Quebec government sends mixed messages about getting NHL team

If it would help Quebec City land an NHL franchise to replace the late, lamented Nordiques, the provincial government would be willing to provide assistance to a potential owner. Or not.
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If it would help Quebec City land an NHL franchise to replace the late, lamented Nordiques, the provincial government would be willing to provide assistance to a potential owner.

Or not.

On Wednesday, a provincial legislator raised the possibility of the government becoming a financial partner of Quebecor Inc., the presumptive owners should the league return to the city as well as the naming rights sponsor of the new $400-million arena that's set for completion next year.

According to the Associated Press, Quebec's Labour Minister Sam Hamad said the assistance could be in the form of a guaranteed loan.

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The news was warmly greeted in the hockey-starved city, but the joy was short lived.

Later that day, Premier Philippe Couillard all but ruled out any further government involvement in the bid.

"As a Quebecer, I would like to see a team [in Quebec City] one day," Couillard said. "But it’s not true that taxpayers, with public finances as they are, will be up for that."

Couillard's predecessor in office, Jean Charest, provided $200 million of taxpayer funds for the construction of the new arena. That's a significant commitment in a country where the use of public funds to support privately-owned professional teams is frowned on by the public.

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Despite the barrier of that sentiment, it's not out of the question that further government assistance could be on the way ... under the right circumstances.

"I share [Hamad's] enthusiasm," said Jacques Daoust, Quebec's Economic Development Minister. "I understand people in Quebec City wanting a hockey team. But let’s just say that when there is a financial transaction, it will be done my way."

Which basically means that he needs to eliminate even the hint of risk. That's no easy trick. Ownership of a team can be a financial drain in the short term as resources struggle to keep up with rising costs. That's especially true in a smaller market like Quebec City where there are only so many revenue wells to be dug.

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That said, a team can be a cash cow over the long haul. Just ask the Ontario Teacher's Pension Fund, which turned a $300 million investment in the Toronto Maple Leafs into a $1 billion profit when it sold the team to Rogers Communications after 17 years.

The Leafs obviously are a brand unto themselves, but as the recent sale of the Islanders and the asking price for the Hurricanes (north of $500 million) prove, there are some serious opportunities in this type of investment.

That doesn't mean it's the right one for the Quebec government, but you can bet that if the chance ever does arise, officials will give it considerably more consideration than these out-of-hand denials suggest.

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