Pulling out of the Videotron Centre in Quebec City last week, I couldn’t help but gush to my cab driver about how nice the arena was, since it had been my first visit. The press box was impressive, the main concourse spacious and there were enough aesthetic and architectural touches around the building to catch the eye when the game wasn’t on.
“It’s only missing one thing,” said the cabbie.
Which is true. Quebec City is still an NHL town without an NHL team. How long until the Nordiques return to the fold? It’s one of the most enduring off-ice questions in the sport today, but one without a timetable. (Full disclosure: the arena is operated by Quebecor, which owns The Hockey News’ parent company, TVA. Quebecor has also been a major player in talks to bring back the Nordiques.)
I’m sure for Quebec residents, every stumbling block elsewhere represents a glimmer of hope – the Carolina Hurricanes may be for sale, the New York Islanders may need a new home soon and the Arizona Coyotes just saw their latest arena deal fall through in Tempe – but as was the case in Winnipeg before the Thrashers surprisingly moved in, estimated arrival times should always be taken with a grain of salt.
This is especially true with Seattle still an NHL possibility. Geographically, the West needs another team to equal the East, even with the Vegas Golden Knights entering the league next season. That doesn’t bode well for Quebec, even if the city has the arena that Seattle lacks right now (Kansas City also has a state-of-the-art arena just twiddling its thumbs, for the record, but NHL buzz isn’t the same for that city).
What is really unfortunate to me is that the league knows Quebec is fiending for a return to the NHL, but doesn’t seem to be in a rush to help the Nordiques return. Perhaps it’s just due diligence and conservative league-building and the latter reason is actually pretty sound. The franchise was sold off to Colorado investors in 1995 because of financial issues, some of the biggest of which stemmed from the town’s previous major arena, Le Colisee. But that was before a salary cap and also before the Videotron Centre was built.
As in Winnipeg, a love for hockey never died in the city. You can still walk into sporting goods stores and find rafts of Nordiques gear, while major junior’s Remparts currently bring fans to the Videotron Centre. In fact, the Remparts are one of the top-drawing CHL franchises around, despite being a middling team this year. The team’s most recent game, against Rimouski, drew more than 12,600 fans. Imagine what a Nordiques game against Montreal or Colorado would draw (capacity is listed as 18,259, so start there and then assume the fire marshal has the night off).
My reason for visiting was the CHL Top Prospects Game, so I asked a couple of the players what they thought of the building.
“When you step out there for the first time, it takes your breath away,” said Regina’s Jake Leschyshyn. “It compares to the new Rogers Place in Edmonton, which is a state-of-the-art facility.”
Leschyshyn actually has a pretty strong connection to Quebec, as his dad, Curtis Leschyshyn, played for the Nordiques for seven years, making the move to Denver after that.
“He started his career here and told me about how the crowds are so passionate, the atmosphere in every game is there,” Jake said. “He had a lot of fun playing here.”
Another former Nordique was big right winger Steve Patrick, who played the final half-season of his NHL career in Quebec. His son is Nolan Patrick, the top prospect for the 2017 draft. Nolan captained Team Cherry to victory at the Top Prospects Game and had also heard about the city’s passion from his dad.
“He had nothing but good things to say about Quebec,” Nolan said.
For now, however, the citizens of Quebec City must continue to wait. The Remparts and rock concerts will continue to fill the arena, but it’s hard to think we won’t see a sea of blue jerseys cover the bowls of the Videotron Centre at some point. Whether it comes through expansion or the misfortunes of another franchise is unknown. But patience must be a continued virtue.