By Stu Hackel
"We love hockey in this country — unreasonably, unseasonably, unendingly," writes Bruce Arthur today in Canada's National Post. And it must be so, because the city and provincial governments of Quebec have decided to commit $400 million of public money to build a new arena in Quebec City by 2015, with groundbreaking scheduled for early 2013. Their expressed purpose is luring an NHL team back to the Plains of Abraham where the Nordiques once roamed. But, they have no commitment that the league will give them one.
They plan doing this without federal or corporate money, or at least none at the moment (the feds are seriously conflicted and the only corporate entity, Quebecor, that ever expressed interest remains on the sidelines), despite the fact that the province ran a sizable debt last year of $4.5 billion. But the province and city claim they can proceed by using a new budgetary plan, so the public leaders bravely plunge forward on faith, undeterred.
"We are talking about a public good," said Mayor Regis Labeaume (quoted by Pierre-André Normandin in Le Soliel), who along with provincial Premier Jean Charest made the announcement yesterday at the 60-year-old Le Colisée, which was built for Jean Beliveau, the young junior hockey star who filled the 10,000 seat building for each game. It was filled again almost two decades later for Guy Lafleur when he was a junior player and renovated in 1980, raising capacity to 15,750, to meet NHL standards when the Nordiques joined the league after being absorbed from the WHA. But when renovations became impossible and a new arena could not be funded, the up-and-coming Nordiques left town in 1995, becoming the Colorado Avalanche and winning the Stanley Cup that Quebecers felt they were denied.
Lebeaume has already made one presentation to Gary Bettman to convince him of the suitability of his city. He told Philippe Cantin in La Presse that he phoned the NHL commissioner yesterday to tell him of the agreement with the province to move ahead, and he plans to meet with Bettman again.
Asked a few weeks ago at the All-Star Game if people in Quebec City should be excited about the prospect of a new arena luring the NHL, Bettman replied, "I don't want anybody getting excited. The fact of the matter is over the last couple of years there have been lots of stories suggesting a building in Quebec City is a done deal, that the money's been raised. Nobody has told me that, and in the conversations that I've had with a variety of people, including the Mayor and the Premier, we have said we're not planning on expanding. We're not planning on relocation. So we cannot promise you a franchise.
"If there's a new building, separate and independent from us, for whatever reason and the opportunity presents itself with respect to a franchise, it's no different than what I said about Winnipeg. But we don't want people building a building on our account, expecting that there's going to be a franchise, because we're not in the position to promise one right now."
What Bettman had said moments earlier about Winnipeg was, "If we have to move a club, it would be good to go back to a place that we were once in that has a different situation, vis-a-vis building and ownership and the like."
Is the situation in Quebec all that different today? That's the question columnist Vincent Marissal asks in La Presse. Quebec is hardly a large vibrant commercial center, as evidenced by the lack of corporate support for the new arena. Under the current plan, a private company will only enter the picture when whoever owns the new Nordiques (or whatever the hypothetical team is called) takes advantage of the publicly funded arena and someone handles the business of running it.
“An arena financed with 100 per cent public money is unacceptable,” Claire Joly, executive director of the Quebec Taxpayers League, told The Toronto Star. “There are a lot of people who want an arena and a hockey team in Quebec City, but not at any price.”
Joly said Charest is offering the money for purely political reasons. “We are in a precarious budgetary situation,” she said. “Debt is at a critical level. We don’t have the means for the provincial government to put $200 million in that."
But finances are not driving this new project. “In general, the decision to build a stadium, whether it’s in the absence of a commitment from a major league or not, is an emotional one," James F. Russell, partner of the Collingwood Group said on the phone today from Washington D.C., where his firm consults with municipal governments on redevelopment projects. "It is driven by fan desire or city planning where they believe it brings the added incremental value to the city they could not achieve anywhere else. I think there’s something unique in Quebec. They see themselves as a major Canadian city without a hockey team and hockey is a Canadian sport. So I think there’s an incredible emotional tie there."
And Russell doesn’t separate the emotional issue from the political issue. “The two are intertwined so that they’ll almost be inseparable, he says. "The emotional issue is tied to the specific constituent base which says, ‘Please give me a baseball team, please give me a hockey team, please give me a basketball team, please give me an NFL team. These are things I think I need, I want, I need them for my recreational ability, etc.' The politicians latch on to that emotion and say, ‘This is the way I satisfy a constituency that may well look at me as being not particularly responsive, whether it’s through budget issues or fiscal policies in general or other more mundane issues that could cause an election to sway. " In other words, acquiring an arena is a reliable vote-getter.
As Cantin points out, what the Quebec politicians have done is borrow the game plan from American politicians. "Several mayors of American cities have justified these colossal investments in the same way: The economic benefits of neighborhood revitalization and proven urban development around the new arena. Not to mention an intangible but essential: the pride of the community," he writes.
Yes, the intangible pride of the community. No greater example of that can be found than the 1,100 fans from Quebec who bused to Long Island and invaded Nassau Coliseum in November, turning an Islanders-Thrashers game into a demonstration of their desire to get an NHL club back in their town.
Fans in Quebec have already kicked in to the arena's funding effort by purchasing in advance $13 million worth of "reserved seats" for their NHL team. This commitment to publicly fund the arena is just another step in keeping the pressure on the NHL. But, as Bruce Arthur writes, it is also a huge gamble. "Quebec City and the province want so badly to be at the dance — or believe their constituents want so badly to be at the dance — that they are willing to roll $400-million worth of heavy dice."
Even if they do get a team, Russell says, "The economics of a stadium are not profitable. It is not a profitable enterprise…From an economic standpoint, the least attractive thing you can do is build a stadium. It is a drain on the resources of a city."
None of that matters, not even the fact that Kansas City has an arena that has been mentioned as a possible home for a team that may be in need of relocation, such as the Islanders.
"It looks like a resumption of the film Field of Dreams," writes Marrisal, "in which Kevin Costner builds a baseball diamond in field because a ghost told him 'build it and they will come.'"