The Saddledome Turns 30 Amidst Flood Recovery

The fall of 2013 was always going to be a time of celebration for the Scotiabank Saddledome and its operators, the Calgary Flames. As fate would have it, the nature of the celebrations changed dramatically due to some dire circumstances, and has led to increasing discussions regarding the future of the facility.

The Scotiabank Saddledome (5of7/Flickr Creative Commons)
The Scotiabank Saddledome (5of7/Flickr Creative Commons)

When the Flames arrived from Atlanta in the fall of 1980, they played in the cozy confines of the Stampede Corral. While intimate and, at times terrifying for opposition players due to its high boards, the Corral was small by NHL standards when the Flames arrived and it was immediately clear that their residence in the building had to be temporary. As fate would have it, while the construction of the new arena was tied to the bidding for the 1988 Winter Olympics, the ground-breaking for the arena preceded the final International Olympic Committee vote by two full months – the fact that Calgary had already begun building a key venue likely swung some votes.

The Olympic Saddledome opened for business on October 15, 1983 with a 4-3 loss to the Edmonton Oilers. The building celebrates its 30th birthday on October 15, 2013, a day where the building will remain fairly quiet – the Flames are on the road and the date falls between home games for the Western Hockey League’s Calgary Hitmen, who’ve played in the ‘Dome since 1995.

Of course, the bigger celebrations have already happened, as due to the massive flooding in the Calgary area – particularly in Stampede Park, which sits beside the Elbow River – the fate of the Saddledome as a usable venue was in doubt. However, crews worked around the clock for two months and the Saddledome was ready for the first Flames pre-season game on September 14 and some aspects of game presentation – such as lighting and wiring – were gradually tinkered and adjusted prior to the regular season home-opener on October 6. Alberta musician Corb Lund opened the festivities, quite appropriately, with a song he wrote about the area’s recovery from the flood.

While the flood raised some questions about the future of the Saddledome as an NHL arena, another event furrowed some eye-brows in the Stampede City regarding that topic. On September 5, the Flames announced changes to their upper management structure: Brian Burke was named President of Hockey Operations, vice-president John Bean was named Chief Operating Officer and Ken King remained President and CEO, albeit with the hockey operations oversight duties taken by Burke and day-to-day operations duties taken by Bean. King nominally remains involved in the operations of the Flames, Hitmen, Calgary Stampeders, Calgary Roughnecks and Abbotsford Heat, all of which fall under the Flames ownership umbrella.

The shuffle led to a question posed by several around town, notably Calgary Herald columnist George Johnson: if some of King’s old duties are going to be assumed by Burke and Bean, what’s the president and CEO going to be up to? Considering that King has been the point-person for fans and media members alike regarding inquiries regarding a new building for the Flames, the theory around town was that King’s day-to-day duties with the Flames were being lessened so he could focus on that project – especially with the years on the Flames lease ticking down. With the home of the Stampeders, McMahon Stadium, also advancing in age, perhaps King would be looking towards addressing that facility need as well.

Johnson went a step further. With Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi against putting public money towards a new arena – particularly with the city’s pricey future plans for addressing its public transit and road system – and the Edmonton Oilers having just finished a very long and occasionally nasty public battle for funding of their own new arena, the thought is that the Flames ownership are either going to have to put up their own money for the building or use a different strategy than the Oilers did.

Johnson pondered whether King’s changed duties in the Flames organization include working on a potential Olympic bid for the 2022 winter games, although his column was open about it being merely speculation.

The theory isn’t all that far-fetched. Much of the infrastructure from the 1988 games is still in place, albeit in need of a bit of an overhaul in some cases. The 2010 Vancouver games are quite recent, but were very well received, so one could guess that the IOC probably doesn’t dislike Canada – the stink from the 1976 Montreal summer games has long since been washed away. Similarly, the impending 2014 games in Sochi are already mired with speculation and innuendo regarding cost over-runs and corruption, in addition to an estimated $50 billion price tag. With the considerations for the 2022 games soon beginning, a bit from old, reliable Canada may be seen as a life-preserver for the IOC.

From the arena funding side, an Olympic bid makes complete sense. The project would likely receive a combination of private funding and federal grant money, as happened with the 2010 Vancouver bid, while the Flames wouldn’t need to fight a public relations or political battle for funding. And, as fate may have it, the life-cycle of Calgary’s arenas and the Olympics seem to be inter-twined: the Corral was just over 30 years old when it was replaced by an arena fueled by Olympic money. Decades later, history may be primed to repeat itself. Regardless, with the deadline for national Olympic committees to submit bids approaching on November 14, the speculation and theory regarding a potential bid will soon solidify into fact or fiction in short order.

For the time-being, hockey fans in Calgary may have faint visions of a winter Olympics in their heads, but they’re probably more than happy to settle for being able to watch high-level hockey on a regular basis. Only a few months ago, the state of their building seemed very much in doubt.