Bettman ‘disappointed’ Ottawa’s downtown arena plan is on the verge of collapse

SEA ISLAND, Ga. — Gary Bettman isn’t concerned the development deal that would have included a new downtown arena for the Ottawa Senators is falling apart.

The NHL commissioner is, however, lamenting the plan as it stands now appears to be dead.

“I would say I’m more disappointed with how this played out,” Bettman said Monday at the NHL board of governors meetings. “But these are complicated matters.”

Senators owner Eugene Melnyk is suing business partner John Ruddy for $700 million over the proposed LeBreton Flats project on federal land situated just west of Parliament Hill in the nation’s capital.

The statement of claim alleges their companies were unable to finalize a master development agreement and that there were “a number of breaches, all arising out of a conflict of interest, that directly resulted in the failure of the partnership.”

The Senators have played in Canadian Tire Centre, a facility about 25 kilometres west of downtown, since 1996. Attendance has dipped drastically in recent years, including a crowd of less than 11,000 at a recent game.

“For a whole host of reasons it would be nice (to have a downtown arena),” Bettman said. “But Mr. Melnyk has said if he has to make Canadian Tire Centre work, he can do that.

“Let’s not draw any conclusions yet. This is a complicated situation, although in its original form, for a lot of reasons, some of which you’ve read in the complaint that’s been filed, the project as originally envisioned unfortunately isn’t viable.”

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly said the league shares Melnyk’s view that Canadian Tire Centre can still work as a viable NHL venue.

“He’s the owner of the franchise and you have to defer to his local expertise,” Daly said. “If he feels like he can make it work there long term, we’ll certainly support that.”

DevCore Group, which was beaten out by Melnyk and Ruddy to develop LeBreton Flats in 2016, said in a statement Sunday it remains ready to take over the project should the current agreement be terminated.

DevCore Group added its plan continues to include an NHL arena.

“Our team has the expertise, experience and the financial resources that are necessary to deliver a world-class project,” the statement from DevCore Group president Jean-Pierre Poulin read. “We do not believe Ottawa or Canada should be held hostage one day longer.”

Melnyk is not at the board of governors meetings being held at a posh resort on Georgia’s coast, but Bettman said the NHL is willing to help with the process of getting a new arena built any way it can.

“There are some places where we have been involved in (and) I think (been) very constructive — Edmonton, Pittsburgh, among others come to mind,” he said. “There have been other places where we’ve been dis-invited by one of the participants.

“We don’t like to go where we’re not welcome if it’s not going to be helpful.”

With the board of governors set to vote on expansion to Seattle as the league’s 32nd franchise Tuesday — viewed as nothing more than a formality at this point — a number of other issues were discussed on the first day of meetings.

Daly said the NHL remains patient with the Arizona Coyotes as new owner Andrew Barroway continues to look for a partner, but in the end as in Ottawa, a new arena is key.

“He’s hopeful that something can happen in the near term,” Daly said. “We’ve tried to be helpful where we can.”

Bettman said the league’s salary cap will likely fall somewhere in the US$83-million range in 2019-20, u $3.5 million from this season. The cap was set at $39 million following the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season, but has grown by more than $40 million since and looks set to crack $80 million for the first time.

“The system that we all paid a big price for, namely a season off, has performed exactly how we thought it would,” Bettman said. “It has propelled the health of the game, the growth of the game.”

Bettman said the collective bargaining agreement wasn’t touched on Monday — both the league and the NHL Players’ Association have the option to serve notice by next September if either plans to opt out of the current deal ahead of the 2020-21 season — but the future of the World Cup was on the minds of owners.

The NHL would like to hold one in 2020, but Bettman said there needs to be an agreement with the players that neither side will move to opt out of the CBA by January’s all-star break.

“We’ve been anxious to anchor plans for a World Cup, but for whatever reason the players’ association hasn’t been prepared to do that,” Bettman said. “I don’t know enough in terms of what the players’ association is thinking right now to have any reason to be either optimistic or pessimistic because there hasn’t been any substantive dialogue.

“They know the time frame. The puck’s in their end.”

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