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WHL’s sanctions against Winterhawks could threaten Portland arena renovation

Portland's Veterans Memorial ColiseumThe Portland Winterhawks have been the talk of the junior hockey world for the last week, as they face the most serious sanctions ever placed on a CHL franchise.

There's never a good time for such a punishment to come, but WHL commissioner Ron Robison may have inadvertently thrown a wrench into a proposed renovation for Portland's 52-year-old Veterans Memorial Coliseum, a building he has publicly stated needs to be updated to remain the viable long-term home of the Winterhawks.

A plan is in place to renovate the Coliseum, with Winterhawks owner Bill Gallacher slated to kick in $10 million of a $31 million price tage. Public urban renewal money will cover most of the rest of the costs, requiring the approval by Portland's city council to move forward.

The city's council meeting last Thursday was supposed to include a final discussion of the proposal, with a vote by the five commissioners (one of whom is mayor Sam Adams) within two weeks.

Unfortunately, the conversation about the arena deal was scuttled altogether as the council tried to come to grips with the penalties doled out by the WHL two days prior. In a video posted on the mayor's official site, Adams and other councilmembers weighed in. Here are a couple highlights:

Mayor Sam Adams: Based on what the league has been willing to publicize, I believe the sanctions that are proposed by the league are excessive. Not only are they excessive, they threaten the financial underpinning of this proposed deal itself ... If we need to take more time to vote so that the league will come to its senses, he (Bill Gallacher) is fine with doing that. I'm fine with doing that. He's not going to agree to something, and we're not going to agree to something, with the league's exorbitant sanctions.

Commissioner Randy Leonard: How can we consider this deal on its face, given the circumstances the Winterhawks find themselves in?

It should be noted that the meeting came before the commissioners were able to really digest the sanctions and the true effect on the team going forward. Some suggested that the penalties threatened the financial stability of the franchise, though that seems somewhat far-fetched given Gallacher's billionaire status.

Still, it's troubling that commissioners who have been supportive of the renovations are now questioning the deal in the 11th hour of a process that has dragged on for several years.

As of now, however, the council is still slated to vote on the proposal Wednesday morning.

Adams is an outgoing mayor, and has been working on developing a long-term plan for the Coliseum since taking office. He had hoped to close the deal before leaving City Hall on Dec. 31. Adams faced criticism during his term for failing to build a new home for the Portland Beavers, a Triple-A baseball team that was forced to leave for Tucson, Ariz., when the city's stadium was renovated to become the home of the MLS's wildly popular Portland Timbers.

Even before the Winterhawks sanctions, newly elected commissioner Steve Novick (who takes office next month) urged the council to delay the vote to clear up some other conditions of the deal, including why $17 million of urban renewal funding would be funneled toward one project. The sanctions likely give a skeptic like Novick even more ammunition against the project, given that he recently said this:

"I'm willing to hear the arguments but I'm inherently skeptical because I haven't heard anybody explain why there's any certainty other than to give the Winterhawks a nicer place to play," he said. (The Oregonian)

Robison may well have known that the timing of the sanctions threatened the Coliseum deal, but he also may have mistakenly killed a plan that he has advocated for over the years. Back in March 2010, Robison spoke to the Oregonian about renovation plans:

Robison has long contended that the Coliseum is not an appropriate venue for the WHL in its current form, citing shorcomings such as the smaller-than-regulation ice surface to the lack of amenities for fans.

"It doesn't meet our current standards, but it's adequate for the time being," he said. "We're excited about the plans for renovation." (The Oregonian)

Robison further claimed that the Winterhawks were only being allowed to remain there because of the possibility of renovations to the building.

The Coliseum hasn't changed much in the last 30 years, and really has fallen on hard times since the NBA's Portland Trail Blazers left for the newly built Rose Garden in 1995.

Part of the league's concerns were addressed earlier this season when the WHL's last undersized rink was replaced by new, regulation surface (the Coliseum ice had been approximately 185' x 85' since the building opened in 1960).

But, as Robison said nearly three years ago, the Coliseum needs further improvements to features like seating, restrooms, concessions and accessibility.

Previous plans for the building included a wide variety of multipurpose ideas (there was one proposal that would've added things like an Olympic-size pool and other recreational facilities), but the latest proposal centers mostly around improving the building for the Winterhawks (including new offices for the staff).

The Winterhawks would continue to play some games at the Rose Garden, though not as many as they do now (there are 19 regular-season games at the Rose Garden this season).

Gallacher's $10 million contribution of his own money into the renovation is quite a commitment, given that he reportedly only paid about $7 million for the franchise.

Of course, Gallacher isn't ponying up the cash just to be nice. The Winterhawks want access to additional revenue streams at home games (they currently get nothing from concession sales, for example), and contributing such a large percentage of the costs likely comes with the condition of a better lease situation.

In the meantime, everything is up in the air. The Hawks will likely be able to weather the storm competitively, but the long-term viability of the franchise in Portland has hinged around the idea of getting an arena deal done. If that doesn't happen now, and dissenting voices take hold of city leadership, one wonders what the Hawks will do next — especially after installing a new ice plant in the Coliseum.

Whether you believe the Hawks' punishment for their recent transgressions is justified or insanely harsh, the announcement couldn't have come at a worse time for Robison and the team.

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