Stephen Brunt

Quebec ready for Nordiques return

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Stephen Brunt

Stephen Brunt | February 8, 2012, 12:30 pm

Let's put it all together.

Marcel Aubut, the man pulling the strings behind Quebec City's bid to return to the National Hockey League -- and someone who enjoys insider status among the game's power brokers -- is stating unequivocally that a new arena there will be up and running by opening day 2015.

There are a couple of minor hurdles to surmount -- the prospective site next to the Pepsi Colisee still has to go through an environmental assessment and clean up, and the price tag for the new building, paid for by the city and province, can't exceed $400 million -- but they certainly seem manageable.

Even if there were to be a provincial election next spring, it’s hard to imagine Jean Charest's main challengers, the Parti Quebecois, campaigning on the basis of killing the project in the capital, where they badly need to gain seats.

In the meantime, with a little bit of a freshen-up, the old rink could easily be made ready to be the temporary home of an NHL team in time for next season.

The owner of the New Nordiques would be Pierre Karl Peladeau, president and CEO of Quebecor, whose plan is to use the team to elevate his new all sports channel into a position where it could become a real challenger for RDS.

And speaking of television, both RDS and Peladeau's TVA Sports have of late been making quiet inquiries about the availability of on-air talent, so that they could be ready to cover a second NHL team in La Belle Province next fall.

Now on to lovely Glendale, Arizona. The ongoing story there kind of fell off the radar once the Jim Balsillie drama concluded and the Atlanta Thrashers rather than the Phoenix Coyotes moved to Winnipeg.

They still have their hockey team. And they're still paying through the nose for it. But there is absolutely no sign that a saviour awaits who will take the team off the NHL's hands, take Glendale off the hook, and outflank the avenging angels of the Goldwater Institute. In theory, the city could continue to ante up in perpetuity to keep the 'Yotes in place, but given that Glendale is already drowning under an astounding level of debt thanks to its decision to go all in on professional sports, that's hard to imagine, even with such a bunch of dopes running the place.

So it all adds up, doesn't it? Make it eight.

Don't expect anyone in Quebec to come out and say that, though, at least until the end of the Stanley Cup playoffs (though Aubut, who likes to talk, is going to have to work hard to contain his enthusiasm). That's the lesson of Winnipeg, where Mark Chipman and company remained as quiet as church mice until the big day arrived, lest they offend The Commissioner.

Nor is it in the NHL's interest to suggest in any way that Quebec is their only logical alternative. Remember that this is different than the Atlanta situation -- the league owns the Coyotes -- and so rather than simply skimming a "relocation fee" off the top, while forcing the vendor to take a painful haircut, they need to create the illusion of an active market to maximize the selling price. So expect to hear plenty about phantom bidders in Arizona, and about other prospective suitors (Seattle most prominent among them -- and the interest there may to some degree be real.)

Expect, also, that if/when the team is sold to Quebec City interests, the deal will be presented as conditional on season's ticket sales, the same gun-to-the-head marketing technique that extracted all of those multi-year commitments from Winnipeggers.

But make no mistake. What the NHL clearly needs here -- barring a lockout in the fall -- is a quick fix, a place to make a soft emergency landing.

Quebec City isn't perfect. It's a small market, and a government town. It won't be easy selling out the private boxes and club seats in a new building. A tumbling Canadian dollar would create huge challenges (as it would for every Canadian NHL team other than Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver). And for all of the juice that will come from restoring one of the great rivalries in the sport, the Habs won't be thrilled at having to surrender a slice of French Canada.

Nowhere else, though, does that magical combination exist: an owner, who actually has the money; a new arena on the horizon that now seems a fait accompli, and an old building ready to provide temporary refuge; a town that may not be a metropolis, that may not ring a lot of bells when you put it up on American marquees, but that is filled with people who actually like hockey.

The great lesson of Winnipeg is that last part matters most of all.

 
 
 
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