Canadian prime minister lauds Quebec City for NHL

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QUEBEC CITY (AP) Prime Minister Stephen Harper says Quebec City is the ideal place for an NHL expansion team.

''If you're looking at markets, I would certainly say to the NHL, to anyone, there is no better place for an expansion team in the National Hockey League than this city, Quebec, which is a great hockey center,'' he said in the provincial capital Thursday after an unrelated news conference.

Harper spoke a day after NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman announced the league will begin a formal expansion process next month.

Shortly after Bettman's comment, a Quebec group said it plans to apply for a franchise, looking to return the Nordiques to Quebec City.

Such a move would give the Montreal Canadiens a provincial rival. Harper was asked if he might be upsetting a group in Markham, Ontario, that reportedly is interested in a franchise.

''There are already two teams in Ontario,'' the prime minister said. ''We need two teams in Quebec.''

He then took a jab at the Toronto Maple Leafs, who finished next to last in their division.

''I have to say that the last time I was in Toronto, people were saying they (also) needed a professional team,'' he said to laughter. ''But maybe with... the new coach, Mr. (Mike) Babcock, one of my teams will greatly improve.''

Any parties interested in an expansion team must apply between July 6 and Aug. 10. Bettman said the expansion fee will be at least $500 million.

The group Quebecor owns the new 18,259-capacity Videotron Arena in Quebec City. It is among several groups that have expressed interest in an expansion franchise, along with Las Vegas, Seattle and others. Bettman said he didn't know if there was another group interested in bringing a team to Quebec.

Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the earliest any expansion would happen is the 2017-18 season.

There are 16 teams in the Eastern Conference and 14 in the West, which would seem to make Las Vegas and potentially Seattle or Portland, Ore., favorites for expansion. Bettman said geography is an issue, but not the determining factor.

The NHL has a relationship with Quebecor through its French-language television-rights deal with the TVA television network.

Quebec City has not had an NHL team since the Nordiques left for Denver and became the Colorado Avalanche in 1995. The NHL has not expanded since adding its 29th and 30th teams, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild, in 2000.