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BRIAN JONES: Another fight at Mile One Centre

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In one sense, St. John’s has joined the big leagues. The Newfoundland Growlers, recent champions of the ECHL, may play in a Tier 3 league, but the perennial arguments about tenancy at Mile One Centre put St. John’s in the company of major cities that have ongoing spats with their resident professional hockey teams.

Whether it is the NHL and, say, Calgary or Edmonton, or the ECHL and St. John’s, these Pro Team vs. Municipality overtime tilts always seem to revolve around one thing: public money.

More specifically, team owners ask for public money, and taxpayers generally oppose such a subsidy, regardless of whether municipal politicians are willing to hand over a Zamboni-load of funds.

Of course, the amount of money we’re talking about is relatively tiny in this hockey outpost on the eastern frontier. The City of St. John’s annual subsidy to St. John’s Sports and Entertainment (SJSE), which runs Mile One Centre, is about $2 million per year.

In contrast, in Calgary and Edmonton, as in a few other NHL cities and wannabe cities, hockey team owners have sought hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money to either refurbish or rebuild their hockey palaces.

Canadians’ love of hockey always gives owners an edge. (Speaking of which, the current Mile One spat also involves the basketball team.)

Municipal politicians who oppose giving public money to privately owned sports franchises risk inciting the wrath of fans.

This could be a factor in St. John’s. After all, the Growlers are still wet with champagne.

The possibility of a fan backlash probably explains why Mayor Danny Breen and Coun. Sandy Hickman, who sits on the SJSE board, took to the ice early, so to speak, and announced that the city was ending talks with the owners of the Growlers and the Edge about their joint-managing Mile One Centre.

In the ensuing dust-up, one thing was missing. Hockey and/or basketball fans might not have noticed it amidst all the action. It was this: the Growlers owners did not come right out and state, “We do not want public money.”

In fact, the reason given by Breen and Hickman for the city’s ending discussions about the teams managing the rink and convention centre — combined, a $2-million annual money pit paid for by taxpayers — is that the team owners’ proposal included the continuation of the annual municipal subsidy.

At that point, the puck was in the Growlers’ end of the rink. In that situation, as every hockey fan knows, the defence needs a good breakout strategy.

The Growlers’ response? We don’t know the price of producing hamburgers.

People shouldn’t let their love of hockey, or basketball, taint the issue. It’s not about supporting “our team.”

The team’s owners denied that an actual proposal had been made to the SJSE, because it hadn’t been provided with the cost of running the concessions. As such, the owners told the SJSE that the $2-million annual subsidy from city hall would have to continue if the Growlers and Edge co-manage the facility.

At that point, the referees should have stepped in. Was there a proposal, or wasn’t there?

The city says yes. The Growlers say no. Somebody should be sent to the box for delay of game.

For their part, Breen and Hickman are as shameless as a goon — sorry, an “enforcer” — given a five-minute major for fighting. They exhibit not a shred of embarrassment that the city’s venture to hand over management of Mile One Centre and the St. John’s Convention Centre is a tacit admission that such facilities are a drain on public funds.

“Please, take my money pit off my hands.”

“No thanks. I’ll take the money, but not the pit.”

The Growlers and the Edge aren’t the first tenants to seek a better deal at Mile One, as hockey fans and city watchers well know.

But people shouldn’t let their love of hockey, or basketball, taint the issue. It’s not about supporting “our team.” It’s about whether public money should subsidize a private venture.

In this latest round, the Growlers have to come up with a better strategy.

Publicly proclaiming they have no interest in taking any taxpayers’ dollars would be a good start, whether or not they know the price of a hamburger.

Brian Jones is a desk editor at The Telegram. He can be reached at brian.jones@thetelegram.com.


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