ALBERTA

Gary Bettman Dodges Taxpayer Questions In Calgary Arena Deal

01/12/2016 08:38 EST | Updated 01/13/2016 01:59 EST

If you ever want to hear a heated radio interview, just ask NHL commissioner Gary Bettman why taxpayers should help fund the new hockey arena in Calgary.

Bettman was a guest on CBC Radio's "The Eyeopener" Tuesday when host David Gray asked him to explain why the league is proposing that city taxpayers help finance the $890-million CalgaryNEXT project, which would replace the Scotiabank Saddledome with a new arena and football stadium.

Gray noted that the Calgary Flames are owned by some of the city's wealthiest, and wondered about the need to call on taxpayers — but Bettman said the question "misses the point."

The commissioner then touted the Flames owners' philanthropy, but Gray interjected in an attempt to turn the conversation back to the team's profitability. (The Flames are currently the 15th most-valuable franchise in the league, according to Forbes.)

"Hello? Are you interrupting me?" Bettman said.

The commissioner then said the team's owners aren't "going to bestow a $900-million charitable gift" on the city.

And then he said:

"It's something that requires a joint public-private partnership. They're not saying give it to us for free, they're willing to make a sensible investment in the infrastructure of Calgary. This more than just about the arena or about the stadium."

Bettman later brushed off another question about the Flames' profitability, saying that information was "irrelevant to the discussion."

But it's not so irrelevant to taxpayers who will help to foot the CalgaryNEXT bill.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi responded to Bettman's interview with harsh words on Tuesday.

"Perhaps in other cities that he has come to, the city councils have just written cheques based on back-of-a-napkin proposals without any consultation to the public or without any analysis," the politician said.

"That's not how we operate here."

The CalgaryNEXT project comes after an Edmonton arena deal that has been called one of the worst such transactions in Canadian history.

The $601-million Ice District project will see city taxpayers fork out $219 million to pay for a new arena for the Edmonton Oilers — nearly half of the facility's total cost of $480 million.

Meanwhile, the Oilers organization is covering $143 million, or 29 per cent, of the bill.

"Last Week Tonight" host John Oliver slammed wealthy sports teams that bill taxpayers last July.

"Sports teams are successful businesses with wealthy owners, and yet they still get our help," he said.

On Monday, Bettman urged proponents to start moving quickly on the project in a speech to the city's chamber of commerce.

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