potential NHL markets for some time. After more than four years of trying to secure an arena deal and with less than 24 months remaining on the Oilers' lease at Rexall Place, this is only prudent and should come as no surprise."
My favorite flourish: "To attend the Seahawks game." Uh-huh.
This approach isn't that dissimilar from the tactic Mario Lemieux and company used to get the Penguins a new arena deal in 2007. It was extremely effective then, as Lemieux was quoted as saying the team would "aggressively pursue relocation" after talks broke down on March 6.
After all, Kansas City had offered the Penguins a fancy new home, rent-free.
Exactly one week later, a new arena deal was announced.
Of course, effective as this tactic can be, it has a tendency to alienate fans, and Edmonton will be no exception. From David Staples at the Edmonton Journal:
For the past few years there's been a compact between the Oilers and their most important fans — the season ticket holders — that goes like this: if you have patience, if you support the Oilers in down times when the team is losing, that will give management time to rebuild this team properly, bringing in outstanding talent with the high draft picks that come with finishing low in the standings.
[...] For Katz to now visit Seattle and to suggest the that all bets are off with the future of the team after 2014, when his lease at Rexall runs up, is a slap in the face to any fans who has bought into this deal. Essentially the message is: Thanks for your support, but we might well be moving this team we built partly on your dollar and your patience. Fans in Seattle or Quebec City or some other place will get to enjoy that squad with Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Yakupov.
Hockey fans across the continent are feeling especially sensitive right now, but Oilers fans have been through a lot over the last half-decade. With the talent in their pipeline, it would be an absolute kick in the face if they were to become hockey's version of the Oklahoma City Thunder. (Or the 1995 Colorado Avalanche.)
But, as fitting as it would be for the Seattle fan base to get the prospect-rich franchise this time around, it's likely just a tease.