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Late in 2019 came a hockey book that had its genesis not in the rink but in Edmonton City Hall, and behind the scenes, out of public view. Power Play: Professional Hockey and the Politics of Urban Development is the wordy title for a look at how the Oilers got their new rink.
The publisher, the University of Alberta Press, lays it all out:
When the Rogers Place arena opened in downtown Edmonton in September 2016, no amount of buzz could drown out the rumours of manipulation, secret deals, and corporate greed undergirding the project. Working with documentary evidence and original interviews, the authors present an absorbing account of the machinations that got the arena and the adjacent Ice District built, with a price tag of more than $600 million. The arena deal, they argue, established a costly public financing precedent that people across North America should watch closely, as many cities consider building sports facilities for professional teams or international competitions. Their analysis brings clarity and nuance to a case shrouded in secrecy and understood by few besides political and business insiders. Power Play tells a dramatic story about clashing priorities where sports, money, and municipal power meet.
Power Play is a book that needs to be out there, for the politicians, the protesters, the civic activists, the journalists, even the fans to read before the next power play by some rich owner, like, say Calgary or Ottawa.
The linemates for Power Play were Jay Scherer, David Mills, and Linda Sloan McCulloch, and like the famed Production Line, each brought different skills to the table.
Scherer, a professor of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation at the University of Alberta, with a PhD in Sport Sociology, is the current academic of the group, and the one who spurred the project forward—and the one interviewed for this story. He had collected info on the arena plans, but knew it was too big a project to tackle alone.
After Sloan McCulloch announced that she would not seek another term on Edmonton City Council, where she served from 2004 to 2013, Scherer met her for coffee.
“I just wanted to pick her brain about some of the stuff that went on behind closed doors, and really her sense of the whole process, as someone who was actively involved in it,” recalled Scherer. “We met a couple of times after that, and we were thinking at first maybe a couple of articles, but the more we talked, I think the most we realized that there was a much bigger story that needed to be told.”
Mills is a retired history professor from the U of A as well. According to Scherer, Mills came on board “to provide the historical overview.” He taught Canadian history and sports history among his many classes through the years.
In the preface, the authors note that the “book does not provide the definitive account of the arena debate. Certainly, our own biases and assumptions have shaped and coloured our analysis.”
Since Sloan McCulloch had been on council—and voted against Oilers owner Daryl Katz's request for public money for Rogers Place— Scherer knew that wording was important, as were the conversations the three authors had during the process.
“We certainly talked openly about where we stood on things. David, I think, was very helpful in that respect because he wasn't involved in the debate whatsoever,” he recalled.
A huge effort was made to document “as much as we could to make sure that no matter what we were saying that it was backed up by something, by a public document, a report, or at the least, a media article,” said Scherer, pointing to the pages and pages of end notes.
But it's not just a book about documents. The authors set out to “interview as many people as possible, from all sides. I think we had some success in doing that,” said Scherer. “At the end of the day, we're people who have, in Linda's case, [gone] through the process and was very outspoken at times, and certainly that's evident throughout the book. I think [bias is] unavoidable to a certain degree.”
For every person on the record, equally fascinating are the mentions of documents that were obtained that weren't in the public record, that in some cases city staff had even denied existed. That crucial help from unnamed sources make this a wonderful celebration of the value of hard-working journalists and their sources.
Then all those documents were shared with the other authors, analyzed, discussed. “It was a very collaborative process,” said Scherer.
While the end result is a sort of textbook on the ups and downs of a private citizen campaigning for public funds for the building of a for-profit arena, suitable for other cities to consider when hearing their own pitches, it doesn't read like a textbook.
“We talked a lot about [the tone],” said Scherer. “As you can imagine, it was a juggling act, trying to balance the need to reach as wide an audience as possible but also then to back up everything, and to provide the nuance, because the book takes issue with a lot of things, and we wanted to make sure that we were documenting things.
“Certainly we did discuss our editorial approach at length, and worked on writing to a much different audience than David or I traditionally would have tried to reach. I've heard lots of good things about people who've read the book outside of academia, and I've gotten a number of emails from people who I think were intimidated at first by the length, but I think it's also a very easy read once you get going through it.”
As a reader, there's plenty to take away from Power Play, from the deep respect of all the research for the book to befuddlement at how public funds continue to fund rich people's toys.
“It's a book that certainly has some lessons about the political process,” concluded Scherer. “At the end ... we do make a number of recommendations for cities that we thought would be helpful, knowing that a bunch of these debates are inevitable. Indeed, you'll know that Calgary just finished one. Some of the questions are coming up in Ottawa and have been for a while. It's certainly a book that takes a fairly relentless look at a number of things that simply weren't made public, to be honest, and tries to put it all together in a way that really hadn't been done.”
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